Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America

By Michael Z. Newman. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017. 264 pp. $29.95. ISBN 9780262035712.


Michael Z. Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (2017) captures the moment video games came to prominence in the United States and provides a useful framework for understanding how media derive their powerful cultural associations. Atari Age tells the story of early video games with an attention to space and movement—their arrival in disreputable arcades and pool halls, their transition to the newly built shopping malls of the 1980s, and, finally, their domestication in the media rooms of middle class Regan-era suburbia. In Newman’s theoretical framework (a retread of Bolter and Grusin’s remediation mixed with a sprinkle of Pinch and Bjiker’s interpretive flexibility), media do not exist as isolated, unitary entities. Instead, emergent media are always already bound up with established modes of representation: “New media begin in a period of mysterious uncertainty and potential, a period of becoming, but eventually they are integrated into markets, regulatory frameworks, and the patterns of everyday life” (p. 1).  According to the book’s argument, the cultural associations of media are comprised of a set of relations that point back to earlier media, a constant process of see and see also references that form a horizon of intelligibility within which members of the culture encounter and use media. Early video games, the author argues, “became youthful, masculine, and middle class not by accident, but through the negotiation of their identity in relation to those earlier media [television, film, computers] against or alongside which they were understood” (p. 11). Newman’s work addresses audiences in communication, media studies, games studies, informatics, American studies, and science and technology studies; readers interested in the technical aspects of early video consoles or fan-service reminiscence will likely be disappointed.


Atari Age is largely the story of how video games achieved their curious duality in American culture: on the one hand, video games are commercially successful and culturally significant, a kind of gendered, high-tech field of play enjoyed by millions. On the other hand, video games are suspect, morally implicated in acts of sloth, bias, and violence. Newman describes these cultural frames as derived from “lived social relations of power that place the medium in popular imagination by identifying with some users and not others, some purposes and not others, some ideals and not others” (p. 11). Pop culture serves as both object of study here and as as a rich archive. The author reads and recontextualizes news stories, toy catalogs, packaging, television programming, trade publications, and a great many other kinds of non-traditional records to tell the story of the first decade of video games, from 1972’s Pong to 1983’s Pac-Man. Social scientific work from the time period serves to explain how intellectuals and academics responded to the new media. Although Newman focuses on the emergent, inchoate phase of popular understandings of media, he leaves hanging the question of reinterpretation or change. To wit, how and under what circumstance popular culture might change its collective mind about what a given technology means remains unexplored, even as these pages make clear how profoundly video games have changed since 1972. Newman deftly weaves histories of home design, boy culture, journalism, education, consumerism, and many other seemingly distant themes to paint a dynamic background for his study, each chapter describing an aspect of how video games came to be read as masculine, youthful, middle-class entertainment. Each section picks up (and swiftly set down) a different set of theretical tools and a different aspect of early game culture, a way of working through discourses around games that stabilized their meaning and counter-discourses that kept this understanding unresolved or somehow controversial.


With its synthetic methodological approach and highly readable prose, Atari Age displays the author’s skill and depth as a seasoned academic writer, as well as a daringly sentimental connection to the subject. Early in the text, the author criticizes nostalgic approaches to media history that depict beloved, bygone machines “as tokens of moments past and experiences of innocence or the trials of coming of age” (p. 30). While such depictions are absent, a different kind of nostalgia powers Atari Age, a critical nostalgia that keeps the contingency of past events in play in the interpretation of the “material and conceptual qualities” of our intimate engagements with media (p. 11). In this way, Atari Age revels in nostalgia, never quite masking its zeal for its subject, even as it attempts to address contemporary and historical concerns with gender in the high-tech industries specifically and in the technological imaginary more generally. Atari Age privileges (and constructs) “ordinary” people and “popular imagination” (p. 11). Like all acts of interpretation, the creation of meaning has to happen from somewhere, from a specific, situated subjectivity: Newman’s concedes immediately that his approach “may emphasize common meanings at the expense of peculiar or minority visions” (p. 11). While the author is clear that concerns with gender and class interests him, he is equally clear that concern with race do not. This is a majoritarian read of culture, where popular consciousness, commercial success, and cultural relevance substitute for one another freely. While these slippages undermine what is an otherwise airtight analysis, Atari Age manages an unusual feat: it convincingly describes an episode in the long computerization of everyday American life, one that recaptures both the promise and threat held in the charged figure of the video game.  


Roderic Crooks, University of California, Irvine, Department of Informatics