Professor describes Atari’s impact on gaming world

When you hear the word “video game,” what comes to mind? Odds are, most people’s answers run the gambit from “Nintendo” to “Xbox” and “Mario” to “Master Chief.”

In other words, the list includes some of the most popular and most recent video games, lingo and gaming technology.

Something few gamers ever even consider asking themselves is how games got to that or how games managed to evolve from a white square bouncing across the screen to on-line games where players employ military tactics that would put Eisenhower to shame.

Ian Bogost, an associate professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture and author of the book Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, says that if gamers really want to get back to the roots of how video games made it into their everyday lives, they have to take a trip back to the seventies and look at the Atari Video Computer System (also known as the Atari 2600). The Atari is the grandfather of video game consoles and arcade games as we know them today.

Atari was first founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. In 1984, Atari was split into two sections. The arcade portion of the original Atari Inc. became Atari Games Inc.

Some of the first Atari games included Pong, Combat and Pac-Man.

“Without Atari, we probably wouldn’t have the notion of a home video game market,” Bogost said.

“The best way to summarize the impact would be that Atari made the transition [away] from coin-op culture—which in the seventies was more about bars, taverns and bowling alleys.

“Atari bridged the gap, they moved video games from these places to the home. In so doing, they caused a market shift. [They realized] if you’re only selling games per play to people in bars, then you’re missing out on a whole marketplace of families and kids,” Bogost said.

Many things gamers simply take for granted today came about during the Atari era, and, interestingly enough, not for the reasons people might expect. The idea for a transfer from text-based to graphical adventure games, for example, was originally conceived as a way to sidestep the Atari’s initial inability to render text.

“[This is] just one example of what we see again and again on the Atari: a kind of technique or trick that was played for a particular purpose, [and ended up] taking on a life of its own thanks to the success of the games,” Bogost said.

Another example of improvisation-turned-feature is the wide-spread trope of walking over items (power-ups, health packs, etc.) to interact with them.

As the Atari was usually controlled via a joystick with a single button, developers often had to devise controls which would allow players to interact with the game despite the limited amount of commands available.

In other words, the roots of the Halo-style medkit lie in a game designer several years ago attempting to cram as many commands as possible into the limited resources available to him.

“There’s this complicated relationship between the design of the hardware, the context and the software that gets created given that context and platform…The games take on a life of their own and lead new designers to look at things in still different ways,” Bogost said.

Bogost got interested in games because, according to him, “they are, by and large, perhaps the best example of the intersection between computation and culture, or creativity and expression.”

“They’re both new and old. If you look at the history of games, they relate to many other forms of media, but they also do something different. They really are the main variety of software that’s really about ideas and experiences instead of tools and functionality and productivity. It’s a natural juncture, I think, between computing and the humanities,” Bogost said.

As for why this is important in gaming today, the old adage of knowing where you came from before moving forward holds just as true in the world of game design.

“We should look at the history of games, not just for nostalgia’s sake, but also so we can understand how these conventions developed. When we want to understand any kind of medium, we look at how it developed. One of the things to keep in mind is that all of the conventions of game design have affected where game design is today. We’ll see this continue,” Bogost said.

As for the direction of game design going in the next few years, Bogost stated that, though it’s difficult to say where exactly games will end up, there are several interesting avenues.

“One of the things I might ask is what are the other ways we could use all the processing power in [graphics cards] beyond this obsession with visual realism,” Bogost said.

“I think that what we’ll see is a continued depth of exploration of the things we already have and the ways they haven’t been exploited. This is very similar to what happened with the Atari, which was a very long-lived console. The way that creators made things new on it was by sometimes asking ‘What haven’t we made it do yet?’” Bogost said.