By Any Other Name: The Origin of Atari

The year is 1972, and video game innovator Nolan Bushnell and his partner Ted Dabney are fresh from their design of the first commercial arcade game, Computer Space. Before beginning their next big project, they decide to trademark their gaming company, Syzygy, named after an astronomical term for three celestial bodies in a straight line. Unfortunately, a representative for the California Secretary of State reports that the name is already trademarked. Forced to think of another option, Bushnell changes his focus from the future—space—to the distant past—the fourth century BC and the game Go.

Both in print and on camera, Bushnell cited the strategy game Go as his favorite game of all time. Go first appeared in China more than two thousand years ago, then spread to Korea and Japan and later to the West. Played on a wooden board composed of 19×19 grid lines and black and white stones, Go is famous for its combination of simplistic rules and complex strategy. Although often compared to chess, there is no set piece to capture in Go. Instead, players battle for territory and control of the board. Serious gamers spend their lifetimes mastering its intricacies. To ensure that he didn’t run into more complications, Bushnell provided the state with three new names from which to choose: Sente, Atari, and Hanne. All three reference moves in Go.

Sente, Bushnell’s first preference, means “initiative.” A move has sente if it is so powerful and gives the player so much momentum that his or her opponent must respond to it. Sente can also refer to the actual player making such a move. If a player holds sente throughout the game, a win is assured.

Hanne, Bushnell’s third option, often written with a single ‘n,’ is a move that “wraps around” or “overtakes” an opponent’s stone. Go inspired many famous proverbs relating to the game, including one that refers to this move: “There is death in the hane.” When a player overtakes a stone, it often dies and it is taken out of play.

California ultimately approved Bushnell’s second choice, atari. This is similar to the concept of “check” in chess. A player surrounds a stone on three of its four sides, leaving his opponent only one free space in which to move to save that stone. Atari refers to both the position and the act of placing an opponent’s stone in danger, and beginners often verbally announce when this occurs during a game.

Now a household name, Atari is synonymous with the beginning of the cartridge-based video game industry, and I can’t imagine it being called anything else. But in my opinion, Bushnell’s legacy resides in his link between a board game from two millennia past with an industry that represented a huge leap into the future of electronic play. This is an important reminder that video games have more in common with traditional forms of play than we often notice.

And lest you think the Go references end here, think again. In 1987, Atari Games created a subsidiary company called Tengen, which translates to “the origin of heaven” and is the very center point on a Go board. If I ever need to name a company, I know just where to look!