Ian Bogost Discusses His Latest Book, Racing the Beam

Racing the Beam, The Atari Video Computer System, a book by Georgia Tech Associate Professor Ian Bogost, takes a look at the development of the first popular video game platform through the lens of six game cartridges to show how the developers of those games, for better or worse, laid the ground work for the industry Atari helped spawn. Those games are Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall! and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

The book is the third by Bogost on video games and the first he's co-written with MIT's Nick Montfort. With this book, the pair begin a new series, Platform Studies, published by MIT Press, which will examine the role that various video game platforms have had on the industry and the culture at-large. Bogost and Montfort will edit the new series.


Q: Why did you decide to write about the Atari VCS?

Bogost: It's an extremely important piece of video game history, yet no one has written seriously about it in video game research - or really even in popular culture. So to go back to the very first popular home video game system and look at it in detail, that was one of the reasons.

The second was to encourage historical studies of games and game systems more generally, for reasons that go beyond nostalgia. It's worth doing this not just to geek out on retro chic, hipster stuff. Rather, we ought to take the history of video games as seriously as we would take the history of any cultural object. The influence of the Atari VCS and its games on later titles - including today's games - is significant, extremely significant in our opinion and not obvious.

Q: Would you say that the limitations posed by this Atari had a big influence on how things were designed?

Bogost: For sure. You see, any computer imposes constraints of some kind. But the Atari is a ridiculously bizarre computer, even compared to its contemporaries. There are lots of reasons for this. Some of them are financial, some of them have to do with the technology that was available at the time, some of them have to do with randomness and arbitrary decisions. When the Atari VCS was being designed in the mid-1970s, no one had any idea or thought that it would turn out to be as important as it did. Nor that it would be on the market for as long as it was (until the 1990s!).

Q: What did they think?

Bogost: They thought they were making a video game machine that would play a few games derived from popular coin-ops for a couple of years in the marketplace.

But arguably, it ended up being the foundation of home video gaming. And not only that, but the foundation of many conventions and genres present in the games that we still play today.

Q: How did that happen?

Bogost: The video games of the early '70s were tavern games, really. This was still before video arcades became popular. But Bushnell, Atari's founder, saw taking this stuff home as an opportunity for Atari to reach a broader audience. So the company introduced a version of Pong for the home.

But then, once you bought one Home Pong machine, you don't need another one. So they could only sell one product to each household; it seemed like a missed opportunity. So Atari set out to create an interchangeable cartridge system: they would sell the system once and then sell many cartridges, like razors and razorblades. This is really the foundation of the way that the first party publishers like Microsoft and Sony see video game sales today.

But still, Atari had no idea later programmers would use the machine in the ways they did. The techniques they developed influenced later games in interesting and important ways. And somehow through a kind of strange telephone game of influence, games that were made under the constraints of the Atari wound up underwriting conventions of later games, in ways we now take for granted.

Q: For example?

Bogost: One example we talk about in the book is the "adventure" game. Adventure, from 1978, was the first graphical adventure. It was an attempt to transfer the text-based adventure Colossal Cave, which was played on PDP minicomputers. The designer of VCS Adventure, Warren Robinett, was enamored with Colossal Cave and insisted on somehow taking the experience that he enjoyed in that game and making it work on the Atari VCS. He did this by re-imagining text commands and areas of space as movement onto and off the television screen. It was a pretty remarkable feat in 1978.

But it also led to later versions of the same genre of graphical adventure: games in which you have a character who moves around a space larger than the screen, who has tools that he can use and objects that he can pick up. The adventure game arguably remains one of the top genres of games today. Sure, they look pretty different - they're 3D now, and much more complex - but they still owe a debt to Robinett's Adventure, whose features were influenced strongly by what the Atari VCS hardware could do easily.

Q: Which, would you say, were some of the first games to copy that idea?

Bogost: There was a Raiders of the Lost Ark game for the Atari several years later, which took the same principles, the same fundamentals that Robinett had developed and made them much more complex, arguably better. Ultima borrowed from it too. The Legend of Zelda is probably the most obvious in importance. And from there, the genre just spirals out of control.

But the way that Adventure had to introduce the player and the marketplace to these conventions, that now are old hat, is kind of interesting. If you look at the manual for the game, even the idea of moving a character to the edge of the screen, and then the screen changing as if you were moving to a new screen - it wasn't obvious. It had to be explained in intricate detail. But by the time we get to Zelda, everyone knew how this convention worked. Those conventions get built up over and over, one on top of another, both as technology changes and as other kinds of design choices become conventional.

So Adventure is an example of the fundamental work we tried to do in the book: to show how the hardware platform -the machine itself - had a strong influence on the way that programmers made things for the machine. And that the games born of that material influence went on to have a strong influence on later games, sometimes in direct ways and sometimes in indirect ways.

Q: So would you say that a lot of the limitations provided by the computer led to creativity?

Bogost: Yeah, the reason that this machine was so successful, so popular for so long, and that so many different kinds of games were made for it, is because it can do so little. It's a very simple computer. And rather than becoming a limitation, it forced programmers to constantly reinvent ways of making things new on the machine. Everyone had their own style. Someone like David Crane, who made Pitfall!, his whole approach to making games was about trying to get this computer to do something it hadn't done before. Others had different strategies.

Q: Why was Atari so much more successful than other video game systems of the era?

Bogost: In some ways, it was just luck. They were in the right place at the right time, with the right backing after Warner bought them to create and market an interchangeable cartridge home video game system that proved flexible enough to remain popular for a long time. They were able to become really aggressive and to develop this idea of home video gaming well. In a lot of ways, that selling point is exactly the same as the one Nintendo has been using with the Wii.

Q: So is this interest in Atari just nostalgia?

Bogost: It was important to us to rescue the Atari from the cesspool of nostalgia. It's not that nostalgia is inherently bad, but we wanted to combat the idea that the Atari VCS is a useless thing, a relic, a throwaway retro fetish object. That's an attitude that I think is too prevalent in technology and media in general.

One of the reasons I like to program the Atari is to understand what that practice was like. I try to treat Atari games as a form in their own right, rather than as geekery or an attempt to develop my tech chops. It's a living creative practice that involves specific activities. Understanding what they are is both interesting and gratifying.

Q: Tell me about the Platform Studies series that this book belongs to.

Bogost: Nick and I are editing the series of which Racing the Beam is the first book. The series invites books about computer platforms of all kinds - from video game systems to personal computers to programming languages. We seek work that explores the relationship between hardware and software systems and creativity.

We've entered a new era in digital media scholarship, one in which people are really combining the two worlds of computing and the liberal arts, in which people have a depth of experience in both technical and cultural matters. So I'm excited about providing an avenue for such work. We're really just at the beginning of it.

Q: So do you think being able to play these games of yore, like we can with Wii's virtual console among others, is going to change the way we look at them?

Bogost: It's great. It's great in part because it means that those games are just more readily available. The analogy I always use is that of a dad sitting his kid down to watch John Wayne westerns. The handing down of cultural memory is only possible if the works are available and can be viewed.

But we have to remain vigilant about understanding the connection between these old games and the hardware that originally played them. There are some aspects of the Atari and the Nintendo Entertainment System that you can't completely recreate in emulation, let alone on a modern 50" LCD television. Actually, in this regard, one of the Georgia Tech Computer Science capstone class groups is working on a set of revisions to the Atari VCS emulator, to try to recreate some more of the appearance of those old TVs.


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