November 2000: "Atari"

April 2001: "Stumbling In and out of the Past Tense: from the Monster Diaries"


November 2000: "Atari"

So I bought an Atari 2600 at a Salvation Army store down the street a few weeks ago. It was one of those purchases that you don’t pre-plan, but inevitable. I brought it back to my apartment, meticulously cleaned it of its decade of neglect, and then propped my chin up on my elbows and stared at my work. An Atari. This was a technological paradigm shift that I was staring at. Its one of those designs that makes everything else after it look like a cheap imitation, or a blatant counter-design to the original. The Atari, like the Ford Model-T, the Ray and Charles Eames chair, and the i-mac, is an historical contingency.

The Atari 2600 VCS (video computer system) was released to the market in October 1977 after the market-smash success of Pong, the first arcade game (“Atari” the word comes from the world’s oldest board game, the game of Go). The Atari 2600, though not quite the first home console system, was definitely the first to popularize this form of entertainment world-wide. And in fact, it is the longest market-running home gaming system ever made (Atari manufactured 2600 systems from 1977 until 1989, a total of 12 years). Originally offered with only 9 games, the Atari 2600 would soon have literally countless numbers of games made for it. The founder of Atari and the maker of Pong soon left the company in 1978, a year after the inception of the 2600, and purchased Pizza Time Theater (which later became Chuck E Cheese!). Then 4 more people left the company and formed the first ever third party software company, Activision. This, in particular proved to be a major problem for Atari since Activision was making games for Atari and Atari wasn’t making any money from these games. Eventually, Atari got Activision and any other future third party software company to pay them a royalty for every game sold. Once it was in legal writing, hundreds of third party software companies started springing up out of no where and flooded the market with Atari games which eventually lead to its downfall. Companies such as Coleco, Venturevision, 20’th Century Fox, Tigervision, Data Age, Imagic, the porn-Atari game company Mystique, and many others all contributed hundreds upon hundreds of games to the American and European markets. By 1984 the gaming market began to slow down (except for the excessive making of Atari game cartridges), and by 1986, no one but Atari was bothering with the industry. The American public had been overdosed like they had with disco, and every game company foresaw the market as a lost cause. Then, the Japanese imported the Nintendo and the home computer game industry rose from the dead. While Atari created newer and better systems to compete with the NES, they continued to manufacture 2600 systems and games continued to be made for it until 1989. Finally in 1989, Atari retired the 2600 to the American public (although it was still manufactured for other countries).

Interesting side fact, something called “Gameline” allowed people to download and play games using the phone lines. It required that the Atari user buy a certain 800 baud modem. The television commercials, if you remember them, included the following funny Q&A: Q: “What will happen if I don't join Gameline?" A: "Eventually, you'll be the only one on your block without Gameline. Your friends will have mastered new games before you even hear about them. Are you willing to take that chance?” While this didn’t last, part of the remains of this company reincarnated into a company called America On-line (so you see, Wormfree, you owe part of your existence to Atari).

This Atari kick is something I'm doing for myself to fulfill a long-lost childhood wish. I always wanted an Atari. I used to go over to friends and friends of friends houses just to play their Atari. But now I have a working 2600 with nine games and 2 more on the way in the mail (one being Pitfall!). There are still companies today making new Atari games, which has gotten me to fantasize about making my own Atari game some day (first I must learn basic, something I started to do when I was 12 but never finished). If I made my own Atari game, I think I’d call it “Space.” Not Space Invaders, not Outer Space, not Space Wars, not Space Pigs (oh, that’s Pigs in Space), just Space. It would be a fun game to play. What game would you make if you could make your own Atari game?

(Atari history information from this column was gleaned from the website Atari2600Nexus.com and the FAQ linked to that page)


April 2001: "Stumbling In and out of the Past Tense: from the Monster Diaries"

Woke up but didn't feel awake. Stumbled out of bed and into the shower. Threw some clothes on and stumbled out the door. On my way to my 8:00 class...

The sky overhead is overcast and the morning air already feels hot. Its going to be a scorcher...

I can't remember the last time I went to class and felt so tired! Usually when I feel this tired, I just fall back asleep and skip the class. How had I managed to get up this morning? Here I was, walking on the familiar path to class-- as if I had just woken up at this very moment! I don't remember stumbling out of bed. I don't remember taking a shower. I don't remember putting on clothes...

A sudden feeling of panic swept over me. My hands went to my legs... pants! I was wearing pants, thank God. I had remembered to put on clothes. Of course I had. What was I thinking? My hair was still wet from the shower. Had I taken a shower? I couldn't remember...

The humanities building was just 50 feet away now. I was beginning to pass people on the sidewalk. Nobody I knew. I passed a young woman: fair skinned, possibly of Scandinavian descent, plump, wearing a sun dress and clogs too small for her fat heels. She gave me a quick glance of... disgust? What was her problem? Another woman steps out from behind a car. Beautiful. Worldly. Wearing sunglasses. What in the world was that all about? Her mouth opened into a wide grin, eyebrows angled knowingly-- like she knew something about me. What? Was their something wrong with me?

I walked into the building. Lots of people in the hallway. Were they looking at me? No. Nobody was looking at me. I'm just paranoid. Its because I'm afraid I forgot to do something important this morning before I stumbled out of my house. Or maybe I did something that I shouldn't have! I might have been asleep. I can't remember...

But wait... nobody was looking at me, at least not directly. That's it! These people are purposefully not looking at me! They are trying not to look in my direction. Something is wrong with me. Everyone can plainly see that there is something bizarre about me today. What is it? Maybe I'm still imagining things-- there! That guy to the left just shot me a glance out of the corner of his eye. That girl! She did too. More people are turning to look now! I can see them from the corner of my eyes as I pass them. They are all turning to stare-- all lined up on the sides of the hallway. Gawking with full gaze-- I can feel their eyes on my back! I've got to know for sure...

Caught you! The girl with the dark hair quickly looked away as I spun around. But not quick enough. There! More people to my left. Now lots of people to my right! No! Now they really are staring and aren't bothering to turn away. My suspicions are confirmed now. I'm staring straight into the evidence. I see they see it. What could be wrong with me? If I only knew...

One guy- a smirk. One girl- horrified! Another guy- defensive! Another girl- horrified! She puts her hand over her open mouth. Another! And another! And another! There is something horribly wrong with me! What? I feel my face. Nothing out of the ordinary as far as I can tell. No buggers. No crusty things. No pimples. My hair? Still a little wet from the shower. Was there shampoo in my hair? No, my fingers aren't sudsy. My legs. My feet! No... socks are matching. Shoes are on the right feet, double knotted. My pants. Maybe I peed in my pants this morning! No, pants were dry. So was the seat. Underwear wasn't showing either. My back? Something stuck to my back? No. Nothing strange there. My arms?

Someone rudely laughs out loud. I can't stand it anymore! I've got to know what's shaming me so much! I've got to know what makes me stand out-- why everyone is staring...

"WHAT IS IT? WHAT'S WRONG WITH ME?" I hear myself scream.

The building falls quiet. Dead quiet. Everyone is staring. From floors above, from the stairs coming up from below, and up and down the hallway all the way out the door. A professor pokes his head out of a class room, takes his glasses off as his eyes widen and jaw drops open. "Look at that!" someone in a classroom blurts out. Feet are shuffling and desks squeaking as students file out of the classrooms from every direction to whisper under their breath and stare at the...