Racing the Beam
Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort, editors
Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost,
Racing the Beam
The Atari Video Computer System
Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost
The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England
(c) 2009 Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or
mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval)
without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Racing the beam : the Atari video computer system / Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-262-01257-7 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Video games--Equipment and supplies.
2. Atari 2600 (Video game console) 3. Computer games--Programming. 4. Video games--
United States--History. I. Bogost, Ian. II. Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Series Foreword vii
1 Stella 1
2 Combat 19
3 Adventure 43
4 Pac-Man 65
5 Yars' Revenge 81
6 Pitfall! 99
Star Wars: The Empire
Strikes Back 119
Afterword on Platform Studies 145
How can someone create a breakthrough game for a mobile phone or a
compelling work of art for an immersive 3D environment without under-
standing that the mobile phone and the 3D environment are different
sorts of computing platforms? The best artists, writers, programmers,
and designers are well aware of how certain platforms facilitate certain
types of computational expression and innovation. Likewise, computer
science and engineering has long considered how underlying computing
systems can be analyzed and improved. As important as scientifi c and
engineering approaches are, and as signifi cant as work by creative artists
has been, there is also much to be learned from the sustained, intensive,
humanistic study of digital media. We believe it is time for those of us in
the humanities to seriously consider the lowest level of computing systems
and to understand how these systems relate to culture and creativity.
The Platform Studies book series has been established to promote
the investigation of underlying computing systems and how they enable,
constrain, shape, and support the creative work that is done on them. The
series investigates the foundations of digital media: the computing
systems, both hardware and software, that developers and users depend
upon for artistic, literary, gaming, and other creative development. Books
in the series certainly vary in their approaches, but they all also share
a focus on a single platform or a closely related family of platforms
technical rigor and in-depth investigation of how computing tech-
an awareness of and discussion of how computing platforms exist in
a context of culture and society, being developed based on cultural
concepts and then contributing to culture in a variety of ways--for
instance, by affecting how people perceive computing
We are very grateful for all of the work that was done by the original devel-
opers of the Atari VCS and by the programmers of cartridges for that
system. We also thank those who replied to our questions about game
development on the system and emulation of the system: Bill Bracy, Rex
Bradford, David Crane, Jeff Vavasour, and Howard Scott Warshaw.
Thanks to those who helped us to formulate these ideas about the
Atari VCS and about platform studies, including Kyle Buza, Chris Craw-
ford, Mark Guzdial, D. Fox Harrell, Steven E. Jones, Matthew G. Kirschen-
baum, Jane McGonigal, Jill Walker Rettberg, and Jim Whitehead.
We greatly appreciate the work that Roger Bellin and Dexter Palmer
did in organizing the Form, Culture, and Video Game Criticism confer-
ence at Princeton University on 6 March 2004. This conference prompted
the fi rst scholarship leading to this book. Thanks also to students in Ian
Bogost's Videogame Design and Analysis class on the Atari VCS (Georgia
Tech, Spring 2007): Michael Biggs, Sarah Clark, Rob Fitzpatrick, Mark
Nelson, Nirmal Patel, Wes St. John, and Josh Teitelbaum. Thanks as well
to Peter Stallybrass and the participants in his History of Material Texts
Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania.
We greatly appreciate the work of modern-day Atari VCS program-
mers and analysts, which has made our study of the system easier and has
allowed us to continue to enjoy the console in new ways. Particular thanks
go to the moderators and contributors to the AtariAge forums.