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Tales of Tactility

posted on February 4th, 2008 by derek

Remember H.A.L? That evil-genius-space-robot from Clarke/Kubrick’s 2001? It seems like most of the time I hear him mentioned it’s from some miniaturization fetishist from the Church of Jobs (Steve). Something along the lines of “can you believe how big they thought computers would be back in the 60’s?!?!” Nevermind that the ability to create a sentient AI is still far beyond our reach, and that supercomputers still take up entire rooms. Fans of the MacBook Air expect super-intelligent robots to get lost in a container of Tic-Tacs.

But H.A.L’s massiveness underscores a point about machines that gets lost nowadays: that they are composed real objects and are themselves physical as well as intellectual. David Bowman doesn’t defeat H.A.L. by uploading a virus or outrationalizing it until it “cannot compute.” He inserts himself into its innards and takes it apart circuit-board by circuit-board. It reminds us that there was a time when computers (and gaming consoles) weren’t just an anonymous collection of whatchama-gidgets hiding behind a sleek exterior. Instead, they were relatively easy to understand from power source to pixel. While Steve Wozniak became famous for decreasing the number of chips needed for a cart of Breakout (and subsequently getting ripped off by Steve Jobs), my understanding of modern game design is that it doesn’t involve a lot of soldering.

I bring all this up because I just got an Atari 2600, which I think is the first multi-console gaming system (tell me if I’m wrong). It’s frequent glitchiness and minimalist aesthetic make me believe that – if I had the time – I could sorta understand how electricity gets turned into the images on my TV. But more than that, the clumsiness of the joystick and the Atari’s general unresponsiveness makes me feel like I’m wrestling with the console. The result is that I’m not only “playing against the computer” in the traditional, mental sense; I also have to wrangle the Atari into committing acts of violence against itself, UFC-style.

Unfortunately, since the Atari is in charge, I can’t win. Literally. Missile Command is my favorite so far, and from what I can tell there is no chance of an upbeat ending to the game. No cut-scenes of happy citizens saved by the eagle-eyed Missile Commander. The most you can hope for is a longer delay before everyone gets nuked by the anonymous enemy. The sparse simplicity of the game and its imprecise handling makes me feel like I’m back in the seventies, during the height of the cold war. Simple arrays of colorful lights once symbolized the lives and possible deaths of millions of citizens. Somehow, playing Missle Command reminds me how much that representation trivialized the lives of those people, and made their (seemingly) inevitable deaths all the more tragic.

After playing my new Atari for a while, I can’t say that its games are less fun than newer, fancier ones. Nor can I say the opposite is true. What I can say is that somehow, possibly without noticing it, we’ve lost something important and fundamental about gaming. While I wouldn’t advocate heading back to the time when we blew into our NES cartridges to get them to work, I wouldn’t mind feeling that my games were closer to existing in the real world. It’s hard for me to conceptualize what I think we’ve lost, since it is little more than a feeling (maybe just nostalgia). Maybe we’ll all understand when real missiles rain on us from above, and we’re all stuck trying to remember what transistors are.


  1. Christian said on February 4, 2008:

    This is a very great observation. A lot of games back then were completely hopeless. No matter what you did you were going to lose. Pixel people were going to die. This seems in complete contrast to today’s games where everyone can win, and bad things don’t always (perhaps don’t often) happen.

  2. GJ said on February 4, 2008:

    Clearly neither of you plays on Xbox live, where even if you win, you’re still forced to play with Xbox live kiddies, with all their smack talk and high pitched, pre-pubescent voices.

  3. Christian said on February 4, 2008:

    GJ I play Call of Duty 4 nightly – its amazing how many times “your balls haven’t dropped” can be uttered in unique matches.

    But we’re talking about single player here. Right?

  4. shota said on February 4, 2008:

    If you’ll forgive me a pretentious observation, I like your ‘voice’ Derek. Nice job on the article.

  5. Stefan said on February 5, 2008:

    I agree, this really captured a lot of why I still like playing old Atari games…and why I don’t play them as often as I used to. I think as a small child it hadn’t really dawned on me that the pixel man’s death was truly inevitable.

  6. Marika said on November 30, 2015:

    I played a lltite with some programming languages before (mostly PHP and JavaScript, but just a lltite) and, recently, I became interested in learning a bit more about programming and chose AS3.Lots of people told me about AS3 and I’ve had my eyes on things like FlashPunk and Flixel before, so I thought I’d give it a try.Since I don’t have Flash Pro (my trial has expired and no money to buy it =/), just mixed a few tutorials I’ve found on the web (for textField, drawRect, movieClips and etc.) with this tutorial to build the example on Flashdevelop and the result was great!I thought it was fairly easy to build functions and make a (very) simple title screen and a game over screen.Great Tutorial! Hope I can finish at least one original game soon. =PThanks from Brazil! =P

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