Arab Atari lovers look back at their gaming memories and mourn the loss of its co-founder Ted Dabney

Updated 08 June 2018

Arab Atari lovers look back at their gaming memories and mourn the loss of its co-founder Ted Dabney

  • Celebrate the memories, mourn the loss and now play the game below
  • Nostalgia and console for a generation of Arab gamers

DUBAI: As the world bid farewell last week to Ted Dabney, co-founder of video game trailblazer Atari, veteran gamers in the region paid tribute to the man responsible for some of their fondest childhood memories.

From Pong, Space Invaders and Asteroids to Pac-Man and Adventure, Atari shaped the upbringing of many Arabs and expatriates.

“I was very young when I first started playing Atari and I used to play with my older brothers,” said Mishaal Alireza, a 38-year-old Saudi who grew up in Jeddah. 

“Back then, we lived in a compound and many of my cousins would come over to play on the same screen. We played on my older brother’s consoles — games and consoles back then were much more of a rarity than they are today.”

Alireza, now one of the owners of Tokyo Games, the Kingdom’s largest games retailer, and iZone, believes the Atari 2600 was “the console” that launched the world of video games. 

“We enjoyed playing together, even though we didn’t quite know what an Atari was,” he said. “It was amazing, and we wanted more of it.”

Mo Noah shares his love of early video games with his children.

The gaming industry has moved on since those days with the introduction of more sophisticated video game consoles featuring improved graphics and faster processors, such as the Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4 and the Microsoft Xbox.

“Not many people owned consoles in the early days, so people would travel to friends’ houses just to play or even watch someone play,” he said.

“We just sat and looked in awe at this new machine. Today, more people play online with each other. Something I miss a lot from the old game is the togetherness of the same room, same TV and same console.”

Alireza said today’s gaming world was more focused online. “Now you expect every game to be great, and we have hundreds of selections. Back then, we didn’t have the choice — we took whatever was made and made the most of it,” he said.

Alireza’s job means he has to keep up to date with the latest games, checking top-rated releases to gauge how well they will perform in
the Kingdom. 

“We have an in-house team that tests and rates games, but I also always use my nieces and/or nephews for updates,” he said.

“We have been in the business for over 25 years and Saudi was certainly not as important in the world of video games as it is today — now we have some of the world’s top gamers here in Saudi, and we are an important market for gaming.”

Abdulrahman Rammal, a 31-year- old Saudi engineer who lives in Makkah, said Atari had a vital role in the creative side of his upbringing. “It took me away from this regular life of toys to the gaming world,” he said. “It was my first video game and represents my childhood and the era of the 1980s and early 1990s. The newer games we see today are more developed, but it will always remain the best one for me.”

Taha Iqbal, originally from Pakistan, was the first in his Jeddah neighborhood to buy an Atari console in 1985, when he was just 8 years old. “I was the cool kid,” he recalls. “I still have a T-shirt with the Atari logo on it. I even recently bought the Space Invaders T-shirt as well. The good thing was that it was something that was revolutionary at the time because kids my age were mainly playing outdoors, then indoor gaming came in.” 

Atari took over Iqbal’s summer mornings and weekends. “My favorite games were Space Invaders and Pac-Man,” said the 40-year-old country marketing manager for Ikea Saudi Arabia. “My cousins used to come over and we would play so much together that we had to buy extra joysticks because we used to break them. Atari was the foundation for all video games we see today.”

The console was just as popular in Riyadh, where Rasha Alosh grew up. The 38-year-old Syrian remembers playing with her brothers. “We didn’t have a lot of entertainment at that time,” said the mother of three. “It was creative, new and a way to use our mind. It also kept us together.”

Atari was the basis for games developed later on. “It’s like the Nokia of video games,” she said. “Today, no one would look at it, but it was amazing at the time and will always hold a special place in our hearts.”

The game was also a hit with Mo Noah, a 49-year-old South African who lives in Dubai. Growing up, it was one of the first gifts he received from his father. “We used to play a lot in arcades and my father wanted me to get out of the shops and at home,” he recalls. “They replicated the arcade games to the Atari games, which is how they got me at home more frequently — my favorite games were Asteroids, Pac-Man and Frogger.”

The console was such a big part of Noah’s life that he bought one for his two children a few years ago. “I felt so nostalgic,” he said. “I started playing with them, but they’re used to the current technology with games. I wanted to show them where it all started. 

“Atari was way ahead of its time. If you look at how technology has evolved, you have to go back to Atari, the first game that was designed and served as the foundation for all the others that followed.”

For Noah, Atari meant bringing the family closer together. “We were competing against each other and I was beating everybody,” he said with a smile. “My parents were very happy that they got all of my neighborhood friends to play because I was the only one with a console at the time.”

He said Atari’s impact on the global gaming industry had been immense. “Nothing can beat Atari,” he said. “It’s a different place and time today — children will not appreciate what we started off with.” 

Noah expressed his nostalgia as he spoke of the console’s co-founder. “He probably didn’t see what his invention would do,” he said. “The consequence is we are sitting with virtual reality today, and that will be the next big thing in the gaming industry.”

The gaming sector is growing in the region. In October last year, Saudi Arabia set up the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronics and Intellectual Sports to establish leagues, championships, training centers and develop games. 

“Their hope is to be a pioneer in the world of e-sports and to be a leader in the space on a global level,” Alireza said. “They have a great group of people with a laser-focused vision to be this global player. We have some amazing gamers in Saudi, and this federation is giving them a chance to shine, as well as develop new talent and create new jobs to
support the growth of the e-sports market.” 

Ted Dabney bio

Ted Dabney co-founded Atari, Inc. with Nolan Bushnell on June 28, 1972, in Sunnyvale, California.

The American electrical engineer, who was born in San Francisco in 1937, got his start in the computer industry with Hewlett-Packard. In 1961, he moved to Ampex, where he worked on military products. That drove him to discover the world of early video imagery. 

When Ampex hired Bushnell in 1969, the pair worked together and became friends. The duo established a partnership, Syzygy, in 1971 before changing it to Atari, Inc. Together, they created ground-breaking video games, including Computer Space, Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Frogger.

Dabney later worked at Teledyne Technologies for a decade before leaving the industry.

He was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer late last year, but refused treatment and died on May 26.

Dabney’s work is recognized as having paved the way for the video game revolution.