Book Review: Racing the Beam

Monday, January 4, 2010

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost @ MIT

I really enjoyed this. It looks at game design from the perspective of the design of the Atari VCS (2600) system itself — how the limitations and quirks of that game console led to certain design decisions (good and bad) that affected some very seminal games.

Racing the Beam coverI’m a programmer, so when I think about game design it’s very hard for me to completely distance myself from thinking about what would be easy or difficult (or impossible) to actually implement. Sometimes laziness prevents me from making design choices that would be harder to execute. But I like to think that having an intimate understanding of the platform (say, iPhone) gives me a more refined sense of how to make something good particularly for that platform. I can avoid getting mired in things that just won’t work. Like how painters study their brushes so they know what the possibilities as as far as texture, stroke weight, etc. So talking about game design from exactly this perspective clicked with me very nicely.

Also: I am just a bit young to have experienced the Atari 2600. I’ve seen them and probably poked at a game or two as a kid, but I’m of the Nintendo generation. Reading this book with the internet handy to watch some of these games in action gave a really great introduction to the Atari 2600 (or, at least, as good as one could get without really playing one). And this book contains a lot of info about the history of Atari (and Activision and other 3rd party devs) as well as the historical context of all of this.

Finally, this book seems like a great introduction to the hardware history of computers. The book talks about the chips, the design of the motherboard (if that’s what it’s called), and how the hardware impacted the platform. And get to learn a bit how TVs work. Electrical engineers won’t be impressed, but I learned some stuff.

So, yeah — even though this book can get fairly technical (on an introductory level, at least), it’s still a very easy read. Well organized. Fun. Very interesting. Great book!

Crossposted to Game Design Advance.