Hackers, History, and Game Design: What Racing the Beam Is Notby José P. Zagal
Racing the Beam (RtB), by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, is the first book in the Platform Studies series published by MIT Press (2009). The book’s title refers to one of the principal challenges of VCS videogame programming: synchronizing computation with the television set’s unrelenting movement of an electron beam.1 The title is somewhat ironic since, at 180 pages, it is a slim volume that promises not only to present and explain platform studies as a scholarly method, but additionally do so in the context of one of videogaming’s most revered platforms: the Atari VCS. There’s a challenge.
Platform studies is a collection of approaches for studying digital media that focuses on the underlying computing systems and how they enable, constrain, shape, and support the creative work done on them (Bogost & Montfort, 2007). In a nutshell, it is an approach for understanding digital media that considers as its starting point the underlying technological ecosystem. It is a relatively straightforward idea. If it was that simple, however, Bogost and Montfort would not have felt the need to clarify some of its more common misconceptions: platform studies is all about hardware, it ignores culture, and it entails technological determinism (2009). Scholars using a platform studies approach should strive to unpack the black box a platform is often perceived as. Doing so enables the exploration of the platform’s relationship with the creative artifacts created for it as well as the creators behind them. This approach shows how technical understanding can provide insight by allowing us to connect technical details to culture more broadly. Rather than attempt to wrestle with how well this book stands up to the platform studies challenge, I will instead describe what this book is not.
Racing the Beam isn’t about Atari VCS hacking. If a hacker is “a person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular” (Malkin & Parker, 1993), then surely someone engaged in creative production on the Atari VCS meets that definition. Understanding hacks, how they work, and why they work, would seem a perfect match for this book. After all, most of the games discussed in RtB “required the creative adaptation of the machine’s technical features for new, unforeseen purposes” (pg. 51). They were hacks in the best sense of the word: clever programming tricks that squeezed performance and took advantage of the VCS’ flexibility. Many of these techniques are described in great detail, for example Howard Scott Warshaw’s use of computer code both as instruction for execution as well as graphic art in Yar’s Revenge (pg. 93-94), or how Rick Maurer’s Space Invaders port featured a greater number of moving objects on screen than were supposedly technically possible (pg. 73). However, RtB isn’t a guidebook of technical tips and tricks. Neither is it a technical manual for the VCS. Someone looking to start programming for the VCS would do better to look elsewhere. While the book is undeniably technical, it is also peppered with social, cultural, and historical information.
Racing the Beam isn’t about the history of the VCS. There are a variety of books that explain and describe the early years of videogames. Some have broadly examined the early years (e.g. Burnham, 2001; Kent, 2001), while others focus more closely on key figures, companies, or games themselves (e.g. Hague, 2002; Sellers, 2001; Sheff, 1993). RtB joins these books as another gold mine of information on the golden age of videogames with, for example, insights on early practices regarding licensed properties in games (Chapter 7), the history of cartridge based videogame platforms (Chapter 1), and more. The authors also provide details of the social, cultural, and economic context in which the platform was used. This provides a sense of the causal relations between events that explain why certain decisions were made regarding the platform and how it is that certain games came to be. As a history of the VCS, however, the book is perhaps lacking in breadth and it isn’t clear how it was researched. Perhaps the voices of those who produced creative work are less prevalent than they should and it isn’t clear what sources should be considered as primary. This, however, is beside the point really, since the book’s final chapter (Chapter 9), which focuses on the platform’s legacy and impact, is primarily an argument for the platform’s relevance as seen through the eyes of homebrew programmers and artists that continue to experiment and create for it. The message is clear: hardware obsolescence does not imply platform obsolescence. Platforms are timeless, and our understanding of them should not be seen only in historical terms. While there is plenty about the past in this book, it is ultimately more about the present.
Racing the Beam isn’t about game design. I’ve argued elsewhere that classic arcade games are the primordial soup from which many of the current conventions of game design were first proposed, explored, and tested (Zagal, Fernandez-Vara, & Mateas, 2008). Montfort and Bogost provide evidence that the early home videogames were no different. Their analyses of Adventure and Pitfall! (Chapters 3 and 6) describe seminal games that inspired and influenced the development of what we now call the action-adventure and platform genres. Readers interested in game design are also provided with rich descriptions of the process that, among others, Warren Robinett and Howard Scott Warshaw went through when creating Adventure and Yar’s Revenge respectively (Chapters 3 and 5). Their examples are insightful case studies of a process of adaptation and accommodation that illustrates the trade-offs and decisions made when borrowing ideas, inspiration, and game designs from other platforms. Montfort and Bogost also examine Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as a case study of success in remediation (Chapter 7). Their analysis explores how Rex Bradford created a videogame that provided a unique experience while resonating powerfully with its source material. Those interested in game design will undoubtedly learn both from the insights of the creators as well as from the analysis of the games presented. The book is, in fact structured around games with chapters two through eight each dedicated to a notable VCS title: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yar’s Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. More generally, this book is an in-depth illustration of how game design, as a process, can follow multiple trajectories and the role that technical, cultural, organizational and social issues play in determining what the final product may look like. However, this book isn’t a game design practicum: there are no rules of thumb, techniques for playtesting, brainstorming, or ideas for managing a creative process.
