As the Atari 2600 nears its 45th anniversary, video game pioneer Howard Scott Warshaw ponders its impact and lasting legacy. Howard writes a regular feature on the principles of game design for Wireframe magazine and this is from the latest issue.
A reporter asked me recently: “Why do you think the Atari 2600 is so fondly remembered by people today?” Which, in turn, brought to mind a recent incident. While chitchatting with a salesperson, it came out that I’d published a book. “Oh? What’s it called?” they asked.
“Once Upon Atari.”
“Tari? What’s a tari?” So apparently, the console isn’t universally remembered, let alone fondly. My god! It never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t recognise the name Atari.
Every once in a while a brand gets so big they become the product identifier. Coke is one. Kleenex is another. There was a time when Atari was that, too. It’s no mystery how that comes to be: a product completely takes over a market and becomes iconic (hopefully through quality rather than advertising).
By 1979, Atari was the identifier for video games. “Let’s go play Atari”. Did you get Pitfall! for your Atari? I’m part of a generation that never saw a video game until adulthood. The next generation watched Atari take over the world. Now, everyone knows all about video games, but there are adults who drink Coke, use Kleenex and have never heard of Atari. In only two generations it went from world domination to forgotten lore. A mighty fall, and a quick one. But Atari was all about working fast. And although there certainly are adults who don’t know the brand, many still do. I do my part to preserve the legend through my writing and speaking engagements (the prose and cons of video game history).
But here’s the thing: Atari’s remembered by gamers because retro gaming is a big deal now – largely because video games have lasted long enough that ‘retro’ and ‘current’ are no longer the same thing. When I was making these games there wasn’t any history. There was no such thing as an oldie. Every game was a newie. Now there is a history, and whenever there’s a history, people tend to look for origins. Where did these things come from? And that takes people to the 2600.
Sure, there were games before the 2600, but the 2600 was the first system that really put games out in the world. The 2600 sold in the millions! It was the first time any gaming system was that widely distributed, and it became the cornerstone of home gaming. Coin-ops both pre-dated and post-dated the 2600. The products were better and more elaborate than the 2600. But while arcade gaming kept turning over and turning over and turning over, the 2600 became a mainstay in homes for many years. It was really the mark of home gaming, and home computing. In fact, I believe the 2600 did more to put computers in homes than any other PC or tech product. Because when people need an excuse to buy something useful, making it fun is always the best inducement.
Putting computers in homes, however, wasn’t the greatest change that video games brought about. Here’s the biggest one: video games turned television from a passive medium to an active one. Thanks to video games, you’re no longer the zombie on the couch passively staring at the box: now you’re the zombie with a controller actively yelling at the box. Change TV and you change the world!
Think about it: what does it mean to change the passive to the active? It gives people a sense of having an impact on their world. It gives people the sense that they can change their world, beyond just changing channels. There are lots of things that have stood for a long time as immutable, impervious to change. This may have contributed to creating a world-view for many of, “I’m ineffectual. Things can’t be changed. You can’t fight City Hall.”
These days I hear a lot of discussion about Millennials and Gen Zers, specifically about how the world should adapt to them rather than the other way round. Boomers and Gen Xers often bristle at this perceived sense of entitlement. Well, here’s another thing about Millennials and Gen Zers: they’re the first generations to grow up with predominantly interactive media as opposed to passive media. Prior generations complain these ‘kids’ have their own view of how things ought to be and just want everything their way, and it may be true in many cases. But it’s also true that Millennials and Gen Zers have grown up with customisable interfaces, affording them the ability to mould their environment as they prefer it to be. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when tempered with reason and a bit of co-operative nature. But I think it’s important for prior generations to acknowledge that growing up with a sense of being able to change things is very different from growing up with a pervasive sense of not being able to change things. It’s a very different experience, and it leads to a very different world-view. Video games did this!
And they’re still doing it. Gamification of tasks and open architectures increasingly let us create the world (or key pieces of it) as we want. And there at the head of this parade of social reform is the old reliable Atari 2600, leading the way. Of course, this is all just my humble opinion. Despite all my degrees, I never took a sociology course, so I don’t want to get too far afield.
What’s so great about the Atari VCS? It was the first! For an entire generation, Atari was the gateway to a lifetime’s gaming. The following generation, born after the 2600 was gone, still maintains an awareness of the industry’s roots by playing those early games on emulators and retro systems. The search for origins grows deeper with each passing decade. Do you remember the first time you got to play a game? Of course you do, because you never forget your first time.
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