The video game that would REALLY keep you up at night

I’m no stranger to losing sleep over video games, though usually in a positive context, e.g. that the game is fun and I don’t notice the time. But what if I was to tell you the story of a video game that was literally designed to steal your ability to sleep… among other things? Sounds far-fetched, right? Read on, gentle reader.

In 1981, Atari had created an extraordinarily innovative video game called Tempest. This game, originally imagined as a 3-D remaking of Space Invaders, had players pilot a spacecraft on the near end of a “tube” that extended into the distance on a display, using now-primitive but then new and innovative colour vector-based graphics (as opposed to raster-based graphics, the more traditional pixellated, hand-drawn art). Vector graphics weren’t new at the time, having been used for other games like Asteroids, but the addition of colour with Atari’s “Color Quadrascan” shadow mask technology, developed to compete with raster games, was a significant step forward. The game also featured differing playing boards at each level, with different geometric shapes making up the “tube”, rather than the usual incremental difficulty increases on an identical board that video games til then had used to ratchet up the pressure on players as games went on. And it even featured the ability to choose your starting level based on performance in a previous game, so veterans wouldn’t necessarily have to play through the initial levels over again while attempting to cause the game to roll the level or points counts over. This marked the first video game continue option — though a later raster game called Fantasy implemented it in its more traditional form.

This post isn’t really about Tempest, though. I’m really just setting the stage for what the state of the art was in 1981. If you’ll believe the urban legends, the US government, at about that time, teamed up with a German developer named Sinneslöschen (loosely translated: “Sense Erase”) in an attempt to turn the nation’s Pac-Man Fever into something a little more useful for the empire: mind control. They created a video game that kids would become addicted to, would play at every opportunity, until the mind control would kick in and they’d lose the ability to sleep or even lose their memories.
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