The Atari Video Computer System dominated the home videogame market so completely that "Atari" became the generic term for a videogame console. The Atari VCS was affordable and offered the flexibility of changeable cartridges. Nearly a thousand of these were created, the most significant of which established new techniques, mechanics, and even entire genres. This book offers a detailed and accessible study of this influential videogame console from both computational and cultural perspectives.
Studies of digital media have rarely investigated platforms—the systems underlying computing. This book (the first in a series of Platform Studies) does so, developing a critical approach that examines the relationship between platforms and creative expression. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost discuss the Atari VCS itself and examine in detail six game cartridges: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. They describe the technical constraints and affordances of the system and track developments in programming, gameplay, interface, and aesthetics. Adventure, for example, was the first game to represent a virtual space larger than the screen (anticipating the boundless virtual spaces of such later games as World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto), by allowing the player to walk off one side into another space; and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was an early instance of interaction between media properties and video games.
Montfort and Bogost show that the Atari VCS—often considered merely a retro fetish object—is an essential part of the history of video games.
Platform Studies series
About the Authors
Nick Montfort is Associate Professor of Digital Media at MIT and the coauthor of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press, 2009).
Ian Bogost is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC, and the coauthor of Newsgames: Journalism at Play (MIT Press, 2010) and other books.
“Montfort and Bogost’s analysis is both technically detailed and historically contextualized, both informative and methodologically instructive. They write with a rigor and grace that future contributors to the series may be at pains to match.”—Seth Perlow, Convergence
"Racing the Beam doesn't spare the technical details, but is always accessible and compelling. Downright thrilling at times, in fact, a sort of The Right Stuff of video game development."—Darren Zenko, thestar.com (Toronto Star)
“Read it, it will do you good.”—José P. Zagal, Game Studies
"Racing the Beam presents not just the technical challenges but the financial, bureaucratic, and scheduling considerations that harried the Atari 2600 VCS programmers. Modern game designers should read this book for the same reason that modern generals study the military campaigns of Alexander and Caesar: the technology is completely different but the principles are the same."
Chris Crawford, former head of Atari's Games Research Group, and co-founder of Storytron
"Montfort and Bogost raise the bar on anyone wishing to talk meaningfully about computer culture. Not only must we interpret these machines, we must first know how they work and yes, sometimes this means knowing assembly code. From chip to controller, the authors lead us with ease through the Atari 2600 Video Computer System, one of the most emblematic devices in recent mass culture."
Alexander Galloway, Associate Professor of Culture and Communication, New York University, and author of Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization
"William Morris famously opined 'You can't have art without resistance in the materials.' In Racing the Beam, the inaugural volume in the MIT Press's new Platform Studies series, Montfort and Bogost authoritatively update that dictum for the computer age. This technically rigorous but also (finally) deeply humanistic book is not just a history of a particular platform, but an excavation of how its unique affordances and constraints shaped its capacity for the creative."
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor of English, University of Maryland, and author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination