With powerful branding and design, Atari became a household name in video games and computers during the 1970s and early ’80s. We’ll explain how its founders came up with the name and what it means.
Nolan Bushnell Was a Fan of Go
Believe it or not, the roots of the name “Atari” stretch back 2,500 years, even though video games themselves are only about 60 years old.
Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari in 1972. A few years before that, they shared an office while working as engineers at Ampex, an audio and video recording technology company. Bushnell and Dabney often played the ancient East Asian board game called Go together in the office.
In 2009, Dabney told me that he built a Go board they could set up between their desks. When not in use, he’d flip it over and hang it on the wall—the other side had an Ampex Videofile emblem painted on it.
Bushnell, who I also spoke to in 2009, recalled the Go board at Ampex. “It was behind there by the side of the desk,” he said, “and we’d pull out the garbage cans, and [they] acted as the base when we played.” Who won? I asked. “I was the better Go player,” said Bushnell. “I taught him, so he was kind of my pupil, but I regularly beat him.”
In the game of Go, a player’s pieces get captured if they are surrounded on all four sides by the opposing player’s stones (with all four of their “liberties” occupied). If a piece or group of pieces could potentially be captured in the next move, it’s in a state known as “atari,” which generally means the piece or pieces are threatened with capture.
Among beginning Go players, it is sometimes considered polite to warn the other player when this condition occurs by saying “atari,” similar to saying “check” while playing chess. But the etiquette is not clear-cut: High-level Go players typically frown upon the practice and consider warning “atari” a bad habit.
But what does “atari” really mean? It’s a Japanese word (当たり), and like many words, it has several different meanings based on context. Its meaning in relation to Go we’ve already covered, and that one has no direct translation in English. But Wiktionary cites the Shogakukan Progressive Japanese-English Dictionary in defining “atari” with two other English meanings: a hit, or a winning or correct guess. In the case of the company name, “atari” only related to Go, so the other definitions don’t apply.
Why Did They Choose Atari as the Name?
We know Bushnell loved Go, but how did it become the name of his pioneering video game company? During the earliest phase of Bushnell and Dabney’s business partnership, the pair called their venture “Syzygy” (meaning a straight line of three celestial bodies). Syzygy contracted with Nutting Associates to develop Computer Space in 1970-71.
When it came time to break off and publish (build) video games on their own, Bushnell and Dabney attempted to incorporate in California under the name “Syzygy,” but it was taken by a roofing company. On the next incorporation attempt, the pair submitted three Go-related terms in order of preference: Sente, Atari, and Hane. Atari was available, and it became the company’s new name, apparently picked by someone at the California Secretary of State’s office. There’s still some mystery in the historical record about how and why Atari won out.
In the years that followed, Atari grew into an entertainment powerhouse, innovating a new type of electronic entertainment and becoming wildly successful. It hit the big time with Pong, Home Pong, and the Atari 2600 game console. It also branched out into home computers such as the Atari 800.
After several IP acquisitions over the decades, the original Atari company is long gone. But the Atari brand lives on as a French company, Atari SA, which was formerly known as Infogrames Entertainment. As for Bushnell, his love of Go continues. He has cited it as his favorite game of all time. In the early 1980s, Bushnell founded another company called Sente after he left Atari, but none of his other ventures had as much impact as the original.
When I talked to Ted Dabney about Atari’s origins back in 2009, I couldn’t help but ask him: Did you and Bushnell ever say “atari” to each other while playing Go at Ampex? “Yeah,” he replied. “That was part of the game.”
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