Title: Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

Author: Ian Bogost

Publication Date: January 9, 2009

Publisher: The MIT Press

An accessible book about the Atari VCS as a platform. Co-authored with Nick Montfort.

Racing the Beam is a study of the most important early videogame console, the Atari Video Computer System (also known as the Atari VCS or the Atari 2600). Through its main example, the book provides unique insight into the role of underlying hardware and software systems in new media.

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, also series edited by Bogost and Montfort) does so, developing a critical approach that examines the relationship between platforms and creative expression. The book covers the ancestry of the VCS (including Pong and the Atari Home Pong systems), the hardware design of the machine and its implications for creativity, and discusses many influential VCS games (Combat, Adventure, Pitfall, Pac-Man, and others). It is illustrated throught, and written to appeal to technically inclined general readers as well academics studying all sorts of creative work in digital media.

In the book, we 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 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.

The Atari VCS — often considered merely a retro fetish object — is an essential part of the history of video games.