A Non-Gamer's Defense of the Atari VCS

Dear 30-40 Year-Old Gamers,

I must admit, I am not one of you. I am perhaps aptly described as a “poser” gamer by your standards. I have only just crossed the 30th year of my life, most of which has been dedicated to getting into grad school which has consumed the majority of my personality. I am an economist-turned-information scientist who considers digital culture a particular quasi-professional fascination. I am barely holding on to my last “kid-at-heart”-strings. I am not a once youthful “gamer” who has a history of nostalgia for GoldenEye or Final Fantasy. I absolutely HATED Halo in high school. The first game I recall ever liking was Little Big Planet because I could hit another player with a frying pan in one hand as something reminiscent to the drunkenly toddler-like Sac Boy that my earliest gaming experiences felt like.

This being the case, Reader, when I tell you that I never owned a console, but rather strictly played among friends who out combo’d me at every turn to the point that I was a pain to play with, I kid not. To this day, I do not know of another sad sack who, when playing a videogame, Player 1 rage-quit the game purely out of how unconvincingly Player 2 was at playing in good faith. I barely only now understand console menus, forget in-game menus. I am abysmal. I do not hold a card to even a casual console gamer’s knowledge of what gaming is about, or why it is fun. I mostly understand gamer culture as an academic curiosity. I watch video game reviews with just as much detachment from the action as a geneticist who badly wants us to believe that raptors potentially had feathers. Gaming to me may as well be spooky action at a distance.

So, when I tell you that the VCS is first and only console I’ve ever spent big money on, I want you to know, I did not buy it because I believed that Atari was going to be a “revolutionary” gaming console. I did not spend $450 on Atari hardware, in order to be a weird hipster game console collector, or to prove something to other people about gaming in 2020. Also, while it might be easy to argue that I am a fool for even half-heartedly believing this would ever be more than a modified Raspberry Pi in a cute 3D printed plastic case, I do know a thing or two about technology and culture, just not what we decidedly have come to call “gamer culture” in the 21st century.

Seasoned Gamer, trust me, the controversy has been noted. There has been validity in laughing at the surprise when at the end of 2020 no less, as if there was some sort of small plot-twist in the Horror of the times. Perhaps, the Atari being here was enough to make us wonder if the year perhaps was better considered a Dark Comedy. To make you even more frustrated and tempted to double-down on your gamer-educated opinion, it is admittedly slightly more than a mini-PC wrapped in overpriced plastic nostalgia (THIS TIME WITH GENUINE WOOD FRONT PANEL!) Yet it somehow it fails at being anything more than a functional, WIFI and Bluetooth enabled retro console directly out of the box. This leads many to ask, “What the fudge-nuggets is this thing even supposed to be???”

Fair question. The truth is, it’s a hack-job Linux OS with half working controllers (bought separately, no less) and a few nifty apps and features. You even have to use keyboard and mouse, or the “Companion App” on your smart phone to log into YouTube. The truth is, the VCS is Nothing. It has less than a dozen games in its store, the apps you can download only sort of work. The controllers disconnect and reconnect in unexpected ways and don’t do expected things. The games it comes with work pretty great with some occasional bugginess related to the controller (that Atari claims will be a priority in the next update). The native built Chrome browser works just fine, so there’s that! The dual boot prompt which allows you to install a different OS side-by-side with the modified Atari Linux OS works. In fact, I can tell you mostly typed this review directly from Lubuntu on my Atari system in a bash terminal. When I put the system into sleep mode, there’s no way that I can tell to wake it up with a controller or a button without simply resetting the whole system. Seriously, this system has some interesting quirks, but almost everything on this system half-works.

