Thursday, January 7, 2016


Maybe we didn't have multi-function, ergonomic controllers or sky's-the-limit hi-res graphics, but we got to see the first games- ever- appear in arcades and in stores during the Star Wars and Disco-fueled 1970s. With just a few well-placed dots, our imaginations filled in the rest, and we were transported to the worlds of Pac Man, Berzerk, Defender, and Asteroids. I loved playing demos of the Atari 2600 in our local department store, where I first saw the system in 1977. My dad had just moved us far away from friends and family to northern Washington, where our meager dinner table often depended on what he could catch scuba diving off the coast. Spending money on a video game seemed too extravagant, though I did manage to score quarters for my visits to the arcade downtown. Like the generations that followed, I felt the drive to play as often as possible so I could improve my scores. No game whipped me into a frenzy like Defender, where painful calluses and heart-pumping anxiety inspired my first epiphany about obsession and moderation. My favorite was probably Berzerk, which featured Cylon-like robots and electronic sounds that, in some ways, helped to prepare me for Kraftwerk, YMO, and DEVO. But most of all I was fascinated by the graphics of the early games and they still hold a special place for me. I'm currently gearing up to teach a High School course inspired by Ready Player One by Ernie Cline and I hope to recreate a number of the trials from the novel. To get into the spirit, I finally picked up that Atari 2600 system I had wanted so much back in '77. I was browsing through cool Transformers and Star Wars toys at a bi-annual toy show here in the Bay Area when I spotted a large box on the floor filled with controllers, games, and an immaculate 2600. The woodgrain glowed like a million suns from inside the box. It was love at first sight. The guy gave me a great deal on the whole collection and I burned rubber back up 101 to plug it into my flatscreen. Sitting on the floor like a kid, I tried my best to help Pac Man, avoid the killer robots in Berzerk, and to disintegrate asteroids. But that Defender will have to wait for another day. Here is a sample of some of those games designed for arcades and for the 2600. Enjoy!

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