This television spot for Atari’s Pole Position (1982, Namco) has one of my favorite exchanges of all time. As the camera physically invades the space of the family car, focusing on the bespectacled, bow-tied father driving the vehicle, an aggressive voice shouts at him:
Hey! You look like a real jerk.
Faced with this accusatory insult, the father is far from bothered, and while smiling benignly offers the following reply:
Well, I am a corporate executive.
The family in the vehicle are figured as culturally out-of-touch, in part through subtle class parody. The family of the “corporate executive” are out on a pleasant Sunday drive; their names — Biff, Muffy, Buffy, and Biff Jr. — further position them as parodies of well-established country club types. Through the advertisement, Pole Position is offered as an antidote to their too comfortable, too routine day-to-day life. Contrasted to the routine of a weekly drive, Pole Position is framed as exciting, competitive, and perhaps reckless. Of course, nothing in the game could compare to the surreal excellence of the car being lifted by a giant hand that shakes the passengers into race cars before destroying the sedan.
The point I actually want to make, however, is that Pole Position is advertised specifically as a family game. While the pyrotechnics and parody may separate the game from the trope of a cozy family game night, and the ad’s visual rhetoric appears to specifically target teens, the presentation of the game as a family entertainment is noteworthy. Further, while the presentation is a bit theatrical, the notion of Pole Position as an answer to the routine boredom of family time is a trope that has persisted in advertising and in reviews of “family friendly” video games (and systems, like the Wii, which are marketed as family, rather than individual or peer, entertainments), and of mainstream boardgames.
EA’s Family Game Night series provide an interesting moment of convergence, relying on the brand recognition of Hasbro’s popular toy and game properties, including Mr. Potato Head, Jenga, Twister, Operation and Clue, among others. Family Game Night offers a nonthreatening entree into family video gaming by relying on the popularity and existing visibility of Hasbro’s toy and game brands. While Pole Position is shown as a thrilling disruption of family time, Family Game Night is an example of video games made familiar and nonthreatening. The transition from Pole Position‘s tongue-in-cheek takedown of family time to Family Game Night‘s enthusiastic embrace is a provocative illustration of the normalization of video gaming, and the ways in which video gaming can converge with board and table games rather than displacing them.