Reality Check: Atari Did It First

Present-day console makers could learn a thing or two from the past.

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While details at this point are scarce, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Nintendo's new console will follow in the Wii's footsteps in one crucial area: It will attempt to offer rich single-player content for "core" gamers while building on the soccer-moms-and-seniors markets that Nintendo tapped into with the Wii. Of course, with only a few strong single-player experiences this far into its life span, it seems the Wii is destined to be remembered as a console that succeeded in reaching those elusive markets that fall outside the demographic of core gamers, but in so doing, it has largely left the company's longtime fans in the cold. Given the disappointment of the Wii, it may seem that you can't have it both ways; a console needs to either focus on family fun or on core games and not spread itself too thin by trying to be all things to all people. But this isn't the case at all. Atari had this figured out in the earliest days of consoles, with the Atari 2600.

Atari's marketing for the 2600 was multifaceted. There were numerous commercials that showed the 2600 bridging age and gender gaps, where a kid would either be enjoying Berzerk with his grandma or entire families would be crowded around the console, cheering each other on in rousing four-player contests. These ads helped foster the perception that games were for everyone: men and women, young and old. And, at least in my experience, that's how people saw games at the time. My parents and grandparents--and the parents and grandparents of many of my friends--were no strangers to the Atari 2600's Warlords, and other exciting multiplayer games brought people together for a shared experience that everyone could enjoy.

The Atari 2600 was designed with experiences like this in mind, supporting four controllers without the need for a peripheral. For all their technical advancements, many later consoles represented a step backward in this area because they only supported two controllers out of the box. At the same time, Atari produced epic and bizarre commercials for games like Centipede and Dig Dug that appealed to those who wanted to spend hours alone in front of the television, joystick in hand while gunning for high scores. Thus, the 2600 was seen as a console that truly offered something for everyone.

But it didn't last. The video game crash of 1983 swallowed the industry whole. Then, after years of gloom and despair, a champion emerged and resurrected the fallen industry of games to make it bigger and better than ever. That champion's name was Nintendo. But in reviving the video game industry, Nintendo focused not on experiences that united families and friends, but on single-player experiences. The more powerful hardware of the NES allowed for the creation of cohesive worlds like those of Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda. And in the marketing of those games, Nintendo portrayed epic adventures not as the kinds of experiences that could transcend age and gender, but as the domain of young boys.

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In the famous Zelda rap commercial, a nerd and a jock are united in their enthusiasm for the game and proceed to bust out some sweet rhymes ("It's The Legend of Zelda, and it's really rad! Those creatures from Ganon are pretty bad!"). The message that ads like this sent was simple: Video games are for boys. Not for girls. And parents? Parents couldn't appreciate awesome games any more than they could appreciate awesome breakfast cereal. Games were no longer for the entire family as they had been during the Atari age.

In recent years, the company that, more than any other, is responsible for shaping this perception of games in the first place has done a great deal to try to shatter it. Nintendo has put a lot of muscle into marketing the DS to women and into making the Wii an attractive purchase for moms and seniors. During its Electronic Entertainment Expo press conferences, Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime has often touched on the company's efforts to broaden the market and to bring in more gamers from outside the core, as if there's some secret to making this happen. But in many ways, Atari had it figured out from the beginning. The biggest obstacle now to making games universal is the perception that games aren't universal, which was fostered by Nintendo and the companies that followed its example for many years.

It takes time to break down a preconception that's been strongly reinforced for so long. Slowly, we're moving back to that place where we see that games are not exclusively any one group's domain. The difference is that, unlike in the Atari era, when the notion of all sorts of people coming together to share games was often the reality, what we have now are a number of disparate groups of gamers, with very little crossover between them. And let's be honest: Many of us who have been playing games for a long time look down on the efforts of Nintendo and other companies to break into largely untapped markets, as if the games and peripherals that result from those efforts could spell the end of gaming as we know it.

But that's just not going to happen. Games that appeal to the core are doing better business now than ever before. Call of Duty: Black Ops is the best-selling game of all time in the United States. We should be thankful that designers are working hard to broaden the video game market. The fewer types of gamers developers design for, the fewer types of games we get to see. And surely, even the most enthusiastic fan of military shooters doesn't want to live in a world where every game is a military shooter. Sure, there are a lot of really bad games targeted at young girls, players of social-networking games, and other groups, which is unfortunate because all kinds of players deserve compelling games.

But because of efforts to pull in people who haven't historically played games, we also have great stuff like Plants vs. Zombies, which just about everyone, from shooter fans and grandparents to grandparents who love shooters, can have a great time playing. Here's hoping that Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony all make stronger and stronger efforts to pull in those who, for decades now, have felt that games had little to offer them. There's no reason this can't be done while continuing to provide bigger and better experiences for core gamers. If this trend continues, we may approach the best of both worlds; a place where those who want them have the rewarding single-player experiences they crave and where there are games so universally appealing and fun that we'll be begging grandma to grab a controller and huddle around the TV with us. We'll be gaming like it's 1982.

Reality Check is GameSpot's recurring editorial column. Each week, members of the GameSpot editorial team sound off on current gaming events as well as various topics that surround the gaming industry.
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