Atari Commercials and the Boy Culture of Video Games
by Michael Z. Newman — University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
June 26, 2012 – 00:00
Video games and masculinity have been tightly wound together for as long as television displays and computer chips have been used for play. In particular, video games have been central to a culture of boys, and have addressed young males as ideal users. At 4:30 of this video compilation of vintage Atari TV commercials (all of which I recommend), the lyrics present the product to its target consumer, the son of a middle-class American family:
Did you play with a friend on a rainy day?
Did you play with your dad?
Did you show him the way?
Did you play with your sis?
Did your mom always miss?
Did you play a game from Atari?
Have you played Atari today?
The illustrations in the ad present family members in a scenario standard for the period: sociable family room play by participants of mixed gender and age. We think of gaming as historically masculinized — as high tech; as aggressive and competitive; as sport, war, space adventure, and fantasy role playing. Popular discourses representing gaming as a social activity masculinized the medium, making the young male into the central figure in the drama of electronic play. But this ad offers a contradictory rhetoric, masculinizing games as boy culture while setting the Atari within the dynamics of the home.
Although the young male is the identity addressed by the ad, his role is to mediate between games as an exciting new technology and the family room as a stable and comforting setting for play. A masculinist discourse is in tension with more feminized meanings associated with the domestic sphere where Atari consoles were located: the comfort and security of home, the togetherness of the family circle, the companionate relationships of parents and children and brothers and sisters. The boy addressed by the ad is an ambassador of gaming, teaching his father to play, making room for his sister on the couch when a friend isn’t around, laughing with his mother over her failure to master the device. The ideas about video games offered at this time in TV commercials (as well as news stories, movies, and a burgeoning fan culture) helped establish an identity for the medium. “Anyone can get hooked,” the ad concludes, even a woman. But the message is still clear that video games are especially — really — for boys.