SAN FRANCISCO--If you draw a straight line representing the evolution of video games from the Atari 2600 to the Nintendo Wii, one thing is clear: if you don't know your past, you can't know your future.
That was the central lesson of Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost's Friday talk at the Game Developers Conference here, "Learning from the Atari 2600." Essentially, Bogost argued, it's not always necessary to reinvent the wheel; sometimes, instead of being discarded as so much arcane, the discoveries of the past are best adapted for the future.
Bogost and MIT assistant professor Nick Monfort recently published Racing the Beam, a book about the iconic Atari VCS, popularly known as the 2600. So Bogost's talk Friday was clearly drawn from the research for that project. And while his fondness for the 1970s-era video game console was evident, the point he was really trying to make was that the seeds of successful games--especially those enjoyed by large groups of diverse people--have very little to do with the latest and greatest technology and much more to do with mechanics that make for enjoyable shared experiences.
For Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, a former carnival barker, the bloodlines that led to the 2600 were three things, Bogost argued: the fun-for-the-whole-family excitement of a midway, the shared competition of a game of darts played in a tavern, and the gather-around-the-TV sense of family time afforded by the den. At the same time, Bushnell wanted to repeat the success he'd had with coin-op arcade games like "Pong," but for the home.
What he was after was what Nintendo has also tried to build into its Wii: a feeling that people can have fun doing something together. That's why going to the movies is so much fun, or going out with friends to a bar: because it's something people can do together, in a social space, whether they're competing or not.
And it's about context, Bogost said. You can drink at home, but it's not as fun as doing it in a bar. Or you play pool in your house, but it's not the same thing as doing it with friends at the local tavern. And while no video game system can replicate being out in public, the right mix of game mechanics and tools can allow people to feel like they're in the middle of a social scene, even if they're in their living room.
"That's why Wii Bowling is the best game in the Wii Sports collection," Bogost said. "It really re-creates the experience and context" of real bowling.
"So what we see, I think in the (2600)," Bogost said, "is the adaptation of familiar subjects for familiar spaces."
He talked about the successes and failures of some of the games designed for the 2600, explaining that, for example, the original 2600 Pac-Man game didn't work because its designers didn't do a good job of adapting many of the atmospheric elements of the original arcade version. For example, it was missing the familiar music, as well as the animation of Pac-Man chomping and turning as he made his way around the maze. … Read more