ENG 730: Atari, Design Constraints, and Ecology

Thinking through Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam, I was reminded a bit of some of the conversations we had last class regarding design and the material constraints that technology imposes.

I think the role of hardware struck me particularly with questions of porting. As they write regarding Pac-Man‘s port to the Atari, “Porting a graphical video game from one computer platform (the arcade board) to another (the Atari VCS) does not demand a change in fundamental or representational of functional mode.  Both versions are games, rule-based representations of an abstract challenge of hunter and hunted. Where the two versions diverge is in their technical foundations–in their platforms” (67).

This is a key observation, as it hits at the material implications of replicating player experience or game cohesion across platforms. The invention process of remaking a game for a different system requires ample creativity when the systems are different enough–particularly in graphic affordances and machine communication.  In this way, the designer is not making new content or rules, but they are making a new means to express the content or rules, a new way to interface with the machine to attain a similar end. With this situation in mind, I think about parallels with translation or transcription, but I wonder how far those alphabetic, or at least textual, metaphors can apply in this case. In both cases, one is working in different systems, but the technology of a semiotic system differs from the technology of a video game hardware.

And outside of porting, the material still plays a role, as the Yar’s Revenge chapter points to. Tasked with making a port of the arcade game Star Castle, Howard Scott Warshaw decided, instead, to make a new game that better suited the Atari platform, using core elements from Star Castle to produce this. As he said, “I soon realized that a decent version couldn’t be done, so I took what I thought were the top logical and geometric components of Star Castle and reorganized them in a way that would better suit the machine” (qtd. in Montford and Bogost 82). Though a port was the original goal, the final product differed due to the technology.

Reflecting on the role of the machine, Montfort and Bogost don’t fall into a technological determinism, though, but instead note that “the platform participates in the ecology of game development” (82). And this points to my second big takeaway: the machine is not enough. Discussing Pac-Man, for example, Montfort and Bogost write, “The situation of Pac-Man‘s development and release was historically unique. The technical affordances of the Atari VCS itself are further bound, at any point in time, to the types of innovations that have already been accomplished on the platform, along with the player response to the previously released titles” (78). Market forces, design approaches, time tables, consumer demands, etc., also participate in a game’s design ecology. Returning to Yar’s Revenge as another example, Warshaw points out that his supervisor could have nixed his idea and insisted on the port. But, instead, he got the green light for his own game.

The Star Wars game offers yet another example, with designers again tying into the larger cultural forces, themselves, as design goals or constraints. Though they were not as constrained as the Pac-Man team, they still needed to figure out how to engage with another text, the Star Wars film, within the genre of a game and the platform of the Atari 2600.

I think a final point to end on, then, may be the Pitfall chapter, as this showed the agency of the designer and the role of design philosophies, moving from individual designers to teams, for example, or contrasting more iterative design to inventing novelty. In many ways, then, this book leaves me in a similar space as last class: Trying to negotiate the agency of the different actants in the design and circulation process, both human and nonhuman.

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