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John Kemeny and Tecmo’s BASIC FTBALL Granddaddy

We can trace a straight line from Atari’s Football (1978) and Irem/Taito’s 10-Yard Fight (1983) to Tecmo Bowl. We also know TB and TSB informed John Madden Football and NFL Blitz. All these games, from Tecmo Bowl and Mutant League Football to Jerry Rice and Nitus’ Dog Football [1], trace their lineage back to 300 lines of BASIC called FTBALL.

Before Tecmo Bo, the first virtual quarterbacks guided Dartmouth to victory against Princeton in the 1965 Ivy League Championship. Dartmouth Championship Football, better known by its BASIC program code, FTBALL, represented not only the start of video game football, but a watershed in the history of computing. Without FTBALL, computing today could be wildly different.

Defense and military applications shaped the early history of computing. Machines like the Colossus (1943) and The Harvard Mark I (1944) existed solely to aid Allied War efforts in WWII. They broke Nazi codes and predicted the power and fallout from proposed nuclear bombs. John G. Kemeny, a Hungarian immigrant, worked with such machines as part of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Labs during WWII. Only 20 years old, Kemeny aided the calculations that built the atomic bomb. The experience shaped his views on both humanity and computing. After the war, Kemeny returned to academic life. He worked as a research assistant for Albert Einstein[2], before finding home in Dartmouth University’s math department.

Shaped in part by his experiences at Los Alamos, Kemeny, together with colleague Thomas Kurtz, built a cutting-edge computing lab at Dartmouth[3]. They creatively re-appropriated the College’s furniture budget to buy its first computer in 1959[4]. In the early 1960s, Kemeny and Kurtz applied for and won a National Science Foundation grant. They used the money to create the Dartmouth Time Sharing System, DTSS for short. The DTSS went live in the fall of 1964. Up to 300 small computing terminals, wired to the DTSS master terminal, could simultaneously access a database of programs and information. Instead of running whole programs, one at a time, the master terminal ran small program packets for each user in sequence. This greatly increased the speed of computing. In an age where many computers still used laborious punch cards, DTSS users could key information and return calculations in less than 10 seconds.

1971 DTSS Schematic
A schematic of the Dartmouth Time Sharing System from the DTSS brochure, 1971.

Computing power by itself wasn’t enough, though. Contemporary computer languages such as FORTRAN and ALGOL used obtuse verbiage and required coding experts. Kemeny knew truly accessible computers required a truly accessible computing language. Together with Kurtz and some of their students, Kemeny created a language which emphasized simple commands such as “HELLO,” “GOODBYE” and “PRINT.” They called it “Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code” or BASIC, for short.

BASIC proved easy to grasp. Hundreds of terminals running BASIC made it so even English and Theater majors could access the DTSS. The system proved wildly successful. Arms of the DTSS stretched into high schools, north into Maine and down into Massachusetts and New York City. Later versions of the Dartmouth Time Share System also included early e-mail and chat programs.

Almost as soon as the DTSS launched, students filled its program library with games. This was not only allowed, but encouraged. Kemeny wrote in his 1972 book, Man and the Computer, that games spurred the DTSS’ success (p.35). Games lowered the bar to entry. Where only select of students needed advanced statistical analysis programs, every student could sit and play tic-tac-toe or football. Kemeny said, “[Games remove] psychological blocks that frighten the average human away from free use of [computers].” We see the same thing today: Solitaire comes bundled with Windows because it teaches the basics of navigating the operating system without overwhelming beginners.[5]

Dartmouth Princeton Football 1965One of the first games to appear in the DTSS catalog was a simulation called FTBALL[6]. Although never directly naming himself its author, John Kemeny almost certainly wrote FTBALL early on Sunday, November the 21st, 1965. Hours before, an underdog Dartmouth squad stunned heavily-favored Princeton to win the Ivy League championship.

“My father loved football, especially Dartmouth football,” John’s daughter Jenny Kemeny would later say. “The math department would get blocks of tickets for home games and then take bets on first downs, interceptions, scores.”[7] Kemeny even took a page from football’s playbook in building his DTSS. Much like a football coach, Kemeny visited local high schools and personally recruited students showing an aptitude in math.[8]

Kemeny himself would later recall, “[FTBALL] was written on Sunday after a certain Dartmouth-Princeton game in 1965 when Dartmouth won the Lambert trophy. It’s sort of a commemorative program.”[9]

FTBALL, the first American Football video game, Tecmo Bowl’s granddad, was programmed by immigrant John G. Kemeny, a colleague of Albert Einstein, a genius of Los Alamos labs and the man who invented BASIC.

