In an article about The Sumerian Game, a person playing the video game
Illustration by Tiphany Jackson, University of the Arts
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In an article about The Sumerian Game, a person playing the video game
Illustration by Tiphany Jackson, University of the Arts

Though few people know of its existence, this city-building, edutainment title is one of the most influential games of all time.

The history of video games stretches back far earlier than most people assume. The early ’70s are often identified as the beginning of the gaming industry thanks to the release of the first arcade cabinet in 1971 and the first home console in 1972. Before these monumental events, the medium underwent plenty of progress leading up to its appearance on store shelves.

Early games were released at various computer-centric events as playable exhibitions, evolving from simple tic-tac-toe recreations, like OXO in 1952, to creative top-down shooters, such as Spacewar! in 1962. However, one of the most important games of this era was 1964’s The Sumerian Game.

While most of its contemporaries are considered to be overly simplistic by modern standards, The Sumerian Game distinguishes itself by challenging players to manage the economy and resources of a historic city. Although the game has mostly been forgotten, the unusual history of its creation brought numerous innovations to the video game medium.

The First Simulated Civilization

The Sumerian Game was developed as part of a collaborative study between the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) of Northern Westchester County, New York, and the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). Members from both organizations attended meetings where they sought to determine ways to teach children economics through computer games.

One of the meeting leaders, IBM employee Bruse Moncreiff, suggested making a simulated environment where students could watch the growth of a developing economy. Moncreiff also wanted the game to take place in ancient Sumer to bring attention to pre-Greek civilizations that are neglected in school curriculums.

Mable Addis, a fourth-grade teacher involved in the study, liked Moncreiff’s idea and agreed to design a game that expanded upon this initial concept. Addis’s game, titled The Sumerian Game, places players in the role of Luduga I, the fictional ruler of the Sumerian city-state Lagash.

As the ruler, gamers are tasked with balancing Lagash’s grain supply, and they must determine how to divide it between feeding civilians, cultivating crops or storing for later use. Having too little grain will cause citizens to die of starvation, whereas excess grain will rot after enough time has passed.

The player makes these decisions in a round that represents a single season, during which a royal advisor informs the player of events that have occurred and asks them to allocate resources for the next season.

While most of these events directly result from the player’s actions, random events like plagues or floods can have unforeseen consequences, preventing the game from having one guaranteed method of success.

After enough rounds, the game reaches a complex second stage that follows the life of Luduga II, the successor to the first ruler. Throughout this phase, the player must continue to balance their grain supply and simultaneously assign workers to the development of new technologies.

In the final round, players assume the role of another successor and must oversee foreign affairs on top of all the other preexisting responsibilities. Once all three stages are complete, the game presents players with an evaluation of their reign over Lagash.

In 1966, Addis designed a revised version of The Sumerian Game, shortening its length and introducing diverse scenarios into the gameplay. Along with being one of the first content patches made for a game, this second edition brought numerous innovations to the gaming industry.

The original relies on a completely text-based display while the 1966 revision features a slideshow and pre-recorded audio that describes certain events in the game and explains the new mechanics at each level. As a result, The Sumerian Game is the first game to both deliver a fully realized story and include cut scenes (albeit not within the program itself).

Both versions of The Sumerian Game were tested with classes of sixth-grade students and arrived at similar results. Students that learned economics from the game rather than from traditional class lectures performed noticeably better on tests conducted after the trial.

Although these students didn’t have a perfect understanding of economics after playing the game, IBM’s study found that the game served as a valuable teaching tool and was more enjoyable than any other title involved in the study.

The most important part of The Sumerian Game was because of the efforts of Addis herself. Despite having no experience with video games or computer science, Addis was the game’s sole designer and writer. Her carefully crafted blueprint brought a degree of strategy and complexity to gaming that had never been seen before.

Other games in the study also engaged students with their complex challenges, however, Addis’ writing and storytelling in The Sumerian Game kept the player invested in the development of Lagash throughout its different eras. The game’s uncommon setting and commitment to immersion brought elements of imagination and role-playing that most other economics-oriented titles lack.

