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Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (Platform Studies) Hardcover – January 9, 2009

4.2 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Montfort & Bogost raise the bar on anyone wishing to talk meaningfully about computer culture. Not only must we interpret these machines, we must first know how they work -- and yes, sometimes this means knowing assembly code. From chip to controller, the authors lead us with ease through the Atari "2600" Video Computer System, one of the most emblematic devices in recent mass culture.

(Alexander Galloway, Associate Professor of Culture and Communication, New York University, and author of Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization)

Montfort and Bogost's analysis is both technically detailed and historically contextualized, both informative and methodologically instructive. They write with a rigor and grace that future contributors to the series may be at pains to match.

(Seth Perlow, Convergence)

Read it, it will do you good.

(José P. Zagal Game Studies)

Racing the Beam doesn"t spare the technical details, but is always accessible and compelling. Downright thrilling at times, in fact, a sort of The Right Stuff of video game development.

(Darren Zenko thestar.com (Toronto Star))

About the Author

Nick Montfort is Associate Professor of Digital Media at MIT. He is the coauthor of 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 and Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, the coeditor of The New Media Reader, and the author of Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, all published by the MIT Press.

Ian Bogost is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC, and the coauthor of Newsgames: Journalism at Play (MIT Press, 2010).

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Product Details

  • Series: Platform Studies
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; 2nd ptg edition (January 9, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 026201257X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262012577
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #322,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What a fascinating book. It's a terrific idea to examine the iconic Atari 2600 in this way, and the authors do a good job of exploring it at the lowest levels. They make a good case that the physical hardware design directly influenced the design of some of the device's most famous (and infamous) games, and that those early design tradeoffs themselves led to certain conventions still apparent in modern video game design. The book's organized around several key game cartridges, each of which is a case study to point out some aspect of the technical or cultural impact of the Atari; it's a really good way to organize the narrative.

If you've only ever worked with "modern" graphic computer technology (i.e. anything with pixels), you'll be really amazed at what the Atari programmers were able to do with the unbelievable constraints they had to work with. One of the most incredible things I learned was that the system had only 128 bytes of RAM, not even enough to store this sentence in memory. In contrast, the cheap laptop I'm writing this on has more than 9 million times as much RAM available. That is an almost unimaginable difference in scale.

Unfortunately, the book is really poorly written. The two authors obviously divided the subject into cultural and technical sections, each covering their own turf. The book tends to go back and forth between these topics, so there are weird changes in tone, references to ideas that haven't been introduced clearly, and an annoying use of jargon. Overall, the book suffers from the academic tendency to try to point out even the most mundane and obvious details ("the joysticks were connected to the unit by cables") as well as a total lack of understanding what the reader may know coming to the book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Racing The Beam" is a book on a delicious subject that suffers from serving multiple masters. Who is the target demographic here - is it the technogeek enthusiast? Or the Wired cultural sociologist? Maybe it's the Retro Gamer reader who has fond memories of the VCS platform and is looking for a bit of behind-the-scenes action. Authors Nick Monforst and Ian Bogost, whom seem to be hewing to the publisher's adage that every equation cuts your book sales in half, do the reader no favors by leaving out such appendix gold as a memory/register map of the VCS and something along the lines of a brief "Hello World" code example. Sound, which is the other half of the equation, gets even shorter shrift - if the hardware supposedly can't synthesize a chromatic scale in tune, how did later programmers like Synthcart's Paul Slocum get around this?

One of the book's problems is that the authors try to make the book seem timely by trying to force connections between its vintage software biopics and such breathtakingly unrelated modern titles as World Of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Tony Hawk Pro Skater. It's almost like the publisher was feeling nervous that nobody of college age could relate to such early games, which is a shame given that the stories are all fascinating in their own right. And on the hardware side, while the Apple II and C-64 get brief nods why are no comparisons drawn between the Atari VCS and Jay Miner's later designs incl. the Atari 400, 800 and Amiga? And what were the specs of the Mattel Intellivision anyway, seeing as how it gets mentioned so often as the VCS's main rival?

Any reader old enough to remember this hardware as a wood-grain box is probably going to have a few comments bordering on the personal, but let's keep things short.
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Format: Hardcover
A fact that I still can't entirely wrap my head around, after reading this book, is that the Atari 2600 had only a few hundred bytes of RAM. It had little enough RAM that the programmer had to very carefully time his graphics operations so that characters got drawn to the screen before the monitor's electron gun arrived. Unlike other game systems, the 2600 wasn't "frame-buffered": you couldn't draw an entire screen's worth of data, then push it to the screen all at once when the display refreshed.

This design limitation led to all manner of digital hacking, which somehow, miraculously, allowed the game industry -- and Atari in particular -- to flourish. Montfort and Bogost do a decent job explaining the technology, at a level somewhat above what most computer users can be expected to have; if you don't grok the concept of a CPU register, a good bit of Racing the Beam will be tough going for you.

Their larger project is to view the whole world of gaming -- from the code up to the artwork, to actually playing the game, to the social world around game consoles -- with an understanding of how the technology limits and frees all the layers above it. What significance is it, from the game player's perspective, that the Atari had special registers to render sprites? In what way did this free game designers? In what ways did it constrain them? The authors view videogames the way that many view art generally: as the act of overcoming the limitations of a medium. They believe that the lowest level of a game's design has largely been left out of discussions of the larger game story.

They manage to bring all the layers of gaming together reasonably well, but the book didn't wow me: I'd be unlikely to pursue any future books in the "Platform Series," of which Racing the Beam is the first.
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