Kemeny and Kurtz wrote an overview of their DTSS for the October 1968 edition of Science Magazine. Towards the end of their article they boast “over 500 programs” for the DTSS, including “many games.”[10] They go on, saying,

“We have lost many a distinguished visitor for several hours while he quarterbacked the Dartmouth football team in a highly realistic simulated game.”

FTBALL Gameplay Vid
Kemeny’s FTBALL in action, as emulated in Python.

FTBALL is similar to what we’d now think of as a text-based adventure game. It looks more Zork than Madden. The program explains down and distance. As quarterback for Dartmouth, your options are: 1) a conservative run play; 2) a “tricky” run; 3) a short pass; 4) a long pass; 5) punt; 6) quick kick[11]; and 7) place kick. Tricky runs have the potential to gain more yardage but also result in more fumbles. The same is true for short versus long passes. By carefully choosing from the available plays, a skilled Dartmouth quarterback can march down the field and defeat rival Princeton.

Kemeny even programmed in a quirk of mid-century Dartmouth football: wild dog stoppages. As Kemeny’s wife Jean would write in her memoir, It’s Different at Dartmouth, the university was infamous for dogs which sometimes ran free on campus. Come Saturday, these dogs would find their way onto the Football field. Play would stop while players and officials shooed the mutts away. True to its Dartmouth roots, FTBALL sometimes displays the following:

“GAME DELAYED.  DOG ON FIELD”

A student using the DTSS, from the 1971 brochure.
A student using the DTSS, from the 1971 brochure.

The popularity of FTBALL drew students in droves to Dartmouth’s computers. Men (as Dartmouth did not admit women at the time) would bring dates to the DTSS labs, trying to impress girls with computerized games of FTBALL. The games’ popularity helped to bring computing out from military bases and into the hands of the public. FTBALL proved the universal appeal of computers and helped make computers accessible. Later versions of FTBALL linked two DTSS terminals in one of history’s first PvP video games. It is entirely possible, that lacking Tecmo Bowl’s great grandaddy, personal computing as we know it today would be wildly different. Every football game produced today owes a tip of the cap to John G. Kemeny and FTBALL’s 300 lines of BASIC.

FTBALL lives on today[12]. Kemeny’s original BASIC program, as well as a number of later iterations, are archived online. Dartmouth Professor Peter G. Doyle has transcribed Kemeny’s original FTBALL*** program into Python. Plug the Python code into any number of online Python executors and–voila–you’ve got yourself a time machine to the very beginning of video game football.

…You’ll have to fill in the “Ready! Down! Hut hut hut!” yourself.


NOTES:

[1] Yes, this is a real WiiWare game where you control a team of football-playing dogs.
[2] It is probable that Einstein even wrote letters of recommendation, urging colleges to hire Kemeny.
[3] http://dtss.dartmouth.edu/history.php
[4] Birth of Basic (film). Dir. Murray, Mike and Dan Rockmore. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYPNjSoDrqwt
[5] Kiewit Computation Center and the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System. Kemeny, John. 1966: p.17
[6] “History of Computing Project: Dartmmouth Timeshare System.” 1974 National Computer Conference. Pioneer Day Session (Transcript). http://dtss.dartmouth.edu/transcript.php
[7] “Back to BASIC.” Blinkhorn, Tom, Valley News. [White River Junction, Vt] 02 May 2014.
[8] See Note 4
[9] See Note 6
[10] Kemeny, John G.; Kurtz, Thomas E. “Dartmouth Time-Sharing”. Science. 11 October 1968: 223–228.
[11] I had to look this one up: a “quick kick” is when a team punts out of a regular formation, intending to surprise the receiving team and mitigate any return yardage.
[12] Former Dartmouth students have even coded an emulator to their original DTSS at dtss.dartmouth.edu, though, sadly, it mirrors an earlier version which does not support Kemeny’s FTBALL.

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Keith Good

Keith Good is a future Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and 8-bit game geek. A perpetual optimist, he convinces himself every September that this could finally be the Cleveland Browns' year. He was once told to eff off by one of the Tecmo Browns. You can check out his other work at www.keithisgood.com and follow him on twitter @keithisgood.

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