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He wasn’t there for long _ he left the company in 1974 to travel to India and co-founded Apple two years later, in 1976.

Dona Bailey, one of the creators of “Centipede,” recalls a notebook that Atari had with maybe 30 ideas for games in it.

“Most of them were laser games,” says Bailey, who was the only female programmer in Atari’s arcade division when she was hired in 1980 and when she left in 1982. “I wasn’t really interested in war, or lasering anything, or violence.”

The only ideas in the notebook that didn’t have to do with “lasering things or frying things” were two sentences about a multi-segmented insect that walks out on the screen and winds its way down the screen toward the player, she says. There was implicit shooting, as the player at the bottom had to destroy the insect before getting hit by it, but “it didn’t seem that bad to shoot a bug.”

Thus, “Centipede” was born.

Atari, Steinberg says, pioneered a lot of the concepts that are popular in gaming today: Games should be for both men and women, and they should be social by allowing many people to compete with each other.

Atari “defined games as not just a product but a social movement,” Steinberg says.

But there is a generational divide. For kids born in the `80s and later, Atari elicits a respectful nod as a retro video game icon at best _ and a clueless shrug at worst.

“It may rise again, but it remains to be seen whether Atari’s place is among retail giants (such as) Activision and Electronic Arts,” Steinberg says, “Or in a future that is defined by its own past.”

Activision, which now makes such hit games as “Call of Duty” and “Diablo III,” was founded in 1979 by four disgruntled Atari game designers who wanted more recognition for their work.

As Activision’s future rose, Atari’s faltered. Having cemented video games as a form of mass entertainment, Atari was sold to Warner Communications Inc. in 1976 and began to pile up big losses.

Warner, now part of Time Warner Inc., discontinued the Atari 2600 and fired Bushnell, says Stephen Jacobs, professor of interactive games and media at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.

Meanwhile, several companies tried to capitalize on Atari’s success, but flooded the market with terrible products. It was a gold rush, with little gold to be had.

Atari contributed to that decline in quality with “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” still considered one of the worst video games ever made _ and that’s being generous.

“They tried to push something out in six weeks,” Jacobs says. “They pushed out a million units of a horrible game that they were sure was just going to be the bomb. And it ended up tanking Atari.”

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