In short, this is NOT a gaming console. At least, it is not what you have been told gaming consoles SHOULD be. You are likely a near mid-lifed, raised middle-class, grew up with an NES/N64/Gamecube, pwned your siblings, cousins, and friends at Pong, Rainbow Road, and are likely old enough to think Halo is dated, but not exactly an “old” game. You are a lover of the sleek graphics oriented machines that consoles have excelled at being. You aged well into a society which thought you were going to shoot up your school because some asshat, tie-wearing, boomer of a news pundit once suggested DOOM was the reason for Columbine. You might have kids. They might play games too without constant judgment. There are now about three and a half generations of geeks who have become entirely comfortable with the plug-and-play culture surrounding console gaming. That is to say, if the console doesn’t load up with a couple fully-functional, console exclusives, it ain’t a real console for anyone but an eccentric collector. That’s what the YouTubes and your Seasoned Gamer friends told you. Together, your modest chuckles have echoed around the Internet, and together they are loud and mostly uncontested by anyone who could have though otherwise over the last two years.

Seasoned Gamer, in 2020, you have won. This is your success story. You happily bought that new $1000 console, especially after you found out that Cyberpunk wouldn’t play on last-gen consoles. What is life if you can’t stream the most anticipated game of the year on Twitch within a few days of getting it. Screen cap that gameplay in the digital ether ASAP or how could you say you were you even there? You probably were trivially inconvenienced because you bought a PS5 under the guise of a Christmas present for your kids. Yes, you have triumphed in bringing a normalized gaming culture to the masses.

And yet, within a few days of it being in the hands of only a handful of people on YouTube who did their excessive nerd-profit-motivated diligence in funding a modestly curious bit of gamer history a few people got this VCS thing to play Cyberpunk 2077 against all odds. For a brief moment, mere hours before your kids opened that PS5, you probably had a pillow talk fight with your partner about how you definitely should not open your kid’s presents before Christmas. If you were dedicated enough to embellishing your irritation maybe, if you even noticed, you developed little envy for those three and a half frames per second of gameplay the VCS gave us. The VCS had a brief moment of hilariously trivial glory: it, (sort of) played Cyberpunk 2077. Gamer, if you watch the little bit of game play on YouTube, you should definitely not feel genuine envy for the Atari VCS. At least not for that.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably either thinking one of two things: (1) “Are you sure you even like this thing? You sound disappointed.” Or, (2) “So if it’s not a console, is it just a shitty gaming PC? We knew that, didn’t we?” But, let me remind you of that moment, the day before the kids opened their new came console, and later that night you were able to set your bodily appendages’ settings in Cyberpunk 2077 to the heavenly lights of a Christmas tree, there was a glimmer of something magical in those brief hours that might have gone amiss to someone not looking. A few enthusiastic, well-humored gamers with a little know how, built a tutorial on how to set up what remarkably looked like a semi-customized console for a very particular kind of game play for a very particular niche need, on the fly. In those brief few hours of ironic attention seeking desperation of VCS owners, there was a clarity of where the VCS is going, but has yet to be. And I! LOVE! IT! After that, there’s been a small section of YouTube dedicated to people tinkering with these consoles in a variety of ways with modest but worried reactions peppered with trollish comments laughing at people’s desperation to make use of this half-baked machine.

To not let these words sound insincere. I mean them. On day one, I saw an incomplete Linux-based console, nodded without humor, and said to myself, “Yep, I’m going have to buy that.”

Many of the backers, myself included, were earnest and honest about what the VCS is. They kept track of the press updates, and dealt with the teasing and hate of YouTube an entire diverse array of console and gaming critics. We stayed in contact with Atari knowing the product didn’t even exist yet, filled out their surveys with detailed specialized interests, and sweated through the bad press telling us that at best we were going to get a potato with a USB port for a glowstick of a controller. We truly invested in the potential for something different in the gaming world that hasn’t been seen under a household gaming brand for a long time: console, PC, or otherwise, and we were okay with it being half-baked as long as it happened. And we were willing to spend $400 for it to happen. Don’t take that demand lightly! Not everyone who got this thing did it for nostalgia or to take a look at it, say, “Neat!” and put it in our attic or on a display shelf next to our Funko Pop!s.

So, what is the Atari VCS? IDK, ask the Nu-Freax.

At this point, I’ve told you point-blank: we wanted a glitchy console. “But WHY???”

