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Racing the Beam

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Ian Bogost and Nick MontfortEdit

Ian Bogost is a videogame researcher, critic, and designer, as well as an author and an entrepreneur. Bogost holds the position of an associate professor at Georgia Tech University, and is founding partner of Persuasive Games. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from UCLA, and worked as a media designer and consultant while pursing his undergraduate degree. Important works by Bogost include Unit Operations and Persuasaive Games.

Nick Montfort received undergraduate degrees in liberal arts and computer science, and went on to receive an MA in creative writing and a PhD in computer engineering, among other degrees. He is currently an associate professor of digital media at MIT. He has published as a journalist and an academic writer, and specializes in interactive narrative, digital writing, material histories of computational media, and video and computer games.

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System [2009]Edit

Racing the Beam constitutes the first effort in MIT's "platform" series of books. With this initial effort, series editors and co-authors Monfort and Bogost establish the terms and challenges of "platform" studies within the broader discipline of the study of technology.

In surmising the state of analysis of "creative computational" works, M&B suggest that user response, representational analysis, social and cultural context, and code study, but no one as of yet has pursued the platform as an object of critical inquiry. The platform, for M&B is the foundation of digital media, the "computing systems, both hardware and software, that developers and users depend upon for artistic, literary, gaming and other creative development" (vii). Technical rigor is a cornerstone of this analysis; this, those interests in "platform studies" must themselves be cross disciplinary in both academic and technical matters.

The first chapter, "Stella" opens with an explanation of why the Atari is a relevant system (the first successful cartridge-based system for home release), and then offers a brief, sketchy, and straightforward history of arcades games in taverns and lounges. M&B relates tavern games to midway/carnival games, and then move to the history of Nolan Bushnell and the transition from the dedicated platform Pong unit to a platform capable of playing multiple cartridges. The Atari console was designed to interface solely with the CRT television, and most of its first games were ports of successful arcade games.

Atari VCS DesignEdit

Significant is the chapter sub-section on the design of the Atari VCS, wherein M&B frame the Atari's design as a balance between pricey microprocessors and the limited value of a platform that just plays games hardwired to the circuits (the Fairchild). The Atari designers went with the MOS 6507 processor (a stripped version of the MOS 6502), which was high power and low cost, allowing them to release a $199 unit in 1977 (compared to the $1,298 Apple II of the same year, with a MOS 6502 processor). While the chips behaved the same, the 6507 couldn't address as much memory, ultimately affecting the maximum capacity for the Atari cartridges.

The MOS 6507 served as the CPU, doing the "central arithmatic at the core of computation" (13). Additionally, Atari designers researched and developed a custom graphics and sound device, the TIA [Television Interface Adaptor]. The Atari VCS carried only 128 bytes of RAM (comparably, the Fairchild had half as much, while the NES had 16x, at 2K). The 4th component of the system was a chip called the Peripheral Interface Adaptor [PIA] or RAM/Input/Output/Timer [RIOT]. The PIA "handles input from the two player controls and the console switches" (14). Atari was the first home console to standard the use of the joystick. It helped influence "direct manipulation" (push joystick right and character goes right). Controllers could be unplugged and you could sit back away from tv/game.

The PlatformEdit

The platform, according to M&B, is "an abstraction, a particular standard or specification before any particular implementation of it" (2). A platform requires material instantiation, in the form of chips, boards, peripherals and other components. The platform both constrains and supports the work built for it. While computer science has examined how platforms are best developed, and digital media studies address the cultural relevance of particular software running on platforms, M&B contend that "little work has been done on how the hardware and software of platforms influences, facilitates, or constrains particular forms of computational expression" (3). The authors' goal, thus, is to use the Atari Video Computer System [1977-1983] as an example of how to do a platform reading. The book explores 6 specific games and explains how the hardware components of the Atari VCS set the boundaries of what types of games could be build.

