Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Game Computer System by Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort offers a detailed look at the Atari VCS or what is known by many as the Atari 2600. The book focuses on when the system dominated the market from 1979-1983 and discusses its eventual role in the video game crash of in 1983. In particular, the authors examine a number of game cartridges to reveal the affordances and resistance created by the video game platform and its limiting of “computational expression” in the creation of these games. At first glance, this book may seem largely tangential to preserving digital art but I think there are many commonalities that Bogost and Montfort illustrate quite well and which we can learn from.
The Resistance in the Materials
As William Morris once stated, “you can’t have art without resistance in the materials.” The Atari VCS could be defined by its resistance. Coders had to deal with the physical and technical limitations of the platform such as the speed of the beam writing across the screen one line at a time, the limited ROM, and the limited graphical elements, to produce games people actually wanted to play. For what they had to work with, the coders’ results were often innovative and astounding.
All the while, the concurrent political, social, and economic challenges such as creating games for the home (rather than arcade) environment, deadlines for game release based on market forces, and questions over ownership also affected game creation. In these ways, Montfort and Bogost are connecting what is on the screen and the cultural context with the forensic materiality of the hardware that Kirschenbaum describes in Mechanisms. Understanding the entire process of game creation and the limitations of the platform gives a better understanding of all the factors that need to be preserved.
Porting and Licensed Adaptations
The theme of resistance continued in the challenge of taking other arcade video games and licensed works from their original medium and adapting or “porting” them to the Atari 2600. To me, this process raised some interesting connections with ideas of social memory, digital preservation, and significant properties. Specifically, the quote below really got me thinking about these issues:
Along with the lack of true originality in most VCS games—that is, the basis of many VCS games in arcade games or licensed properties—another closely related theme runs throughout the history of the Atari VCS, that of the transformative port or adaptation. When an earlier game is the basis for a VCS game, it can almost never be reproduced on the VCS platform with perfect fidelity. – page 23, Racing the Beam
We see that these games lacked true originality in the sense that they were attempting to copy other works but were original in their transformative adaptation to a system loath to provide the elements needed to reproduce their inspiration exactly. Montfort and Bogost go on to say that, technical limitations notwithstanding, it is still impossible to replicate the physical environment, interface, or economic context to create a true copy of the game experience for the player, but it can be transformed to get something close enough to make the memory live on.
Porting and adapting have many parallels to the production of informal social memory through recreation and variation. Exactness is not key in this approach, instead adapting or porting seems more like a performance based on a “score” or the instructions of the original artwork, similar to the process that Rinehart and Ippolito discuss in Re-Collection.
Or seen in a different way, the retelling of a game on a different platform can perhaps be compared to the retelling and memory sharing process of oral history. In these ways, the idiosyncrasies of each repetition can be forgiven, assuming the significant features remain, allowing it to be the same “work” on a more conceptual level. With the Atari VCS, the resistance in the materials forced game creators to focus on the most significant elements in order to create something that resembled the look and feel of the original, while still acknowledging the variation of its underlying medium and its context.
As both professionals and amateurs try to preserve these games through emulation or even rewriting them to work on new devices that do not have the same resistances, they encounter new unique resistance. The problem here remains of being unable to reproduce these items with the exact fidelity of the original. Newer technology can overcompensate for the original quirks. Newer processors can make a game run faster and better than it ever could, LCD and HDTV’s do not display the games in the same way CRT televisions blur pixels together, and the interface is often not the original joystick. Compensating to make these items run like their original and to feel less advanced is its own form of resistance.
But as seen above, these characteristics can be forgiven if we view emulation as an attempt to implement the “score” of the original game and its most significant elements. These very good efforts can still ensure that the social memory of these cultural artifacts survive. And to what extent is perfection necessary? Perfection, in fact, can be problematic in communicating authenticity. Sound recordings do not perfectly reproduce the natural world, the sounds of particular elements are amplified to be heard better. Furthermore, some consider vinyl recordings to have a warmer, more authentic sound than their high quality digital versions. In these examples, the consumer expects imperfection. Additionally, Glitches (often as result of a system running incorrectly) in computers can be hints of the materiality of the system and also provide a certain authenticity.
If there are always errors or difference, how do we determine the acceptable level of tolerance of them in the preservation of objects and their social memory? I think there can be multiple tolerances as Rinehart and Ippolito describe the “both/and” approach to preservation that allows for multiple representations of the same work. So if a range is okay, where do we stop? Overall, the platform study process Montfort and Bogost undertake seems like an essential framework to understand sufficient context to decide what level of preservation is good enough. But how do we make it scalable?