Putting Atari to Work

Curator's Note

Many early video games and game systems were produced by companies best known for products ranging from jukeboxes to televisions. However, startups, including Atari and Exidy among others, also characterized the early video game industry. Atari remains the most recognizable and arguably the most influential of these early game companies as the company's coin-op Pong (1972) became the first hit video game. However, by the early 1980s, Atari was working hard to diversify its product line away from an increasingly crowded games market.

In the midst of the industry crash from 1983-1985, Atari hired Alan Alda as a spokesperson. Alda, then well-known for his role on the television series M*A*S*H, demonstrated Atari products such as phone systems and home computers. The computers were Atari's greatest hope, as evidenced by the advertisement featured here. Unlike the Alda ads, which employ familiar, domestic settings and focus on utility, ease of use, and practicality of various Atari products, this spot relies on a futuristic ethos. Beginning with reference to Atari's success in the coin-op game market, the advertisement quickly moves to the company's success in the home game console market, and then transitions to the company's home computer products. The rhythmic electronic music is intertwined with game and computer sound effects. Throughout, the camera lingers on the games' and computers' on-screen graphics. The computer is shown both as a business tool and as a home system, which is useful not only for games, but for creative pursuits such as music composition, and practical ones like managing finances.

For an advertisement that declares Atari as a gateway to "a world beyond your wildest dreams" and invites viewers to "discover how far you can go," these practical and business applications seem almost out of place. The relative newness of home computing during this period offers a partial explanation, but the necessity of attracting new consumers is even more central. While an easier solution for compiling financial records may not be the stuff of the average consumer's dreams, the average consumer using Atari computers to compile financial records was absolutely the stuff of Atari's marketing dreams. Video game companies' computer advertisements from this period reveal not only a past vision of computer-based technological novelty, but also an industry in flux with its best-known makers flailing.



Thanks for a really interesting post that I think really speaks to both of the other posts this week already. 

If Nicolas' contribution tackles the issue of operationalizing game content, here you approach the same topic from the angle of hardware, advertising, and branding. In both cases, the concern is how make game play productive and non-frivolous (as noted in the comments), with Atari approaching this in a similarly didactic fashion to the technological socialization/domestication  Michael suggested in the other post. 

What is really intriguing here to me is the corporate attempt to distance themselves from "games" as the market falls into chaos. Nintendo did a very similar thing with the "Famicom" in Japan - family computer, with emphasis on computer, and Nintendo Entertainment System elsewhere, again with a disavowal of games. While in Japan they focusing on the technological capabilities of the machine as a home computing device (like Atari here), in the US especially they removed proposed "computer" peripherals (like a keyboard) and instead marketed it as a toy, shifting focus even more firmly towards the target young male consumer of Michael's post. 

Related to this gender shift are the Alan Alda videos linked in this post that position these game systems as a kind of technological gender equalizers, able to mitigate the imbalances the rest of society has not been able to solve, but within the corporate imperative to develop a new broader image for the medium.

Speaking of celebrity advertisements, while researching my post I found an ad for the TI-99 starring Bill Cosby that I can completely imagine convincing my parents of their purchase. Cosby's wholesome persona continues the domestic push that involves both entertainment and "useful products and services" but again while attempting to tap into a more diverse market (here not gender, but race).


The point you raise about diversification of markets is definitely part of what I find so interesting about these ads. The Atari ads I think are particularly clever in using an approachable man to market computers to women. And, as a note about peripherals, there are some other ads that indicate Atari was HUGE on peripherals, both for computers and for its game systems. In one advertisement, a man says he wants to buy "everything" that goes with an Atari system and is piled down with literally dozens of peripherals and games.

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