Brevis Absentia

Monet_LilliesNext week I'm at Gamescom speed dating publishers again, and then I'm on vacation. A Hundred Cyborgs is on hiatus now until Autumn, but will return later this year with more ponderings about the strange creatures we become with our technology. And coming up for September, the Designer's Notes for Silk, which is much more philosophical and political than anything of its kind anyone has ever written, myself included (which is why I'm running it here and not on Stay tuned!

The Game resumes shortly.


Gauntlet Four PlayerGauntlet changed the arcade forever, and the moral implications of this shift has both positive and negative implications. From the early forays into co-operative play brought about by player two, the arcade began to discover a whole new realm of play: multiplayer. It meant more money for arcade operators – and indeed, was designed for that very purpose. But it also meant greater emphasis on co-operation, and most of the great commercial successes in the waning years of the arcade's heyday were four player co-op like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons.

It was not the first four player cabinet – Atari had a four player version of Warlords in 1980, for instance – but it was the first game to have co-operation baked into the design. Inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (via John Palevich's Dandy, which had been distributed on the Atari Program Exchange), the game was designed exclusively for players to work together. Yet a lingering competitiveness remained: there was not enough food to keep four players going (after all, for the coins to flow, players must die) so even in a game expressly designed for players to work together, a tension remained.

As such, the moral effects of multiplayer were a distorted Prisoner's Dilemma where no matter how much players wanted to work together, there was always an ever-present temptation to defect. Yet this clouds the core behavioural effect of Gauntlet, one shared by Sega's novel spin on it, Quartet: it made players actively want to play together like nothing before. If pinball always felt co-operative to me, multiplayer co-op removed the metaphor. We sought out new friends to join us in the game – nothing else broke the introverted ice of the early arcade quite as effectively, or as extensively. If there was a commercial motive behind this from the point of view of Atari and the arcade, it did not change the positive impact it had in the lives of those who came together because of its.

Yet even the commercial aspect of Gauntlet's success is arguably more laudable in the context of the arcade multiplayer than online multiplayer today. For Atari's Gauntlet kept alive multiple small businesses (the arcades themselves), providing shared spaces for players to meet and engage socially. Whatever might be said of League of Legends and its ilk today, they are not a socially co-operative endeavour that shares wealth with tens of thousands of local partners, and creates new spaces for play and friendship, but merely a digital funnel leading to yet another giant corporate maw...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #60, the final part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.

Player Two

Joust-marquee-1024x512What happens when you add a second player to a game? For most of the twentieth century, arcade games were single player experiences. Yet they still offered, for almost all of that time, the choice to add a second player. The idea that player two would co-operate was not an option in pinball games, and I know of no electro-mechanical coin ops that supported it. Right up until 1980, the purpose of player two was to compete with player one, and if a game supported more than two players it was only to increase the number of competitors.

When co-operative play arrived, it did so against the background of competition. Wizard of Wor in 1980 was a shooting dungeon bash that allowed two simultaneous players, while Williams' astonishing Joust in 1982 was a wild game about knights flying on birds and defeating each other by having the highest lance in the collision. Both allowed players the option to work together while still permitting them to turn on each other and do battle if they so desired. The schizophrenia of this situation was acutely felt by Joust players, who were awarded bonus points for not killing each other in Survival Waves, and points for slaying player two in Gladiator waves. But this was nonsense: I know of no player who enjoyed Joust competitively, nor were the rewards for defection large enough to offset the benefits of continued co-operation.

Joust was, in effect, a failed Prisoner's Dilemma. In the famous thought experiment, the benefits of co-operation are less than defecting, but only if the other person does not also defect. If everyone turns traitor, nobody gets anything. In Joust, the benefits of co-operation outstripped those of defection in all circumstances. What's more, Joust is a better model of co-operation in life than the Prisoner's Dilemma, which is inherently contrived. The lesson of billions year of biology, as Lynn Margulis always stressed, was that co-operation is a more powerful force than competition: a purely competitive world would have resulted solely in specialised bacteria. It was co-operation that brought cells together to make multi-cellular colonies like us – and it was only on a bedrock of such widespread cooperation that competition of the kind player two embodied prior to 1980 could even become intelligible. After all, it is our metaphors that project human competitiveness onto bacteria.

