From Battlezone to World of Tanks

In 1970, the movie Patton became a top-grossing film of the year, earned eight Academy Awards, and starred George C. Scott as the brilliant, eccentric World War II tank commander General George S. Patton. At a time when the country was mired in jungle warfare in Vietnam, in which tanks played relatively little role, audiences warmed to the epic story of America’s fast-moving tactical victories in the “good war” a quarter-century earlier. Tanks fired the imagination of not only movie-goers, but game players as well. Avalon Hill had revolutionized board games in the 1950s with its strategic simulations Tactics and Tactics II. Thereafter the company produced a series of World War II-based games like PanzerBlitz (1970) and Squad Leader (1977) that emphasized the role of tanks in combat.

Kee Games’ arcade coin-op Tank (1974) introduced armored combat into video games, as each player maneuvered a tank through a maze trying to destroy his opponent. The game proved so popular that the following year Kee Games (which, unbeknownst to the public, was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Atari) released a sequel, Tank II. ICHEG owns both games, and it’s likely that anyone who purchased an Atari 2600 is familiar with Tank’s play style. That’s because not only did Atari design the home system around the ability to engage two-player games like Tank, but when the company released the 2600 in 1977 it packaged the console with Combat, a game whose play mirrored that of Tank. Thus tank games introduced millions of players to video games. Tanks figured prominently in two other groundbreaking games that came out shortly thereafter.

Chris Crawford, founder of the Computer Game Developers Conference, published the first commercial computer wargame, Tanktics, at the end of 1978. Crawford began work on the title, as he explains in his book Chris Crawford on Game Design, intrigued by the problem of devising algorithms to simulate the complexities of a strategy board game on a computer. Gamers relished the chance to match their wits with a digital opponent. The compelling game play of Tanktics prompted Avalon Hill to acquire it and make it one of their first products when they entered the computer market in 1981.

While Crawford emphasized strategic game play, Battlezone (1980) captivated players with its 3D vector graphics. In Battlezone, players peered through a periscope at wire-frame images of enemy tanks, geometric obstacles, and an exploding volcano in the background. As with Tank, dual joysticks steered the vehicle, as players tried to blow up the opposing tanks before being hit. The periscope created an immersive experience that is still fun to play today, as anyone who visits The Strong’s eGameRevolution exhibit and plays it can attest.

Battlezone also became one of the first games used for military purposes. Atari created for the United States Army a version called The Bradley Fighter that modified the original arcade game to train soldiers. Although an ex-employee reported that Atari only produced two cabinets, the game marked the military’s growing interest in the use of video games for training.

The Bradley Fighter was not the first electronic game used by the military, however. The army had run computerized wargame simulations since the 1960s, and in the late 1970s Ralph Baer demonstrated to the army a simulator that used a converted Light Antitank Weapon (LAW) to fire at videos of Soviet tanks. Baer subsequently donated his weapon to ICHEG, and it is one of the oldest-known artifacts related to the military’s use of video games.

Tank video games declined in importance after Battlezone. Increasingly, when tanks appeared, they were integrated into larger battle simulations, and players more often assumed the role of the individual infantryman than that of the tank operator. Recently, however, Wargaming.net’s successful MMO World of Tanks has reintroduced millions of players to the thrill of mid-twentieth-century armored warfare. It’s only fitting that the game is made by a company out of Belarus, the site of the Soviet-German battle of Kursk, perhaps the largest tank battle of all time.