Atari Commercials and the Boy Culture of Video Games

Curator's Note

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.

Comments

Nicolas Ricketts's picture

Slaves to the common advertiing average

Great topic! We try to cope with the sexist nature of games and game advertising all of the time in our museum exhibits and programming. Isn’t there some television rule that nearly everything is geared to the mindset of a boy in his late teens?  Games even more obviously point that way. It is difficult for us here at the National Museum of Play to try to keep a balanced gender position.

Steven Boyer's picture

Domestic Divisions of Labor

Thanks for a great post. I would bet that you could trace your description of boys as gaming "ambassadors" through to the discursively constructed slightly older, more technologically and economically situated "early adopters" that the games industry continues to emphasize.

There’s a lot going on here with regard to gender and domestic space, which makes me think about the role of divisions of labor and, yet again, the "usefulness" of games in structuring who plays them. Why were boys such a valuable target ambassador for the games industry?

I would suggest that ample leisure time and the rise of youth as consumer play into this, but I’m also wondering about gendered socialization in terms of training. If girls toys traditionally were served as domestic training (like dolls for child-rearing), then games were a way to train boys for future high tech employment in adulthood (which would only reinforce this cycle of masculinized games).

However, once games enter the domestic sphere of the home, then they become structured by this traditionally female domain. I touched on this very briefly elsewhere (drawing from Ann Gray and Ruth Cowan) in regard to fitness gaming, suggesting that not only do women play a major role in determining the shape of consumer technologies once they enter the home (such as physical appearance and patterns of usage by family members), but also have relied on female-oriented products to become deeply significant both socioculturally and economically.

If that is the case, then why the continued promotion of boys as ambassadors? And if mothers hold much of the control over home finances, why insult the person who may likely make the final decision over whether or not an Atari console is purchased? I don’t have any easy answers to this, but it just seems an odd choice towards limitation rather than expanding into a larger market base.

where the girls are

This is a really interesting point, and something I’ve noticed in my review of print ads as well. The part that I find most striking is that I’ve also seen significant evidence of girls and women not only playing games, but playing competitively. They show up as competitors on Starcade, for example, and I came across at least a few newspaper articles recounting gaming world record score achievements from girls. My favorite featured a blonde pre-teen with pigtails and bandaged knuckles; she’d played so long that she’d bruised and bloodied her hands. So, there were definitely some women playing, which makes me really wonder about the advertising strategies. Why not advertise to a potential consumer base?

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