I went into Ian Bogost’s GDC talk on the Atari 2600 expecting some retro-game geeking out, and there was plenty of that. But in addition to talking about raster hacks and the legacy of Space War, there were some interesting historical perspectives on the Atari that have extra relevance today.

Bogost looked at a number of franchise adaptations, which were a big portion of the 2600′s catalog. The unsuccessful ones (e.g., E.T.) tried to recreate bits of movies without really digging into what made those movies appealing. More successful adaptations like The Empire Strikes Back took what might have been a minor set piece from the movie and use it metonymically, to convey on a small scale some of the emotions (here, the seemingly hopless David-and-Goliath struggle of the Rebel Alliance against the Empire) that the films inspire.

We like to look at games of the era and laugh at their lame attempts to recreate arcade-quality graphics, but Bogost points out that it wasn’t only the graphics themselves that were important, but the social context of playing in a tavern (the most common setting for early arcade machines, right next to the pinball machine and the dart board) that made a game feel authentic. This emphasis on context and the space that the game is played in is a key part of the Wii’s strategy: like Pong or Asteroids, Wii Bowling is successful because it recreates the physical context of bowling as well as the mechanics and rules. (I’ve made note in the past of some other parallels between the Wii and the 2600.)

Don Daglow had attendees fill out a little questionnaire before he kicked off his talk:

  1. My proudest moment working in games is when: ____
  2. I knew that games were what I wanted to do ever since I: ____
  3. Of all the kinds of work I do or have done, I’m happiest when I’m: ____

Daglow’s talk was titled “10 Perspectives on Staying Passionate About Games.” I hadn’t seen him talk before, but I figured that if there was anyone who could give a decent sense of perspective on game development, it would be a guy who’d been in making games since the days of mainframes and whose studio, Stormfront, folded last year.

The first few points were pretty predictable stuff about watching business and console cycles, watching device and audience trends, keeping your business agile, etc. But towards the latter half of the talk, Daglow brought things back around to the questionnaire topics, reminding the audience that before we were game designers, we all designed games anyway as hobbyists and even as children. He encouraged us to remember that we love our work for its own sake, no matter what the business climate, and to remember who we’re making games for, that “what we do does matter.” In uncertain times like these, a little affirmation is always nice.