- Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America by Michael Z. Newman
Michael Z. Newman's Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America traces the shifting "status and identity" of video games in the 1970s and '80s through the discourse of various groups, the gaming industry, the media, and the marketers by recreating the context of their "emergence." This focus on "emergence" is, indeed, the key to this book in terms of what it can and cannot deliver. In short, Newman wants to explore the birth of video games on its own terms and to reproduce the arguments, concerns, and reactions to video games before conclusions about them had been reached. The book is thus not interested in economic questions or power relations, per se, though Newman does add a light gender critique throughout the book's five chapters. All in all, Atari Age reveals that much of our contemporary understanding of, and gripes with, video game and computer technology are not much different from those of yesteryear.
Newman's emphasis on, or method of, emergence is most successful when he contextualizes video games. In keeping with trends in New Media studies, Newman charts the nuances of continuity in the evolution of new technologies, instead of automatically treating them as constituting a complete break from the past. Newman thus situates the rise of video games with earlier forms of technology. While we might tend to think of video games as radically new, Newman points to the way in which they fit into a longer history of public amusements in America. Arcades and penny arcades had long predated video games, and the seedy reputation of such spaces (those of boardwalks or carnivals, for instance) would quickly attach itself to video games, especially via their association with the one-time disreputable pinball machine.
Indeed, the taint of earlier public amusements and the purportedly dangerous spaces in which they were housed was something that had to be overcome for arcade games to flourish. Newman details the changes that occurred in the perceptions of arcades in the 1970s in order to sell video games to middle-class, white, suburban parents. Arcades began to clean themselves up and change their reputation. Family fun centers opened up, malls housed arcades, and arcades initiated a host of improvements to make themselves more respectable and upscale. The changes targeted at winning over white-collar, suburban customers worked perfectly. Though some conservative cities successfully banned arcades, the reputation of arcades was significantly rehabilitated as such spaces generally came to be considered respectable in the public mind.
Newman's focus on emergence is particularly effective in mapping technologies against and onto one another. The arrival of home consoles that interacted with televisions meant that new and older forms of technology overlapped. Such "remediation" was also going on when people experienced playing video games at home. Early video games tended to reproduce board [End Page 552] or sports games—think Pong or football and tennis games—in electronic fashion, thus adding a level of familiarity for the novice player. These helped set the game table for later hits, such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man. But remediation truly occurs in the television's role in home gaming, in which the TV's capability was transformed by a home console. Now the television was no longer beaming out its cathode rays to a passive audience but could be controlled by the user whose "active" participation displayed a form of mastery and "freedom." So too did the Betamax and VCR remediate television and offer new possibilities, as did Cable, for its use. This notion of the active and "participatory" side of gaming was pushed by tech-heads and marketers, even though the true "freedom" it offered was (and still is today) obviously dubious. The same was true of the computer and computer video games, as Newman traces the way in which computers developed along with video games. How we would come to understand computers and integrate them into out lives was, as Newman shows, a set of...