The Emergence of Video Games in America
The cultural contradictions of early video games: a medium for family fun (but mainly for middle-class boys), an improvement over pinball and television (but possibly harmful)
Beginning with the release of the Magnavox Odyssey and Pong in 1972, video games, whether played in arcades and taverns or in family rec rooms, became part of popular culture, like television. In fact, video games were sometimes seen as an improvement on television because they spurred participation rather than passivity. These “space-age pinball machines” gave coin-operated games a high-tech and more respectable profile. In Atari Age, Michael Newman charts the emergence of video games in America from ball-and-paddle games to hits like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, describing their relationship to other amusements and technologies and showing how they came to be identified with the middle class, youth, and masculinity.
Newman shows that the “new media” of video games were understood in varied, even contradictory ways. They were family fun (but mainly for boys), better than television (but possibly harmful), and educational (but a waste of computer time). Drawing on a range of sources—including the games and their packaging; coverage in the popular, trade, and fan press; social science research of the time; advertising and store catalogs; and representations in movies and television—Newman describes the series of cultural contradictions through which the identity of the emerging medium worked itself out. Would video games embody middle-class respectability or suffer from the arcade's unsavory reputation? Would they foster family togetherness or allow boys to escape from domesticity? Would they make the new home computer a tool for education or just a glorified toy? Then, as now, many worried about the impact of video games on players, while others celebrated video games for familiarizing kids with technology essential for the information age.
Atari Age examines the impact early video games had on culture and their effects both positive and negative on society. Michael Newman chronicles a history of early games and how their nature and focus created an acceptance of computer technology by society at large. The tension between the positive and negative aspects of the new medium are well illustrated by showing how arcades evolved from dark unsavory places to clean welcoming places that women might frequent. This is a fascinating and well-researched book that is sure to be important in the history of video games.
Al Alcorn, developer of Pong
A fascinating history of the social life of video games, from their emergence as arcade amusements and domestic novelties to their convergence with the TV set and PC to their wide-ranging implications for family life, gender, childhood, and the organization of domestic space. A valuable contribution to the study of new media that is also fun to read!
Lynn Spigel, Professor, Northwestern University; author of Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America
Atari Age asks its readers to put aside preconceived notions about the history of video games in North America. It takes us through a fascinating, thorough, and compelling sociocultural history of the early days of video games in the 1970s and early 1980s. Newman weaves together original marketing and advertising materials about games, discourses about arcades, and the evolution of the home as a site for leisure, producing a must-read account of how our ideas about what video games are, who plays them and where, were first developed and framed.
Mia Consalvo, Canada Research Chair in Game Studies and Design, Concordia University; author of From Atari to Zelda: Japan's Videogames in Global Contexts