book review

Racing the Beam
The Arari Video Computer System

Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost (2009)

You can look at games from many different perspectives. You can treat them as media objects and study their reception with an audience. Games have cultural links that tie them to other popular media. Games are played by pushing buttons, and this might be fun or not. You can study the people and companies and that create games or inspect the nuts and bolts of their hardware and software. In Racing the Beam Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost integrate these wide variety of perspectives into one: platform studies. They chose the Atari 2600 as the focal point for their first in-depth survey based on this integrated approach.

The Atari 2600 makes for a logical starting point for platform studies. As one of the first commercially successful video game consoles, the Atari 2600 shaped the early history of video games. Many of its titles early titles set the benchmark for the industry. Many of the games from those early days are still very playable to this day, and worthy of study. At the same time, the more unfortunate business decisions of the Atari company made their top programmers leave the company, and nearly destroyed the early game industry. In addition, the Atari is a relative simple machine. This allows Montfort and Bogost to go into detail and really relate game design and business strategies to the console hardware.

The structure of the book is straight forward. In the first chapter the scene is set: Monfort and Bogost describe how Nolan Bushnell set up Atari, it sketches the earlier arcade success of the company and explains the purpose for which the Atari 2600 was designed. In the next six chapters, they focus on a game and use it to explore a theme. Combat serves as an excellent show case of the Atari 2600 hardware and its original intention in the second chapter. Adventure servers as an example of early, innovative game design that almost single handedly created the genre of the action-adventure in the third chapter. In the fourth chapter, the ill-fated Pac-Man cartridge illustrates the limitation of the Atari hardware and the business risks of quickly adapting successful arcade titles to the Atari. Yar’s Revenge serves as an example of programmer skill and ingenuity that pushed games far beyond the hardware’s original intend in the fifth chapter. Pitfall, tells the story of the first third-part developer Activision in the sixth chapter. Finally, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back explores the subject of film adaptation and the explosion of quickly designed games that drove the video game market to crash in the early eighties. As icing on the cake Montfort and Bogost highlight the most interesting points made in the book in last chapter, and reflect on their first contribution to platform studies in a sizeable afterword.

The result is a compelling and well-written history of early video games. Montfort and Bogost’s account is informed and detailed, allowing the integrated perspective of platform studies to shine. Although, the old programmer tricks to save bytes and getting the most out of limited hardware has little relevance for today’s game development process, the ingenious mindset of those early pioneers serves as a clear example of what it takes to really make games. Games are still multidisciplinary products, and the mix of skills, vision and courage to create truly inspiring games has changed little. That is probably the most important lesson I got from reading between the lines of Racing the Beam. And it is a lesson everybody who wants to build, or study, games should take to heart.