16 July 2019 -

Report: DHS Research Publication Grant by Raiford Guins

Atari was a Silicon Valley tech-startup company that launched in 1972 with a single product, the coin-operated video game, Pong (Figure 1). In its first fiscal year Pong generated over $3 million, essentially creating the video game industry. The company also spectacularly upended the coin-operated amusement industry going from 0% market share in 1972 to become a leader in the industry. Innovative game design played a key role in this growth – from Pong to Asteroids and beyond – but fun, challenging, and exciting game play was not unique to Atari. Competitors also made well-designed games (e.g. Williams, Bally/Midway, Nintendo). What then set Atari apart from its competitors? Nolan Bushnell, Founder and President of Atari, insists in his interview with me that the answer lies in its innovation in cabinet design. The coin-op cabinet wasn’t simply a container for a game, it was a medium of communication designed to facilitate user experience, gameplay context, corporate identity, product harmony, and acceptance at a wide-range of public spaces.

Pong Sell Sheet. Atari Inc., 1972. Reproduced with permission from The Strong.

Design was never an afterthought at Atari. Industrial design was foundational to the company with the first professionally trained industrial designers – Peter Takaichi and Regan Cheng – hired while still pursuing their degrees at San Jose State University in 1973. The company’s business plan from 1975 insisted on the important role assigned to industrial design in the company’s development of its “electronic entertainment products,” citing the “combination of advanced electronics and styling” as both crucial for realizing high sales opportunities.

Industrial design rendering of Video Pinball cabinet. Mike Querio. Reproduced with permission from The Strong.

Attention to the game cabinet was essential for Atari because a “tastefully packaged” game was the means to gain entrance into “entirely new locations.” New locations translated into increased revenues. By 1975 this meant exceeding “traditional” locations like bars, amusement parks, arcades, and bowling alleys so that distributors/operators could seek out profits at “developmental” locations which Atari identified as fast food restaurants, department stores, airports, country clubs, university unions, and hotel lobbies. If the history of games privileges only engineering or software development then the contribution of industrial and graphic design to product development is excised from the major role they played in making the above markets possible. A game may be fun to play, but cabinet design is what made gameplay a ubiquitous social and cultural experience in everyday spaces and to wit much more profitable due to the expansion of markets beginning in the 1970s. Atari did not just make games, it designed products for environments.

Goal 4 Sell Sheet. Atari Inc., 1974. Note the emphasis on location.

The structuring rationale for the book is that we know a great deal about game play but little about the machines designed for play. To date the field of game studies shows little interest in industrial and graphic design while the emerging area of game history does not possess sufficient language to ask design historical questions. Moreover, the discipline of design history has not considered video games as objects of study for the history of design. Atari’s various and interdependent design divisions have not only been outside of historical discourses on games as well as design, but are also indispensable to our understanding of video games in general. A phrase like “game design” is too often equated with software development at the expense of other design practices, professional fields, and people responsible for the form and style of Atari’s products. “Game design” is being re-tooled into a broader, much more inclusive vocabulary of design; one respectful of multiple design fields, one, as is necessary, sensitive to historical design. In the hope of offering more to both game history and design history, Atari Design: Impressions on an Everyday Cultural Form, 1972 –1979 advances design history of video games to rectify this situation. Mashing a button on the latest next-gen home system controller or on the control panel of an Atari coin-op cabinet connects one viscerally with design: behind that button and the social interaction between machine and user reside concepts, processes, professional training, people, relations, human factors, decisions, constraints, things, materials, and history.

Atari Design meticulously studies Atari’s coin-op machines to offer a better understanding of the contributions of industrial and graphic design practices. These range from the development and use of Atari’s coin-op products, the illustration of how the duo overcame “styling limitations” to help define “the game” and actively shaped it, the situation of a new medium into an existing marketplace in the 1970s -radically expanding it-, the generation of a distinct corporate identity/product style, and finally the easing of an interaction between user and machine; and design products that impacted and interacted with everyday visual and material culture of the late 20th century. Many diverse design practices and materials constitute the medium of the coin-op video game so much so that the goal in writing this book is to help adjust our historical gaze to descry silk-screens and CRT-screens, particle board and printed circuit boards—the component parts of game history by which Atari’s designers shaped game play through the cabinets we once encountered across the public environs of daily life.

I am able to write such lines on account of the extensive archival research (2014 – 2018) that I have conducted on Atari’s coin-op division. Collections visited include: Stanford University’s “Atari Inc. business plan, 1974-1975”, “Al Alcorn papers relating to the history of video games, 1973-1974”, “Steve Bristow collection of materials about Atari video games, 1968 – 1980”, “David Cook personal archive on Atari cabinet design, 1974 – 1999”, and “Michael Jang collection of Atari materials, 1978 – 1991”; The Strong National Museum of Play’s “Atari Coin-Op Divisions Collection, 1972 – 1999”; and San Jose State University’s Special Collections and Archives’ “Industrial Arts Department Collection”, founded in 1960, where nearly all of Atari’s industrial designers graduated. To enliven these archival materials, I also conducted copious on-location interviews (2014 – 2018) with former Atari industrial designers, graphic designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers/software designers, and members of design services as well as all three of the company’s founders, Nolan Bushnell, Al Alcorn, and Ted Dabney. I have also had the pleasure of interviewing former San Jose State University faculty members and Chairs of the Industrial Arts program (Del Coates and Ralf Schubert) along with former designers (Paul Pease and John Gard) who worked in design agencies (e.g. GVO) associated with George Opperman, Atari’s Art Director for its Graphics Division from 1976 until his death in 1985.

Touch Me Sell Sheet. Atari Inc., 1973. George Opperman’s graphic design style defined Atari’s products and corporate identity.

Opperman established the graphic style and branding of Atari when the company was a client of his Palo Alto based design agency, Opperman-Harrington. Opperman designed the Atari logo in 1972. On-location interviews proved the most effective way to capture the level of detail required to document a design process given that little coverage is found in historical writings on games and design. I have had designers walk me through their process while showing me actual arcade cabinets, pinball back-glass, product sell-sheets, photo-mechanicals for silkscreens, and graphic design portfolios. Such materials help to glean stories that have remained private and undocumented for over 30 years.


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