It’s worth clarifying that The Sumerian Game was not the first-ever strategy video game. As noted in an episode of the “Advent of Computing” podcast, many similar business management simulators that were used as training tools for new managers in some companies preceded Addis’ title.

IBM developed a few of their own business sims, which is why they were eager to accept The Sumerian Game as a student-oriented twist on the concept. However, whereas earlier examples were strictly used for teaching, Addis’ title, with its blend of entertainment, education and storytelling, proved the versatile potential of video games.

Later Versions and Successors

Despite everything that The Sumerian Game accomplished, very little was done to preserve the game’s source code or the presentation from its revision, with only some records of the second version being housed at The Strong National Museum of Play.

Although game preservation has become a much larger priority in recent times, there are multiple reasons why the game seemingly vanished after IBM’s study. Even though researchers found evidence suggesting that computer games like The Sumerian Game are effective teaching tools, few schools at the time could afford enough computers to teach entire classes.

Arcadology reported that the John Hancock Demonstration School was one institution that invested in a computer mainframe and terminal infrastructure to run The Sumerian Game, but few schools followed suit.

IBM lacked any other means to profit off of the game, as home computers wouldn’t release the game until the 1970s. Finally, the game industry had not been established yet, meaning IBM had no way of understanding the value that computer games would return in the following years.

As a result, the company saw little reason to keep the game after it served its original purpose. Considering how quickly The Sumerian Game disappeared, it may be hard to imagine how it could leave any sort of impact on future developers. However, a simplified version of the game, King of Sumeria, was created by another developer named Doug Dyment, who heard of Addis’ original game from an attendee of his 1968 talk at the University of Alberta.

Since Dyment’s version was based solely on how the game was described to him, it lacks many features from its predecessor. Rather than following the advancement of civilization throughout multiple eras, the game takes place over only 10 rounds, with each round representing a year. As with the original, players maintain their city’s grain supply while also buying and selling farmland.

The game also prevents players from settling into one optimal strategy through fluctuating land prices and random events like fires or plagues. King of Sumeria is a barebones imitation of its predecessor, yet it still found considerable popularity among computer owners.

The simplicity of its gameplay made it easy to understand but hard to master, which inspired many aspiring programmers to create translations and imitations of the game. The most famous example was David H. Ahl’s Hamurabi in 1971, which was a simple conversion of King of Sumeria from its original FOCAL programming language into the far more accessible DEC BASIC.

Hamurabi’s only gameplay difference is the reintroduction of the evaluation screen from The Sumerian Game, but it struck a much wider audience thanks to BASIC serving as the standard programming language for most computers of the 1970s.

As a result, Hamurabi became the most widely recognized version of The Sumerian Game and is the only one that is still easily playable today (a browser version is available here).

Legacy of The Sumerian Game

Hamurabi’s success is cited as the catalyst for the city-building genre of video games. Franchises like SimCity and Sid Meier’s Civilization adopted many of the concepts that Ahl’s game popularized and expanded upon them to create in-depth, replayable experiences that are still enjoyed today.

However, Hamurabi is ultimately a loose imitation of The Sumerian Game, and its success shows the massive influence that Addis had on the future of gaming. The resource management gameplay and immersive, historical narrative were more advanced than anything else the medium had delivered.

While most players never experienced The Sumerian Game directly, they’ve undoubtedly seen its influence through its imitators or the many games that it has inspired. Addis inadvertently paved the way for many future advancements in the video game medium by pioneering the city-builder and creating cut scenes long before they were an industry standard. She’s also the first writer and female designer of a video game.

Historians overlooked the story of Addis and The Sumerian Game until an article by Kate Willaert revived interest in the topic, which hopefully leads to the rediscovery of the full game. Regardless, The Sumerian Game deserves recognition as one of the founding pillars of the industry.

Writer Profile

Maximilian Padilla-Rodriguez

Florida Atlantic University
English

Maximilian Padilla-Rodriguez is an English major currently working toward completing his senior year at Florida Atlantic University. When not busy with course work, he spends his free time reading both fiction and nonfiction.

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