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The History of Atari: 1971-1977

November 6, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 20 Next

Mt. Fuji towers 3776 meters as Japan’s highest mountain. It’s a striking landmark, one that rises almost impossibly out of an unassuming plain to a pinnacle of ice-capped beauty. After its mammoth breadth is realized, it settles back down again into a valley as if it was never there. It was formed by a volcanic eruption about 10,000 years ago, and has since been worshipped as a sacred landmark by the Japanese. In the shadow of that mountain, the people of Japan have played a strategy game named Go for thousands of years.

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji, taken by Asela Jayarathne

First created in China about 2000 B.C., Go is a compelling and subtle strategy game. It vies with Parcheesi as the world’s oldest game that still exists in its original form. Go is unique, in that there are literally trillions -- if not an infinite number -- of board combinations. So many, in fact, that it is theorized that no two Go games played have ever been, or will ever be the same. Yet the game looks so simple -- just a series of black and white stones placed on a 19x19 grid.

Some players have described the binary pattern of stones as a thing of beauty, with the game attaining a level of complexity at times so vast, the players put more emphasis the complex stone patterns to help them decide their next move, then on any sort of strategy.

It’s no small wonder that the simple beauty of a game like Go appealed to the college campus computer hackers of the 1960s. While chess was still very popular, its regimented opening moves and seemingly finite strategies were more in-tune with the “powers that be” than with new movements based on social change. Computer hackers were opening new doors to information that were only dreamed about a decade prior.

Go’s binary nature -- like that of a computer -- appealed greatly to these pioneering computer enthusiasts. It was a game of infinity, that could be explored and experimented upon, just like the computing machines the hackers coveted so much. However, the infuriating part of Go is that it’s almost impossible to master. For a group of people who wanted to explore every nook, cranny, and corner of a computer, the inability to “master”, this must have been both cathartic and frustrating.

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was a Go player who learned the hacker ethic at the University of Utah. When Bushnell finally decided on the name for his pioneering video game company, he called it “Atari”. In Go terms this is like saying “watch the hell out, I’m just about to win the game”. A couple years later, Atari would adopt a curious looking logo -- a three-part, vertically split triangle, that looked a bit like an “A”, but more like a mountain.

This symbol would commonly be known as the “Fuji”, and it was under its shadow that an entire new industry was created. It was also under this shadow that the simple lessons of Go would affect the design of video games in their first decade. The “simple to learn, difficult to master” game design philosophy is the one that helped propel Atari’s games from mild parlor amusements into the psyche of an entire generation.

The Engineer Entertainer

Born in 1943 in Clearfield, Utah, the founder of the modern video games industry, Nolan Bushnell, always loved playing games.

“I can remember playing Monopoly and Clue with my neighborhood friends, chess incessantly. I played tournament chess. I played #2 board at Utah State University. I’ve always been a game player, period” i
-Nolan Bushnell

He also loved science. His world was upended in 3rd grade he was given a science assignment by his teacher Mrs. Cook.

“The spark was ignited when I was assigned to do the unit on electricity and got to play with the science box. I remember constantly making stuff as a kid that amazed my friends using electricity.” ii - Nolan Bushnell

With a love of play, and a love of science, an engineer entertainer was born.

Article Start Page 1 of 20 Next

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