If you’ll allow me, let me tell you a story of how some, maybe mostly me, in digital entertainment culture have been sitting off in the distance theorizing about how digital dinosaurs perhaps once had feathers before they lost them. To be fair to console gamers, why would a dinosaur need feathers? Certainly a console need shed all that was unnecessary in order to become these sleek machines optimized for the absolute interactively cinematic sensorial cybernetic extensions we needed, right? You wanted Keanu Reeves in your face. You wanted to smell the post-apocalyptic realism. Yes, because, in your youth, that’s what you knew would one day would exist. You just probably didn’t predict the actual plague of 2020 or white dudes literally trying to overthrow the capital of a country with such a large military budget that it created a “Space Force” unironically. Yes, having this fantasy is how you succeeded in making it easy to pass such a culture along to your children who will grow to love their consoles, and will one day have developed really nuanced enough preferences to go online and create rivalries and flame using their gamer privilege of having parents who maybe didn’t get both the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 and train them to love both equally. But now you must face that this fantasy is real now and it’s actually darn scary.

However, despite reality, in your youth there were only mythical plug-and-play gaming cultures. Before Gaming Consoles and PCs had simply become integrated into the same couple dozen-ish hardware production companies that make chipsets for all tech gadgets, computer technologies were on diverse and 8- and 16-bit fractal-esque trial-and-error trajectories. With their distinctions in goals, they were brimming with culturally-digital evolutionary excess that every side of corporate tech industry came to fear and hate with a passion. During that time, groups of Japanese, German, and English anarchist techno-geeks were glorifying these systems precisely because of the feathers gave flight where console corporate wanted them to stay on their ground. But yet, these hacker-geek folk were the wannabe Kevin Flynns of the world who set out to “make the perfect system” and accidentally helped build the fascist empire of which Clu would eventually take control and hold Flynn captive within.

In the gaming world, these anarchists evolved into the “modding” community in the mainstream. But before there were modders, there were video game hackers who physically would modify game cartridges to leave pixel and ASCII art graffiti in games. This is largely a bit of dead history that remains mostly undisclosed in digital culture and yet it remains a culture at corners of the Internet in different places that largely go unnoticed. If you get a chance look up the book Freax, the author’s seminar and related documentaries such as this one on YouTube if you don’t believe me. Compare that to Black MIDI, Line Rider artists, and similar digital art cultures invested in maxing out computational potential on YouTube and tell me I’m wrong. Each of these groups are “gaming” media by “upcycling” old platforms and media in an artist/hacker capacity. These people are all virtual siblings and progeny of demoscene hackers: the “nu-freax.” And semi-distinctly these groups have grown to proliferate into fringes of odd corners of the internet that don’t exactly overlap except in creative spirit.

This culture now exists outside the “proper” culture of goodhearted, play-by-the-rules gaming. These sorts of “developments” are outside of AAA gaming social norms. Within console culture, this is at best “modding” or at worst “cheating”. Outside of consoles, this is digital art subcultures and aesthetic hackers. A kid today could easily pick up a controller and play most games without ever knowing where this culture came from. They just know that it’s kind of funny to see all the NPCs replaced with Santas or Penguins, or they’re upset that someone figured out ho to extend the range of a sniper in-game beyond the prefigured distance. Likely that “cheater” only has a working knowledge of the culture they come from. These people weren’t properly parented into console gaming culture perhaps. They’re more like me, frankly.

Where did they come from? From the 1960s until around the late-1980s, demoscene artists were arguably pushing videogames to better more optimal heights, and finding every bit of computational power they could push out of these gaming machines they so cherished, but this was short lived because of their tenuous relationship with the legalities of console development.

They had to essentially join a hackerspace to get in on this action. They needed to join collectives of tinkerers. These (now 70-ish year old) kids disregarded corporate use-rights in the videogame “industry” to develop a craft until they were criminalized in order for platforms to insure the eventual quality of their “plug-and-play” systems. Eventually they were bought out or closed off by technological advancements in software encryption and digital policing tactics.

