Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

Racing the Beam Nick Montfort MIT Press, 2009

Racing the Beam
Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost
MIT Press, 2009

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.

For sale at MIT Press.

Nick Montfort

About Nick Montfort

Nick Montfort develops computational poetry and art and has participated in dozens of literary and academic collaborations. Recent books include The Future and Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities (MIT Press) and several books of computational poetry: Hard West Turn, The Truelist, #!, the collaboration 2x6, and Autopia. He has worked to contribute to platform studies, critical code studies, and electronic literature.

 
 

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