Erikka Askeland: Chapter closes on era of digital pioneers

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SO FAREWELL then, Atari. We hardly knew you still even existed. Last week, the maker of classic video games like Pong and Asteroids threw in the towel and went into Chapter 11 – the American flavour of bankruptcy which protects it from the people it owes money to.

Mostly, I was stunned to hear the news. Surely in this day and age of games that include car chases, dialogue, gun play and full frontal nudity all realised in full colour 3-D rendering, the idea of batting back and forth a dot between two lines that go up and down seems like ancient history.

But I remember the first time (a long, long time ago) that I played Pong at someone’s house. It was the most cutting edge thing I had ever done. There was a small crowd of us, and our eyes were glued to the action of the moving pixels which was as marvellous as if the pet dog had started moonwalking.

We all waited, keenly tense, for the moment we got our little fingers around the dubiously named joystick. We must have stayed in that room, absorbed in the thing for hours. No wonder every kid ended up getting one eventually for Christmas, because meanwhile the parents could carry on drinking to their hearts’ content without fear of interruption or the burden of having to provide amusement. Even fighting over whose turn it was to play was kept just simmering under the lid, for fear that an angry (and likely inebriated) adult would confiscate the Atari and we would be forced to play some crappy board game instead.

The home console ushered in by the American-born company clearly launched a revolution. Not that they were the first. Before the Atari there was the Magnavox Odyssey, but you probably never heard of it because hardly anyone bought one – a salutary lesson in the myth that getting their first is better than watching someone trip up before they get there, then avoiding their mistakes.

But the idea that you could play endless games and not have to shell out more precious coins each time it was Game Over, was a boon. I loved the arcade, with all its smelly, sticky carpets and darkened corners. For me, there was a gap between the years of being obsessed by ponies and discovering that maybe boys weren’t useless after all, which was filled by Space Invaders, Pac Man and Frogger. I started out playing Moon Patrol, whose cheery electronic soundtrack belied the clear dangers faced by the intrepid buggy as it came under attack by aliens. By the time I had my own Atari console, my best game was Pitfall, where I guided the main character – Pitfall Harry – across swamps and over pixelated rattle snakes, swinging through the air using vines.

As a pastime it wasn’t what you might call imaginative, and it was probably even less desirable for anyone who thought children should be outside, running themselves ragged until dinner. Mine was probably the first generation to spark worry about our complete absorption in shiny electronic things we could play with. Vilifying the TV as the font of all mind rot had become passé.

Eventually, I grew out of video games altogether, along with my penchant for gruesome horror films and my tolerance for spiders. Puberty clearly does strange things to one’s brain. But I still know plenty people who are otherwise quite adult who continue to be very serious about playing video games. The clever ones have even turned it into a career teaching people how to make them – while the rest have just become obsessed about playing Bejewelled Angry Bird Ninja, or something, on their smartphones.

Which makes you wonder – just what have the people at Atari been doing all this time? Before it admitted failure this week, it had done little to grab back the land it had lost to its rivals at Nintendo, Sony and Sega, let alone Apple.

There had been hope that Universal Film studios was planning a blockbuster based on Asteroids, which could have been lucrative, but actually sounds a bit hopeless. Putative producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura has kept himself busy with perhaps more promising concepts such as GI Joe and an unusual twist on the classic fairy tale, Hansel & Gretal: Witch Hunters.

Anyone up for table tennis?