Today’s strategy games owe a lot to The Sumerian Game. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry. It didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry until Video Game historian Critical Kate started tweeting about it in early September 2019. On today’s episode, we are going to talk about The Sumerian Game’s place in video game history. Welcome to Arcadology.
On September 9th, Kate Willaert tweeted about The Sumerian Game, one of the first educational mainframe games. Mabel Addis, a fourth-grade teacher at Katonah Elementary School, developed the game and IBM employee William McKay programmed it. The game was a multimedia experience and employed tape decks, slide projectors, and of course, computer terminals to be played.
These computer terminals did not have monitors by the way. When we say text-based, in this case, a hard copy terminal printed the text onto paper. The players typed responses to the prompt that the terminal printed.
The game came to be from cooperation of IBM and the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services in Westchester County, New York. The goal to see how computer simulations could be used to educate students. Initial development took three years, and in 1965, the game was played for the first time by twenty-six sixth-grade students from Mohansic Elementary School in Yorktown Heights.
To start the game, the teacher played a 20-minute lecture that introduced the history of Sumeria and the concepts of the game to the players. The role the players took was that of Laduga the First, the priest-ruler of a Sumerian city-state.
The first turn would present the player with a problem that read: “We have harvested 5,000 bushels of grain to take care of 500 people. How much of this grain shall be set aside for the next season’s planting, and how much will be stored in the warehouse?” Players would then determine what to feed the people, what to plant, and what to store.
As the game progressed, it became more complex. For example, there might be a complication with the crop, or the player would have to account for and deal with a growing population or lack of water and irrigation. Here is the flowchart the game used to determine crop failure or disasters which included locusts, floods, or the wrath of god.
The initial phase of play would be focused strictly on managing agricultural issues. In the second phase, the player takes the role of Luduga II. The game gives the player the option to use the surplus grain to develop new crafts. Think of the tech tree in Civilization. The third and final phase of the game introduced trade and a changing economy.
As the gameplay evolved, so too did the calculations used to determine what result the player’s actions had. For example, once the player gained access to fertilizer, the equation for the Harvest would change from H = 4S to H = 5S, or the Harvest would equal five times the amount of seeds planted.
In 1966 Mabel Addis put the second phase of the game through a massive revision. This is like the first content patch for a game, ever. She rewrote the script for Luduga I to clarify objects and remove generalizations. The game was reduced to 30 turns. Prompts were rewritten and condensed to reduced repetitiveness. More use was made of the AV component with the introduction of mid season court bullitens and tape recorded cabinet discussions for the student to react to. This took the honus off the printed word, and made the visuals more important.
She removed the agricultural component from the second phase because she believed that once the player showed mastery of it in the first phase, they should be allowed to focus on the phase 2 elements of gameplay.
One of the game’s primary goals was to teach students, basic economic principals. Some examples from the list of principles are “Disasters require redistribution of resources” and “Specialization tends to increase efficiency.”
The reach of the Sumerian Game was not broad, mostly because of the investment required to play it. It did catch the attention of those that were interested in the future of education. In 1968 the John Hancock Demonstration School in Philadelphia had a computer system installed and were using the Sumerian Game to teach problem-solving. The Demonstration School was used by the Philadelphia Board of Education as a laboratory for new education techniques.
A 1969 article in Parade Magazine mentions that at the time the New York school system had a mainframe and terminal infrastructure to support approximately 6000 of their students, many of whom would play The Sumerian Game. The article speaks about the cost-prohibitive nature of this type of education but held out hope for cheaper solutions in 5 to 10 years.
The Sumerian Game would serve as a direct inspiration for Hamurabi programmed by Doug Dyment in 1968. It was a text-based strategy-simulation game that prompted players with similar problems as the Sumerian Game. Hamurabi is notable though not for its originality, but because a BASIC version of it would be published in David Ahl’s BASIC Computer Games. I’ll discuss Hamurabi more in another video.
Mabel Addis passed away in 2004 at the age of 92. She is rightly remembered in her obituary as a pioneer. There isn’t much left of the game itself; however the Strong Museum of Play has preserved some of the printouts that were produced by the game.
Anyway, that’s all for me today. If you want to read more about the Sumerian game, be sure to check out Kate Willaert’s Twitter thread and article listed below. Additionally, check out the game’s entry in the book A History of Video Games in 64 Objects. Additional sources can also be found in the description below. Take care.