But this has begotten us a culture of youths who, in their inability to access multiple systems and understand them, flame each other over which console is more optimized, more future proof, more masculine, more savvy, more gamer-cultured, more bigger, more better. It’s not their fault entirely, but it has since trolled the internet with memes and YouTube reviews that are recommended specifically because they are optimized for polarizing opinions. “Do you know what it’s like not to have YouTube/Let’s Play/Twitch? You don’t even remember when people used to make fun of gamers for wearing DOOM t-shirts! We used to have to write cheat codes in notebooks to have what you do!”

Demoscene artists loved games because they were a part of the videogame media that it shaped, not because of how culturally successful it was in generating normalized gamer branded non-silicon stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I own lots of cheesy retro-80s Disney/Lucas Film movie t-shirts. I get it. It’s cool! But I didn’t buy my Atari VCS so that I could feel like I’d finally “landed” in the gamer world with the genuine article of complimentary cotton-blend Atari garb they mailed me. I have yet to have become a late-blooming video gamer.

The “console wars” have failed me, and in some small way they’ve likely failed any actual game lover too. You never inherited demoscene’s culture of their self-styled ASCII-crafty 8-bit chiptune mastery wizardy. No, you are within the confines mostly linearly provided hardware every 4 to 8 years with fairly clear platform boundaries where in order to be a “progressive” gamer responding to trauma inflicted by who you assumed was a 16 year old bully over a headset, “I treat all platforms equally! They’re all machines that play Games after all. Can you not just let people be happy?!” You and I were both born in this world of gaming.

Memoir of a Nu-Freak

Recall, I am NOT a gamer. There is a reason for this tragedy. I was born in 1990 to a farm kid and a rural high school English teacher neither of whom owned a CRT TV. Forget videogames. I didn’t hear the word “console” until I was in high school, nevermind think to own one. All I knew were books, sports, and classic board games, and never having friends over for any reason. I was a pretty isolated child with little to no money. My dad volunteered to coach rec league sports so that my sister and I could get out of paying fees every season. It would have taken the better part of most of my K-12 grass cutting career to have raised enough money to have gotten an Xbox considering Dad’s pay rate.

No, I was not a gamer. But by some miracle, my farm-punk, cutoff-sleeve trenchcoat, coverall wearing, barefoot, brazen mullet haired, hilariously 3-color-paneled 1989 Toyota Corolla driving, rural southern Dad got into grad school where he nicked a couple broken HP desktops from a Georgia State University dumpster. He then cobbled together a working Frankenstein of a PC that ran Windows 3.1x when I was 10 and gave it to me. I remember feeling like I had just been given a space ship, but simultaneously a little let down that it wasn’t the infamous 1999 Patriot Computer Hot Wheels PC that I pointed to in the CompUSA mail flier I asked for on my 10th birthday. I remember Dad distinctly saying, “The school threw this junk away, but if they ever ask for them back, just make sure we have the sticker with the serial number or else we’ll all be felons for theft from the state of Georgia. But otherwise, it’s yours.” Dad might be prone to hyperbole at times, but turns out that was 100% true. Don’t take public university technological property unless you know what you’re doing, kids.

With that computer, I wasn’t connected to the Internet. I wasn’t playing many PC games other than those educational games my parents could get from Big Lots! which included games such as Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego and several space math games where you suffocate in the vacuum if you don’t understand basic algebra, trig, and calculus. (The fellas on Apollo 13 and I had very similar life experiences and PTSD with math, I guess.) It was in this desperation of a bored, broke, and cobbled together life that I began tinkering with already broken things. This was the life I inherited like my father and his father before him. My Pawpaw (“granddad” for those that don’t use rural southern U.S. family kinship terms) never owned a brand new tractor, my Dad never owned a brand new car, and I never owned a brand new computer system. To this day, 4 years into a PhD program with “Technology” in its title, I have yet to own anything newer than a refurbished or multi-year-old PC.

