Skip to main content

Atari Age - Michael Z. Newman ***

Subtitled 'the emergence of video games in America', Michael Newman's book aims to examine the impact of 'early video games' on culture and society. It does so to an extent, but despite covering a really interesting subject, it could have been better written. There’s a certain type of academic writing that takes pages to say something relatively simple. Here, Newman takes around 30 of them to tell us that pinball machines were considered dubious and working class, while video games were considered neater and middle class.

Strangely, it is the section on pinball machines as a precursor to the electronic gaming industry that provides the most interesting content, as we never got this 1970s resurgence in the UK. Apparently, in the US, the exposure of pinball in the Who’s Tommy, plus the introduction of more sophisticated electronic effects saw a brief pinball renaissance in the second half of the 70s, while in the UK, the games never got past that feeling of being something (wonderful if, like me, you loved them) from an earlier age.

Newman spends a lot of time on the transition in arcades to electronic machines, and then on the introduction of video games into the home, initially as extensions of the TV viewing experience, then as limited copies of the arcade games and finally blossoming as home computers - even if no one was quite sure how they would be used... other than to play games.

There are definitely some interesting observations here. About the way, for example, that initially video games were portrayed as being far better than the mind-numbing, non-interactive experience of watching TV (perhaps this says something about the quality of the TV pumped out by US networks the 1960s). We are repeatedly exposed to the idea that despite original sales pitches being family oriented, there was a shift to the young male perspective that would come to dominate the way that gaming was portrayed. This gives Newman the opportunity to single out Pacman as being something standout (probably more so than it actually was), noting that the game had far less gender bias in its users than most of its competitors.

To be fair to the author, he makes it clear that he is not trying to provide a history of video games themselves, but even so the approach taken combines piling in far too much evidence on small details for a popular account (never describing one ad campaign, when we can hear about five, for example) with a glacially slow construction of the arguments. The result is a rather frustrating take on a topic that should have been electrifying.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under