When I was ten, my brother and I would get up early on Saturdays, swipe the quarters off our dressers, and wait outside Zip’z, a local ice cream / “make you your own sundae” shop so we could be the first inside to play Asteroids. As a Gen X child of the ’80s, my formative years were deeply shaped by the dawn of the videogame era. Aside from the Six-Million-Dollar Man and Bo Derek, few things obsessed me more than Pong, Space Invaders, and Asteroids.
So naturally, I was drawn to the recent longform feature on the birth of Pong, the first popular video game you could play at pizza places and restaurants. Atari Teenage Riot: The Inside Story Of Pong and the Video Game Industry’s Big Bang by Chris Stokel-walker looks at the people behind the came and how it launched the home video game industry, which is now bigger and more profitable than the movie business.
Art by Buzzfeed
[Just as an aside, let me take my writer hat off for a second and put on my designer hat: this story, as posted on Buzzfeed, has a wild and entertaining layout packed with animated graphics and retro-styled artwork (sample above), so be sure to check it out there rather than on any aggregator or reader-friendly tool like Instapaper or Pocket. The design really enhances the story and evokes the goofy, campy vibe of early Atari era.]
The story draws from interviews with the key players at Atari to build a straightforward chronological history of the birth of the first mass-market video game. He explores the roots of the industry in the 1960’s, how the creators came together, how game was built, the competition they faced, and how the business grew. Chris Stokel-walker infuses the story with a authentic sense of reverence, treating the story of Pong as if he were tracing the steps of Civil War figures. It opens with a focus on building that used to be Andy Capp’s Tavern, the first bar to have Pong available for customers.
He doesn’t lose focus of the characters in the narrative, which help make the history feel more vivid that it would be if it focused more on the technology:
In spite of the cramped Ampex office, Bushnell and Dabney became close when Bushnell asked Dabney to learn the Japanese board game Go so he would have a playing partner. “We’d only play at lunch,” Bushnell says — the idea of goofing off during the day was anathema to him. The duo graduated from a cheap and flimsy board to one handcrafted from a $6 offcut.
“I carved the board out of an inch-and-a-half-thick board and put a Videofile logo on the other side so it could hang on the wall,” Dabney recalls. When the two played, the board sat on top of a trash can, a coincidental foreshadowing of the future: The original Pong prototype in Andy Capp’s would sit squat on top of a barrel, people huddled around it.
Go was useful in another way as the two young men left Ampex to eventually launch their video game venture: When the local authorities told Bushnell and Dabney that a roofing contractor had already claimed the nerd-friendly sobriquet Sygyzy, they used a term from Go that was equivalent to chess’s “check” for their newly incorporated company: . Anglicized, that spells Atari.
After Bushnell and Dabney left Ampex, many of their colleagues thought they were crazy. “I felt kind of sorry for Nolan and Ted,” says engineer Al Alcorn, who would shortly join them. “They were quitting a good career at Ampex to go off and do this strange thing. That was the conventional wisdom: Where did these guys go wrong?”
The story also has great anecdotes about the unexpected addictive popularity of Pong, which, in retrospect, seems quaint and naive:
Within a few days, Bill Gattis, who ran the bar, was on the phone to Atari. “The machine had stopped working; I was told to go fix it,” Alcorn explains. ”I stopped over on my way home from work, and much to my surprise, the coin box was overflowing, gushing with quarters.”
“It’s weird,” Gattis told Alcorn as he counted the impressive bounty. “I’ve got guys at my doorstep at 10 a.m. when the place opens. They’re not drunks. They come in, play the Pong game, and don’t buy any beer.” Alcorn listened, and swapped out the milk jug for something a little bigger — a bread pan.
As a history of the game, the story is thoroughly and exhaustively reported. The research and homework are evident. My one quibble with the feature is that there’s more telling than showing in the piece. The story’s strengths are the interviews Stokel-walker had with founders Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn, but aside from some quick descriptions of their height or age, we don’t really “see” either men or how they live now. We don’t get much sense of their personality. The reader gets only a passing sense of these men and a wealth of their recollections. I can’t really tell from the story whether he met them in person or talked to them over the phone.
One thing I’ve always admired about the work of Malcolm Gladwell is that when he interviews people, he almost always gives the reader a rich sense of what that person and their office or workplace looks like — you feel like you’re in the space with Gladwell and can see each person as a living character in his story. I wish Stokel-walker had done more of that here. The story is close to 5000 words, and he covers a lot of ground in that space, but it would have been great if he could have slowed down a little and provided the reader with more visual details and description. Longer would have been fine. I get the sense that when writing and editing this story, he had to leave a lot of great stuff in his notes. If Stokel-walker releases a book-length version of this story, I’m buying it.
Still, this is a fine story and must-read for interested in the early days of the video game era. Stokel-walker presents a rich history of the birth of an industry.