Joust is one of my favourite games of all time. I love it in single player, but in two player it became something even greater: an object lesson in the benefits of working together. Yes, that co-operation is framed in terms of violent competition – you must defeat the enemy knights – and that is true of the vast majority of videogames. But how often do we become cyborgs that are reminded of the value of working together? Every game that achieves this moves far beyond the simple cutthroat rhetoric of player two.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #59, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.

Underground Gamers

Joypad Graffiti.2-1

Over on ihobo today, I wrote something about gamers. I know, I know, the word now makes some people cringe, but I'm not one of them. I never think the way to deal with a community problem is to pretend that the community doesn't exist any more or (worse) that is shouldn't exist any more. I really don't know why anyone could ever think this would work, and communities - all communities - are something too valuable to trash indiscriminately.

What I'm interested in exploring in this piece is the relationship between those gamers who are committed to the AAA industry, and those that are just as interested (or more interested) in the oddities on the fringes. Here's an extract:

The players of the underground are free range gamers – they won't be stuck in AAA cages, they have to wander through the entire landscape of games, searching for interesting, novel, unusual, and undiscovered oddities. Without them, we'd all miss out on so many of the fascinating curiosities that are hidden away in a market now so impossibly varied in its niches that nobody will ever again be able to claim to have played everything.

The piece ends with an offer to share anything interesting written on obscure games. I doubt anyone will take this up, but the offer is there! You can read the entirety of Underground Gamers over at

Game Over

Asteroids Game OverIs there anything that says videogame more than the immortal phrase 'Game Over'? Odd, then, that some early video games did not include it – the 1979 Tail Gunner cabinet, for instance, simply returned to the title screen when you let too many enemy ships get past. The phrase originated in 1950s and 60s pinball tables, which lit up the words with a lightbulb inside the cabinet to confirm that no more balls remained, but even then a light showing 'balls remaining' was more common.

It is quite sobering to think that before the mid-1980s, it was entirely impossible to continue playing a game after either your lives or the timer ran out. For Space Invaders, Pac-man, and Galaga, the last life meant quite definitively 'game over'. Vanguard and Fantasy in 1981 offered the choice, as did the more successful Moon Patrol in 1982, but it did not become standard until Atari's 1985 hit Gauntlet heralded the end of the era of 'one credit, one game' and the beginning of the 'pump and play' era, which let you funnel as many coins as you liked into a single game – the onset and ancestry of microtransactions in games.

To ask about the moral or behavioural effects of 'Game Over' sounds strange – but Gauntlet puts the issue into perspective. Early arcade players such as myself learned to master the cabinets through repetition – and we got extremely adept in the process. By contrast, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Simpsons games in 1987 and 1991 respectively were typically (but not exclusively) played by players once, in one expensive, coin dropping session. The arcades did alright out of this arrangement. But lost was that tenacious persistence in the pursuit of mastery that had, for myself and others like me, characterised the arcade experience.

When I worked in house at Perfect Entertainment in the 1990s, we had a close relationship with Sega and there was a House of the Dead lightgun cabinet in our kitchen. A co-worker was surprised that I declined the option to continue, given that we were given infinite credits. I explained that I wanted to get good at the game, and you didn't achieve that by just papering over your mistakes with a continue. Intrigued, he began to play that way, and eventually surpassed my skill with the machine. It may not seem it, but Game Over sculpted a positive approach to the mastery of skills, one I might gainfully compare to the persistence of the skateboarder. Game Over didn't just end the play session: it made better players.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #58, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.