The user of our speculative game box is to sit or stand in front of the device with her head inside the outer flaps that obscure the side control mechanism. The user is then in visual contact with the screen only with the rest of the apparatus obscured by the low light levels inside of the box. Ideally, the cover obscuring the Makey Makey has an opening for the built-in green LED light that indicates a closed circuit with the user. The user is then meant to reach around the box and explore its dimensions in order to locate and orient herself to the unfamiliar control layout. Therefore playing the game box should feel at once familiar and de-familiarizing (one can think of its layout as a portable arcade machine). The familiarity may be associated with any number of the box’s material and aesthetic aspects, like the screen, the pointed and cartoonishly large control buttons, or the game emulated on screen. This third aspect is especially important to our project, since the classic Atari emulator further encapsulates a familiar and nostalgic patina. The de-familiarization is then a result of the orientation of the interface, as well as the way play buttons are keyed up (left=right, up=down).
The user’s experience of playing a familiar game with our game box may vary, and our own attachment to constructing the box no doubt altered our expectations of how it could feel to play such a switched-around model of a familiar video game. Given this, we expect a user of the box to pay close attention to their own experience, which is most simply categorized as frustrating and disorienting. The purpose is not to achieve mastery of the game environment, since this could be difficult to accomplish with such a routine and habitual game platform. Instead the player should approach the box as a space to meditate on the contrast between learned behaviors associated with gaming and new approaches to play and design. Learning to orient oneself with the key mapping we have laid out can be similar to learning to ride a bike whose steering mechanism has been reversed, a very difficult task indeed.
Finally, we want the user to cope with such a failure in habituation and instead divert their attention to the bodily responses that are both engendered and demanded by computer game console designs (further elaboration of this can be found in the Rationale section). This is best achieved if the box is treated as immersive rather than peripheral. A comparison to a virtual reality gaming system and our speculative game box can no doubt be made, although we feel that VR technologies still strive for ergonomics and robustness in their control features. The darkened visual space inside the box should be similarly immersive, but the actual gaming feature should be participatory at best. By reconstructing a conventional video game in this way, we want to help players think about game design conventions, special arrangement, or at a more extreme level, what it mean to be a body in relations to a machine.
- This project requires the following materials:
- A computer monitor
- A well-fitting cardboard box (approx. same dimensions as the monitor)
- A Makey Makey
- A cardboard box that fits the Makey Makey
- Aluminum foil
- Scissors/hole-drilling implement (nothing fancy – we used a screwdriver)
- Electrical tape
- Other tape/zip ties
- A computer with emulation software
The larger box is attached to the computer monitor so that the user can see the monitor but not the sides of the box. We cut a slot into the box so that it fit around the monitor’s base, and then taped up the flaps on the back semi-loosely so that there was still a hole for the monitor’s cord and the Makey Makey’s.
Cut a hole in the back of the smaller box as to fit the Makey Makey’s USB input. Put the Makey Makey in the box and then plug the USB in (to get a feel for where the other holes should be). Mark on top of the box where the arrow key inputs and the ground on the Makey Makey are with the device plugged in, then remove the Makey Makey and cut cross-shaped slits where the marks are in order to have room for the alligator clips. Put the Makey Makey back in and attach the alligator clips to these inputs (we used two wires taped together with electrical tape for the ground), and then put this device inside the larger box. An optional step here is to attach the Makey Makey box to the larger box with a zip tie, after cutting two holes in the large box’s bottom.
Cut a square of aluminum foil from corner-to-corner twice, into 4 equal triangles. Trace these triangles onto the sides of the large box. Cut a small hole as low as possible in each of these drawings.
Take the other side of the alligator clips for the arrow keys and stick the end of each of them in a different hole from the inside of the box, so that the alligator clips are just barely sticking out to the outside. One could feasibly map these triangles to whatever they wanted, but the configuration we went with was (from left) up, right, down, left.
Attach the alligator clips to the aluminum foil triangles, then use electrical tape to affix the triangles to the outside of the box.
A step that we felt was necessary for distinguishing the inputs by feel was to create a border around each of the triangles using rolled-up aluminum foil. Attach these borders to the box, too, using a few small strips of tape.
Plug the monitor in, and then plug its VGA/HDMI and the Makey Makey into the computer. Run the emulation software using a game that only uses arrow keys (Pac-Man and Tetris work well).
The user should stand in front of the box as to not be able to see anything but the monitor, with the ground wire in some way touching their skin. The user should then put both hands on the sides of the box. The game should start, and the inputs should work by touching them, but the user will most likely lose. This is ok.
