Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America by Michael Z. Newman

Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT Press) BY Michael Z. Newman. The MIT Press. Hardcover, 264 pages. $29.
The cover of Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT Press)

Now that we’ve been in a “golden era” of television for nearly two decades, it’s fair to ask what could come next. Will the long-promised video-game renaissance ever materialize? It’s possible, but one obstacle is that gaming criticism is still in its infancy. “There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing,” Chuck Klosterman lamented in 2006. “And I'm starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice.” Eleven years later, we’re still waiting.

This is, in part, because video-game writers often find themselves on the defensive, having to justify their subject’s importance to critics like Roger Ebert, who wrote that “video games can never be art.” Authors react to such claims by overcompensating, straining to make sure we really believe in games’ relevance. (This is apparent in their titles, which, when taken together, have a whiff of desperation: Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, or Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.) Even after the Museum of Modern Art in New York included games in their “Applied Design” collection in 2013—Portal, Myst, and Pac-Man just to name a few—there is still confusion about whether video games are art, commerce, simple distraction, or something else altogether.

In his recent book, Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America, Michael Z. Newman observes that language about video games has long mirrored a salesman’s pitch, as it is “typically breathless and not infrequently techno-utopian.” Often relying on a combination of publicity-speak and hyperbolically expressed fandom, video-game writing can be off-putting to anyone not already in the know. Newman’s approach is refreshing: Free from the usual traps and not at all defensive, the book skips polemical arguments and credulous utopianism in favor of a historical approach; Newman’s focus is on the beginning of the home video-game system, an era when “there was no one common sense about video games to which everyone learned to subscribe.”

Newman draws his research from a diverse archive of marketing campaigns, newspaper think-pieces, fan publications, ethnographic studies, and popular media. “YouTube alone is an archive of video game history with an impressive enough collection of materials to sustain many research projects,” he writes. Embedded within this material are the origins of our well-established cultural narratives about video games: the “boy culture,” the excitement over, and profitability of, ever-improving technologies, and even the anxiety about wasted time.

This diversity of sources serves Newman’s greater project, to understand the social and cultural meanings we attribute to video games. He observes that much like television and cinema, video games “were not initially regarded as their own independent medium,” and were instead “familiarized as a marriage of television and computer.” Newman suggests that this is, in part, the reason why critical perspectives on video games are always being defined and refined. “A medium is made up of both things and ideas,” Newman writes, “and both of these influence each other and change over time.”

Newman’s history kicks off around 1972, as gaming spread from the public arcade into the living room. Marketed with the image of “well-off white families coming together around the new medium as earlier generations might have gathered around a piano or fireplace,” video games were initially predicted to be the savior of television’s reputation as hopelessly passive, and a catalyst for “mass society, mass media, mass culture, and mass audience.” The game console was thus pitched as a liberating technology, a means of offering the viewer a sense of agency and participation.

This idea of agency and active engagement was, from the start, a gendered proposition, as Newman shows. In a set of panels from an Atari ad, we see a father and son happily mastering a game while the mother struggles to wield the controller. Newman quotes one study that documented the way these behavioral assumptions played out between children: “Possession by the boys was considered appropriate; and sisters had to request permission for access to the games.” These early presumptions turned into a continuous dynamic, as Newman writes, in which video-game culture constantly reproduced “patriarchal relations of difference and power.”

Newman’s clear chronicling of this overt appeal to masculinity is a refreshing addition to the genre. And, of course, gender stereotypes continue to pervade contemporary gaming culture and writing. In Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives from 2010, women remain on the periphery of the gaming world. The presence of female employees in one video-game office prompts Bissell to “wonder if the company had expanded to include an escort service.” He recalls a joke told at a video-game award show: That any woman who failed to get laid there should “hang up [her] vagina and apologize.” The boy’s club is still very much alive, despite the attempts of so many gamers to move beyond it.

In his final chapter, “Pac-Man Fever,” Newman details the history and hype around one of the few games to be marketed across the gender spectrum. “The Beatlemania of Generation X,” as Newman calls it, Pac-Man’s success was second only to that of Ms. Pac-Man. But as Newman recounts all the best trivia—the game’s original title Puck-Man was reworked for fear of obscene vandalism; April 3, 1982 was the first National Pac-Man Day—he also reveals one of the pitfalls of game writing. As in so much criticism of this kind, his description of the game itselfis somehow lacking. In trying to capture every technical and design element, his writing struggles to convey the liveliness of the game.

It’s not a given, though, that video-game writing must be inelegant. There are authors who offer nuanced, concise, and energized prose. If we look outside of the “boy culture” that has defined games from their earliest days, we find writers like Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts, describing the Atari game Breakout:

The breakout is a thrill because of all the triangulation, all the monotony, all the effort, all the obstruction, all the shapes and sounds that were its predecessor. I need those colored bricks to chip away at, because the eating into them makes form. And then I need the occasional jailbreak, my hypomanic dot riding the sky.

Clearly, Newman’s agenda is very different from Nelson’s and he succeeds wonderfully on his own terms. Atari Age locates the cultural significance of video games by way of rigorous research and a composed curiosity. He manages to peel open the world of early gaming, and offers an engaging story that is accessible to those beyond the usual closed circuit of hardcore gaming fans. By telling a comprehensive story of how these games came to be, Newman enriches the possibilities for critical thinking on the medium. Such a comprehensive history hints at how much further games can evolve. We’re only forty years in, after all.

Rennie McDougall is a writer in New York. His work has previously appeared in Culturebot and Real Time magazine. He has also worked as a contemporary dancer in New York and Melbourne.