Eventually, I did get an Internet connection. Then, I got a Xanga, then a MySpace, then a Facebook all against my parents commands in order to learn to find people and understand them in contexts in which I could learn from them. I picked up a little HTML to make Xanga more fun. I figured out what I called a “backdoor” to change my high school Computer Applications teacher’s screen saver before we went to lunch from my own terminal before getting reprimanded after IT guy ratted me out. So, I… uh…I learned to clean computer logs! I learned, collectively with my high school peers, desperate to escape learning functions in Excel, to bypass firewalls by typing meticulously paper cataloged IP addresses and using mysterious powers of hyperlinks to get around website blocks, all in the spirit of wanting to play Flash games on New Grounds. In all ways, rather than console gaming, I went procedurally through the same technological rites of passage to gain my cultural clearance for a smidgen of mostly-harmless digital delinquency and youthfulness. Still, I do not claim a “gamer” badge.

But being a poor kid in AP high school classes is incredibly isolating at times. My peers had already gotten an iPod and then an iPhone before I had even gotten a $45 mp3 player, which was the most expensive thing I ever bought until I got a 2nd Gen 80G candy red Zune my sophomore year of high school. I still use that thing to this day. Imagine getting the top of the line legal friendly music sharing technology only to realize you were the only one around with that technology. I really really tried not to be a digital pirate. I swear. (Once again, space cowboys and I have something else in common in our trauma. Thanks for the comradery, Star Lord!)

It is in this culture or dirtcheap-ness that I developed a lifestyle of hacker-esque decisions that I would like to think would make Steven Levy and Eric Raymond proud. I don’t know any other life. Nothing I own has ever worked “well.” I taught myself to play guitar on a Guild S-25 electric guitar that was found in parts on a consignment shop table. I made my own battery charger out of a nine volt battery and spare parts from an old radio and housed in an Altoids tin I dug out of the dumpster so I could charge my off-brand, pay-as-you-go Nokia and Zune without getting in trouble at school. Two weeks later, I got sent to the principal’s office in high school because some kid (who had an Xbox, PlayStation, Gameboy Color and SP) in my AP Biology class thought it would be funny to say it was a bomb in 2006 when they realized they weren’t going to be able to bully me out of an Altoids once faced with a mint-tin-encased bundle of wires that dashed their dreams of dental ecstasy.

My handheld gaming console at that point was a high school class-set TI-84 Plus graphing calculator loaded with Tetris which had to be factory reset before every science test. So a select person would always have to sneak it onto one of the calculators not used on the test and redownload it after. That game of Tetris existed as a part of a social club among my peers who could decide not to reload it on your calculator if they deemed you weren’t cool enough at the moment. It was a carefully political process. Somewhere about that time, I had heard the TI-84 “would DOOM.” I didn’t know how to make that happen. I wanted to know what that even meant. If I could have figured it out, you bet there would never be a question of having Tetris download rights again.

With all this in mind, undergrad passed by. I got okay at the N64 version of Super Smash Bros but only as Kirby in the “Christian library” room of the University of West Georgia Baptist Collegiate Minnistry where I feigned my salvation and gamer laurels. I was accepted as full on Sonic the Hedgehog #blessed! By the time I started my graduate program in the same place that my dad finished his, Georgia State institutionally refused to provide me with a working Windows system on a technicality when my Windows 7 laptop bluescreened in 2015. Damn those Windows updates! That’s what I get for playing on that nicked Windows 3.1x machine, I guess. So, an astro-engineering friend tossed me his then 7 year old laptop installed with a Linux system and I never turned back. I still own it. It’s named “Karl” after my friend who computationally set me free (as in libre). Once you learn to live as a tinkerer by necessity, you fight for that right wherever and whenever you can. Sometimes what you want in life requires it. I have needed root access ever since, always.

The Final Gist

So now, I am a proud owner of an Atari VCS, a Linux-based gaming “console” glitches and all. Because I understand the value of this cobbled together world where most had the privilege of simple plug-and-play, I feel comfortable and audacious enough to say what is possible from the scraps. It’s a risk that I’ve learned to take and has never exactly let me down so much as the corporate platformitization of culture, society, and education has. This thing will teach me things to carry on beyond itself and connect me to a community of tinkerers that have never quite had a console to call their own that they know can carry on beyond a single one-off Android system merely teasing open platform gaming potential.

