ATARI: What’s in a name?

I have long been fascinated with self-given names, and the effect they have on the entity being named. Having grown up with my roots firmly planted in the computer security underground, I regularly met and dealt with people identified only by their self-given handles (pseudonyms). I soon began to notice that many of these people seemed to embody traits and mannerisms that coincidentally aligned with the character assumptions and mental imagery that their handle’s subject-matter embodied. After a while I began to wonder, did these personal traits cause the person to name themselves in a certain way, or did naming oneself a certain name begin to manifest such  corresponding traits in the individual? I’ve done some preliminary research into this subject, however I’m not quite ready to release my results… that’s a discussion for another time. Instead, today I want to comment on an observation regarding an entity of another type; a corporation.

The original Atari Inc. was founded in 1972. It was a pioneer in arcade games, home video game consoles, and home computers. The company’s products, such as Pong and the Atari 2600, helped define the computer entertainment industry from the 1970s to the mid 1980s. In 1984, the original Atari Inc. was split, and the arcade division was turned into Atari Games Inc. Atari Games received the rights to use the logo and brand name with appended text “Games” on arcade games, as well as rights to the original 1972 – 1984 arcade hardware properties. The Atari Consumer properties were in turn sold from Warner Communications to Tramel Technology Ltd., which then renamed itself to Atari Corporation. In 1996, Atari Corporation reverse merged with disk drive manufacturer JT Storage (JTS), becoming a division within the company. Atari Interactive started as a subsidiary of Hasbro Interactive, after Hasbro Interactive acquired all Atari Corporation related properties from JTS in 1998. IESA in turn acquired Hasbro Interactive in 2001, and proceeded to rename it to Infogrames Interactive. In 2003, IESA then changed the company name entirely to Atari Interactive. The company that currently bears the Atari Inc. name was founded in 1993 under the name GT Interactive. IESA acquired a 62% controlling interest in GT Interactive in 1999, and proceeded to rename it Infogrames, Inc. In 2003, Infogrames Inc. licensed the Atari name and logo from Atari Interactive and changed its name to Atari Inc., bringing the name full-circle to the original.

What was the point of that long-winded history of Atari? Simply to make you aware of the constant cycle of business or financial failure, acquirement or sell-off of the assets and intellectual properties, and subsequent rebirth of the company repeatedly over it’s entire history. I was personally familiar with the company during the ’80s when the consumer division was producing the Atari ST line of personal computers, and was a member (and eventually president) of the North Texas Atari Computer Team (NTACT), the local Atari user group. It was a common observation and concern at the time that Atari was constantly missing opportunities, being mis-managed by the company’s executives, making outright blunders, and so forth.  As the video game industry has matured since those days, many of those concerns have persisted through the company’s many reincarnations. These observations and concerns seem to be confirmed simply by the number of times that the company was in trouble, financial or otherwise, and then was either sold or acquired in order to breathe fresh life into the brand. This has happened so many times that many say the Atari name is cursed. Even with all of it’s many successes, in all of the areas of arcade games and machines, computer and video game hardware, and in game software, Atari seems to constantly be in it’s death throes, struggling to stay alive.

So, what’s in a name? The name of the company appears to be an unfortunate choice, when viewed through the lenses of it’s sordid history. The term atari is a Chinese word meaning “a hit”, and is primarily used in the game of Go:

Atari” (Chinese: dǎchī (打吃); Korean: dansu (단수)) is a term used for a situation where a stone or chain of stones has only one liberty, and may be captured on the next move if not given one or more additional liberties. It can be a verb to describe the act of placing a chain under atari, as well as an adjective to describe the status of a unit, as being “in (the state of) atari”. Calling out atari during a game is sometimes done by beginners much like calling out check in chess, but it is considered rude by many players who have advanced beyond the absolute beginner level.

Sound eerily similar to the constant state of the company itself? A group of stones, or a unit, being in atari in the game of Go is essentially a sign of their failing health, or dwindling liberties, and their eventual demise or capture. Unless there is plenty of room around the unit on the game board for it to expand, or some extremely strategic or bold steps are taken to save it, a unit in atari is many times accepted to be a lost cause. Luckily for Atari, it has managed to escape atari many times over it’s long history and is still around today. The big question is, will the nature of the company’s name continue to haunt it, and if so, will the essence of Atari continue to find ways to survive against the apparently daunting odds?

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