From the beginning, we were pretty certain that we did not want to make a project that was super serious, or without whimsy; we did, however, desire to make something with a decent amount of critical weight to it. We also knew from the beginning that we desired to make an interface for a preexisting game that in some way rendered it more complicated. In addition, we knew that we wanted one of the primary affects of this piece to be confusion, rendering the usual unusual, or even potentially humiliating (although we didn’t necessarily want the piece to be mean-spirited.
After a few less achievable ideas (something involving a box that required the user to lay on the floor and other strange ideas), the basic concept came to us: a box that the user would stick their head into and “play” by hitting its sides. This concept seemed to fit many of our ideas well, but we didn’t exactly have a real motivation for it yet (beyond it sounding pretty funny as an idea). While puzzling out how this concept and the surrounding ideas in the project fit together, the idea of gaming as a language, or as habituated, began to circle around our heads.
Near the end of Benjamin’s Work of Art… there is a passage that precisely gets at the process of human habituation:
…the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be performed solely by optical means—that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually—taking their cue from tactile reception—through habit. Even the distracted person can form habits. What is more, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their performance has become habitual. (120)
We both thought that this passage rang very true for the field of video games: one you’ve played enough video games, or played one video game for a long enough time, you begin running on the habitual, some sort of subcutaneous instinct that associates the sticks with movement, each button to its associated function and so forth.
So we thought: what if we were to break this gameplay habituation?
This is where our second main conceptual idea came in: the interface would be not exactly dissimilar to that of a standard game controller, but shifted just enough that muscle memory would be broken down. And thus we came to the conclusion that the controls on the box should be somewhat scrambled, only decipherable by experimentation. We briefly considered adding additional things that would feel like inputs: to achieve an “overabundance of inputs” in order to more totally separate the player from gaming cliché, but decided that this decision might render actual playability a bit too much of an ordeal (judging by how hard it was without these additional inputs, this was a good decision on our part).
As such, we decided that we had a pretty good set of central design ideas at this point: the player would look into a box, control the game based on feeling the sides of the box, and the controls would be in some way scrambled or unusual in order to fully break this system away from expectations of a game controller. Given this, we realized while designing our game box that there are indeed many ways to deconstruct, break or alter conventional game designs. Further research into the decisions that go into manufacturing game controllers at an industrial level could no doubt propel our speculative/alternative design imagination further. Like coding, game manufacturers must allocate style, economy, robustness, functionality and memory when creating peripheral game controllers. We are interested, however, in the ways culture and politics are also imbedded into these designs.
Game theorists such as Patrick Jagoda and David Golumbia have attempted to recognize these social aspects in games and gamification. Their analysis have led them to identify not only the overt socio-political connotations of popular computer gaming culture, but the constitution of play and games in contemporary computational societies as well (what passes as games or play these days):
Play is never pure. It is inherently precarious in its oscillation between imagination and materiality, individual creativity and social interplay, enactment of and experimentation with the world. Play depends on and recalibrates desire. Play, even within the parameters of a designed game and its constraints (no activity or aesthetic practice, after all, can ever be wholly free of constraints), is a space of potential, one that is so often undone by the ludic sterility of gamification. (Gamification and Other Forms of Play, 144)
Pitted against a growing multi-user, networked gaming environment, questions of labor, gender and identity are more easily drawn out. But what about aesthetics and mechanics of stand-alone classic video games and their associated material systems? Although built for speed and playability, they readily make use of our sensory and motor faculties, thereby creating habituation and conditioning. In another sense, the visual medium of computer games can itself be utilized to dispense and organize affect, recreate scenes of gender and economic strife or be faithful to cultural expectation in some way (Gamer-gate). Additionally, artists such as Zach Blas and Micah Cardenas have also outlined and strategized against male, white and heterosexual orientations in electronic and software design regimes.
What can we learn from such radical analyses of software, computation and the games we enjoy that are made possible by them? We agree that computer games operate inside a neo-liberal space. This occurs on both a material (materio-archeological) as well as an aesthetic and memetic level. One conclusion we have drawn from creating our game box is this: habituating oneself to gaming consoles have broader implications for how these materials come into existence in the first place, or how and why our personal tethering to them occurs. During this process, we also thought about the ways our relationship to technology could change depending on the economic, legal, censorship, religious or political situation directly effecting us. Keeping this in mind, yet following Jagoda’s infectious positivity, we maintain that a gaming still has the potential to become its own antithesis, or expand out and be reconfigured while maintaining (and enhancing) semblance to play that may be common to all.