It would seem that this book is a little bit of everything, but not enough of anything in particular. What then are Racing the Beam’s primary contributions? The first is a contribution to our understanding of the Atari VCS. RtB is an accessible nostalgia-free in-depth examination of a broadly recognized and fondly remembered icon of the videogame revolution. It is a book that both retro-videogame enthusiasts and scholars should have on their bookshelves. The books’ second contribution concerns platforms more broadly. Montfort and Bogost’s book is a coherent, solid, and compelling argument for the importance and timelessness of computational platforms. It demonstrates why we should look underneath the creative artifacts that seem to consume most of our scholarly and leisurely attentions. It is an argument that resonates strongly in a day and age when, thanks to requirements for interoperability, we strive for platform invisibility2 while simultaneously desiring unique interactive experiences that are ultimately platform dependent. SEGA’s Genesis was famous for what the Nintendidn’t, Sony’s Playstation 2 promised us emotions, and more recently, Nintendo’s Wii platform re- imagined videogame experiences for an audience that didn’t play videogames. Platforms are timeless, they shape our experiences and we need to better understand how they do so. Thanks to this book, that argues how the flexibility and constraints of the VCS shaped the videogames we play today, we have an argument for the relevance of any platform, regardless of how dated its technology may be.
Racing the Beam’s third and perhaps most significant contribution is one that is not explicitly discussed in the book. Racing the Beam is also an argument for a different conception of scholarly work in digital media. In the sciences, a distinction is often made between formal, rigorous academic publications and popular science writing. The goal of popular science writing is to capture the methods, accuracy, and problems of science while using language that is accessible to the general public. When successful, it can inform and convince outsiders (non-scientists or scientists in other fields) of the significance of certain findings and conclusions. A good scientist will contribute to his field, a great one will not only contribute to his field but also make his contributions accessible to everyone else. Racing the Beam is an example that does both by neatly navigating the academic and popular. It is simultaneously videogame erudition for the masses and popular writing with substance. After all, not only has it been reviewed in academic circles such as this journal3, but also in gaming websites4, newspapers, and more. It was also nominated by Game Developer Magazine for its 2009 Front Line Awards in the category of best book. Indeed, RtB’s reach is as broad as it is successful.
Some may criticize this book for being anecdotal, inadequately sourced or lacking academic rigor in its analysis. Others may argue that many of its conclusions seem arbitrary, that alternate explanations weren’t explored, that the authors didn’t talk to enough people, or perhaps didn’t talk to the right people. They would be missing the point. RtB is an argument about digital media. It recognizes that games and their platforms are already accessible. We are studying something that, literally billions of people engage with, talk about, and discuss in their daily lives. There is no need to make our work accessible to the general public. The general public already knows a lot about games. They are already aware of the broader cultural and social context. Many are also intimately familiar with many of the technological issues: witness the existence of game modding, the emulator scene, 8-bit artists, homebrew game projects, and more. Racing the Beam is thus a shy manifesto that manages to bite academics where it hurts. It berates us for focusing first on theories and in-depth understanding before making them accessible to the general public. Rather, we should start from that which is readily understood and build upon that knowledge while never missing sight of the real target: informing and convincing outsiders to the field of the significance of our findings, insights, and conclusions. Racing the Beam is a stellar example of just that: a book with substance for everyone. Read it, it will do you good.
1 Usually three beams, actually, one each for red, green, and blue.
2 I want my videogames to run anywhere and on any hardware I own!
3 E.g. Digital Culture and Education (http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/volume-1/bookreview_apperley_2009/) and Leonardo On-Line (http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/sept2009/jackson_racing.html)
4 E.g. Crispy Gamer (http://www.crispygamer.com/columns/2009-03-09/print-screen-racing-the-beam-and-street-fighter-the-legend-of-chunli.aspx) and Retro Thing (http://www.retrothing.com/2009/02/racing-the-beam-inside-the-atari-2600.html)
Bogost, I., & Montfort, N. (2007). New Media as Material Constraint: An Introduction to Platform Studies. Paper presented at the 1st International HASTAC Conference. from http://www.bogost.com/downloads/Bogost%20Montfort%20HASTAC.pdf
Bogost, I., & Montfort, N. (2009). Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers. Paper presented at the Digital Arts and Culture (DAC) 2009.
Burnham, V. (2001). Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Hague, J. (2002). Halcyon Days:Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers: http://www.dadgum.com/halcyon/index.html
Kent, S. L. (2001). The Ultimate History of Videogames. Roseville, California: Prima Publishing.
Malkin, G. S., & Parker, T. L. (1993). Internet User's Glossary - RFC 1392. Retrieved from http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1392
Montfort, N., & Bogost, I. (2009). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
Sellers, J. (2001). Arcade Fever: The Fan's Guide to the Golden Age of Videogames. London: Running Press.
Sheff, D. (1993). Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry , Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children. New York, NY: Random House.
Zagal, J. P., Fernandez-Vara, C., & Mateas, M. (2008). Rounds, Levels, and Waves: The Early Evolution of Gameplay Segmentation. Games and Culture, 3(2), 175-198.