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Racing the Beam

Racing the Beam

The Atari Video Computer System

Nick Montfort & Ian Bogost

The MIT Press, 2009

184 pp., 22 illus.
Cloth: 2009. ISBN: 9780262012577. $22.95/£14.95
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Description - Contents - Reviews

Racing the Beam is a detailed and accessible study of the most important early videogame console, the Atari Video Computer System (also known as the Atari VCS or the Atari 2600). Through its main example, the book provides unique insight into the role of underlying hardware and software systems in new media. It is the first extensive application of the platform studies approach to a single computing system.

We developed the original approach of platform studies by drawing on textual studies, computer programming and engineering, and computer game studies. We considered the VCS console with its Stella chipset, along with cartridges and controllers, as evidence of human work, decisions, and processes. Our approach traces this material history while exploring the formal workings of the VCS and its early games, revealing the technological and cultural contexts in which the system and its games were developed. This study of the VCS is technically informed, explaining the operation and implications of the MOS Technologies 6507, the Television Interface Adapter, and cartridge ROM.

The book covers the ancestry of the VCS (including Pong and the Atari Home Pong systems) along with the hardware design of the machine and its implications for creativity. Many influential VCS games (Combat, Adventure, Pitfall, Pac-Man, and others) are discussed. The book is illustrated throughout and written to appeal to technically inclined general readers as well academics studying all sorts of creative work in digital media.

Racing the Beam is a collaborative work by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, published by The MIT Press.


  1. Stella
  2. Combat
  3. Adventure
  4. Pac-Man
  5. Yars' Revenge
  6. Pitfall!
  7. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
  8. After the Crash