This book is about the emergence of video games in America between 1972 and 1983. It covers both coin-operated video games — the cabinets played in arcades and other public places — and video games in the home that plugged into television sets. As a cultural history, Atari Age is concerned with the way people understood games when they were new. It draws on a diverse array of sources to arrive at this understanding including many kinds of publications (popular press, trade press, fan press), print and television commercials, store catalogs, representations in film and television, social science research of the time, as well as the games themselves and their packaging. At first, the new technology had no single identity and its meanings were flexible. Over time, its cultural status was worked out in relation to existing forms of amusement and other technologies, from pinball and ping-pong to television and computers. The identity of the medium was fashioned around the idealized identity of its typical player or user, most often represented as youthful, masculine, and middle-class.
The book’s chapters cover the origins of the video arcade in the dusty playlands of the past and new family fun centers of the suburban landscape; the way television’s low cultural status informed the meanings of video games as a technology to improve TV; the transformations of domestic space effected by video games in the home, which both sought to bring the family together and give boys an escape from the domestic sphere; the relationship between games and computers as high-tech playthings; the media panic that accompanied the craze for video games in the early 80s; and the anomalous success of Pac-Man, the biggest hit of the early period in game history and a game designed for and associated with women. The intent of this book is to discover the period of early video games as a time when the identity of the new medium was worked out. This helps us understand their cultural status and place in popular imagination, and it places early games into a historical and social context. The intent is also to appreciate the cultural contradictions of the emergence of games, which were at once public and private, another kind of video entertainment and a device to transform television into an active and participatory medium, a technology promising family harmony and escape for young boys and men, high-tech toys to teach computing and mind-wasting addictions. In all of these contradictions, the identity of the player is central to working out the meanings and values of the technology.
Under the Idea Tree, in which I want to avoid becoming a video games scholar
Television Pictures, in which I interpret some of the images considered in the book