In their final chapter, M&B present a diagram of the "five levels of digital media, situated in context" (146). This image is of 5 boxes in ascending order, surrounded by a large box that encapsulates all of them. These levels move from atomist to cultural, each nested within the other: reception/operation, interface, form/function, code, platform. Surrounding all of this is the box of "Culture and Context". After this, M&B pursue the notion of software platforms, such as BASIC and Java. In conclusion, M&B offer twofold hopes for "platform studies":

  1. "new media studies of all sorts, by curious fans and devoted scholars, will look to the platform level more often and will explore how the plaform is relevant to the work, genre, or category of creative production". Here they cite both Galloway's Protocol and Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms as useful current examples of platform studies.
  1. "we hope that others will choose to undertake studies that center on platforms themselves. This encourages the comparison of works done on the same platform [...] It also can lead to a more holistic view of an integrated computer system, one that wouldn't be obtained by looking at a single program or a single component"

While the platform is understood by M&B as a computational phenomenon, Lisa Gitelman has considered her latest work on paper as part of a material "platform study".

The GamesEdit

The book is laid out according to 6 different games significant to the platform, that illuminate various issues relavent to the platform. They essential serve as "case-studies" for platform studies.

Chapter 2: CombatEdit

Combat was a demonstration of the Atari's capabilities--it was built to showcase the platform. In this chapter, M&B explain some of the issues with game memory, and provide some straightforward definitions of game technics. ROM [Read Only Memory]: memory that is read, not re-written (or rewritten with difficulty). It is nonvolatile--it doesn't have to remain powered to keep its contents. Mask ROM was the way forward, cheap to produced (though set-up cost was high) and more durable that tapes. The Atari MOS 6507 processor could only address 8k of ROM; cartridge interface lost a line and could only address 4k.

RE-READ to get a better understanding of Combat's coding.

A pixel, for Atari, was a unit of time, not of space. It was the smallest measure of time that can pass between changes to the electron beam's intensity as adjusted by the TIA. In Combat, the program used a two-line kernel, updating sprite graphics only every two scan lines (28-29).

Last section is a weird throw away about how people consider Combat to be a classic--and how it demonstrated the virility of the Atari platform, allowing for the platform "to do things that the original VCS developers--and the programmers of Combat--almost certainly never imagined" (42). The book is more or less interspersed with these momentary attempts at "cultural significance" but the authors often seem more invested in lauding the console than in explaining it.

Chapter 3: AdventureEdit

Adventure for Atari was programmed by Warren Robinett--first Atari employee with degree in computer science, and had spent time at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab [SAIL]. The original Adventure was designed by Crowther and Woods in 1976, and ran on the PDP-10. 2.5 bytes of playfield graphics were used--one half the screen size. The graphics were then mirrored--saving on memory

Adventure marks the first use of easter egg--used by Robinett to sign the game as his, since he was given no attribution or cut of profits. Atari found out later--but never did anything, probably because producing another masked ROM was 10k (60-61). This same anonimity is what caused 4 atari workers to quit and start activision.

Ends with the swan song of the text adventure, but does foreshadow collision and movement as the bedrock of gaming. Portions of this chapter are cribbed from Montfort's Twisty Little Passages.

Chapter 4: Pac-ManEdit

Pac-Man was a lesson on the failure of the port. Unable to get the game to transfer convincingly to a system not built for it, pacman was unsuccessful. This teaches us the failure of not considering a platform's limitations when porting a game, particularly one with such fan appeal as Pac-man (this dismay is also echoed in Weiss' Lucky Wander Boy). Ms. Pac-Man did offer more of an arcade experience by offering cut scenes and animations.

Chapter 5: Yar's RevengeEdit

Yar's Revenge was successful because it started out as a port, but the developer wanted to develop a game seriously meant for the platform rather than shoving a game into the platform. So instead of a Star Castle port, the designer made Yars Revenge, which was able to use the capability of the Atari to great advantage, maximizing on its qualities. It allowed for a range of player skills. Here the book offers a pleasant, but unexpected, tangent on arcade culture on pg. 85-87.

Chapter 6: Pitfall!Edit

Pitfall! was the first 3rd party game, produced by Activision (started by 4 defecting Atari employees). Activision starts, producing competition for the Atari cartridges. Note Carol Shaw, who created River Raid--first reference to a female programmer. Pitfall! was part of two significant genres: action adventure and side-scroller. The game also marks a different kind of home play--in 20 minute segments.

Chapter 7: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes BackEdit

This Star Wars franchise game was selected to show how "a compelling cinemtatic situation can be translated effectively into a videogame challenge" (16). Star Wars also marks a 3rd-party title, an increasing trend in video game productions. Another franchise game, E.T., would spell the end for Atari in 1983. In a sense, Star Wars and E.T. bookend the conversation begun with Combat.

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