This is what none of the first 5 pages of game/console reviews on YouTube or Google would have told you at the end of 2020. It probably didn’t occur to them as important. In fact it was written off by most in nested trivializing remarks: “Why buy the Atari? In a week, people will have it installed on their old laptop.” You know what? Yeah! I hope so! I might even give you a copy of it! Please! Come tinker with me! I’ve spent enough time pretending to be everything and everyone else in order to play games. That is what’s going to be remembered about this console. What once was a privilege for teenagers with access to cutting-edge graphically optimized computers and required a AFK network of educated hackers with enough spare time for basement hobbies will soon be connected with nothing more than a git command and $300 of hardware that’s probably mostly already laying around in your crawlspace in 2021… and you and your kids can make it better because you are libre if you choose.

What the VCS is, is a chance to game the glitch itself. It offers a crack in the structure where new things can be built. It offers new life to me and other “nu-freax.” It’s not for “gamers” in the sense Sony and Microsoft developed over the last 20-ish years. It’s for tinkerers who lost the privilege to access “gamer culture” a long time ago. It’s a chance to play with the culture on their own deterritorializing ground. To make gaming something slightly different, and maybe even have some fun outside of just optimizing for some corporate end.

So, what is the Atari VCS? It’s your kid’s entry into understanding gaming, technical aspects of computing, hacking, and the pure fun of simple game mechanics all bundled into one. Or, YOU could be that kid yourself. Yes you, Seasoned Gamer! You can catch up on a side of gaming that was lost, and then eventually cornered to the prosumer culture of Xbox Series X’s developer mode. And you can do it on a fully functioning Linux OS that carries a language recognized everywhere. You quite literally are /root user for this thing, and you can back up the image yourself to a cheap flashdrive, and destroy the system over and over trying to get it to work better faster than blowing in an NES cartridge to get it to load. (Don’t do that though, spit chemistry isn’t on your side.) Update your RAM and drop a terabyte of memory in the thing with a screwdriver. Good luck with doing that on your PS5 without a minor panic attack! With Linux, you are free to then take what you learned to a laptop, to your Android phone, to your Kindle, even to your reMarkable 2 paper tablet if you are really about stretching yourself. You can dual boot your VCS with an Ubuntu system, install Blender, and edit and render simple videos of your streaming content without having to port it anywhere first.

In watching literal hours of review footage, critical hot takes, and unboxings, I’ve matter-of-factually given the best review the VCS has gotten so far. “Does it even have new games?”, “Lol! The console exclusive is a fart joke…” Yes, we’ve glorified the successes of the console and their seamlessness for every step between hardware all the way to the game itself. Dad’s everywhere feel more comfortable giving their kids an Xbox controller than control over the thermostat. Yes, you have won. But at what creative cost? What are we really teaching the gaming progeny? Personally, I needed the Atari to have the chance understand games. I needed something that turned on and required that I wonder why it didn’t work in order to understand what does work.

Sure, the Atari VCS is imperfect. Sure, they made some really terrible decisions as designers and as an ethical business. Sure. Is it a console? Not like you thought it was going to be. But to me, it’s the platform I get to make because of its mistakes, its loose ends, its nu-freak glitchy aesthetic. I wish to game the glitches, to be given the opportunity to cobble together a small gaming culture for myself, one that I understand. The Atari VCS is open to change that no one and yet everyone owns. It’s a chance to build something modestly new and free. The Atari VCS is an opportunity to embrace an unknown potential and to play with that potential, even outside of the confines of any “open world” game. There’s an opportunity here for the gamer to rebuild a zombie console. The Atari VCS is potential.

Atari VCS, whether intentionally or not, made ME /root. I am allowed to be user and developer in a world of consoles where I seemed to have lost the right to be either. It gives me the control to make a gaming console what I needed in order to explore what kind of gamer I can be. If gaming culture doesn’t develop out of this thing, it’s my fault. That’s why I bought the damn thing.

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