Fruit Machines

Fruit MachineI have always loved those 'one armed bandits' made prior to 1980 over the swirling seductive flashing lights of their newer push-button brethren. It helps that my encounters with the older machines happened early in my life and late in theirs, reconditioned classics taking tuppence or so per pull of the arm in my regular seaside arcade. The stakes were low, the fun inherent to the operation of the mechanical device and the pleasing clacking they made when they paid out a win. It did not in any way feel like gambling, but rather just another way to spend coins in the arcade. We called them fruit machines because that was always how they were marked: with cherries, melons and – less fruity, but still cute – bells, and bars. By 1980, there was an odd sense of innocence to these symbols.

In his late teens, a very dear friend of mine made a most interesting argument in favour of the later slot machines. Unable to save money (having never acquired the habit of holding onto it), the slots were his ad hoc savings plan. Once every few months he'd win a jackpot of a hundred pounds or so and enjoy the sensation of having what felt like a sizable sum to spend. Almost every big purchase of his came out of these intermittent wins – an inefficient, yet highly entertaining, savings scheme.

To ask about the cybervirtue of fruit machines and the slots that followed them is to enquire whether any positive habits were instilled by engaging with them. I think it fair to say that the case for this is rather thin; even my friends 'gamble to save' scheme is a prop for an absence of prudence rather than anything we could judge as clearly virtuous. The draw in these mechanical entertainments has always been the jackpot – the big win that is always clearly advertised – although the post-eighties variants also draw in punters with an increasing reliance on licensed IP (much as with pinball tables from the eighties onwards) and dazzled punters with elaborate light shows that have all the hypnotic allure of the angler fish, luring unwary critters to their doom.

That said, the deal offered by the slots was clear from the start: a chance to win back more than you lose. What's more, they offer an opportunity to gamble that does not risk creating bad blood with your friends over losses accrued. The neutrality of this form of gambling is part of its appeal: you win, nobody loses (for the operator is assured a profit over the long term by the cut the machine takes by design). If we compare the fruit machine to the more predatory microtransaction videogames, which take similarly small sums of money but offer no possibility of a return beyond entertainment, it is not so clear that gambling is the root of any relevant problem here...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #54, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Coin Slot

Arcade Coin SlotIs there any greater symbol of the arcade than the coin slot? It is the reason that arcades ever came into existence, for it was not art but commerce that brought entertainment machines together into one space. Today, arcades are just as likely to be museums as going commercial concerns – in some respects, the lines between those two states are very much blurred. At Free Gold Watch in San Francisco, which I visited while writing these arcade cyborg pieces, the older pinball tables are dressed with their year of publication and historical context, just as any artwork in a gallery would be.

The coin slot is also a symbol of temptation, and this in more than one sense. In the arcade, the player is tempted to drop coins into the slot to play the game (the necessity of which gives us the term 'coin op' i.e. coin operated), and after Gauntlet (which I shall return to later in this series) the temptation was also there to continue – to keep putting coins into the slot in order to get further. I appreciate now that putting those coins in was to support the arcade and that without them, we would (and did) lose them... the owners of The Gaiety on Ventnor beach were less than pleased with my childhood habit of collecting tuppences that passing cars shook lose from the penny falls and turning them into 10p to play Nemesis or Rastan Saga.

In the 1980s, there was an additional temptation associated with the coin slot known as strimming. Early coin op devices were tripped by the weight of the coin and were inexact about their detection, such that it was possible to use the stiff plastic string that comes with a garden strimmer to trigger the sensor and rack up false credits. I never once did this, nor was tempted to, but I knew a boy who did... Nothing good came from this. The greed entailed led him away from enjoying games and into a kind of adolescent crime spree, knocking over one armed bandits. The arcade owners may have scowled at my recycling of coins, but at least I wasn't outright stealing.

The last temptation of the coin slot is that of the manufacturer – do they make a great game, or do they make a game that encourages more coin drops? For many arcade games, they achieved both. Sega's legendary AM2 (Amusement Machines, Division 2) made games like OutRun, After Burner, and Space Harrier that succeeded in large part because of 'over the shoulder' appeal – it looked fun even when watching. Today's microtransaction games have no coin slot yet risk an even narrower, more draconian focus upon money. There is something to be said for the agreement regarding money laid out plainly in a slot rather than lurking in ambush inside a game that claims to be free-to-play.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #53, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Pinball

Pinball tablesThe pinball table evokes even stronger memories of physicality from the dark rooms of my past than the joystick. Here, the very action of play was percussive – the bang, bang of the buttons, struck firmly and with exquisite rhythm, the measured release of tension in the plunger – up to that most violent of resorts, striking the table at just the right moment to save your ball, but with enough restraint to avoid triggering the tilt.

As someone with no aptitude for sports, the pinball table was one of my most physical childhood experiences. It was also very much a communal experience. I would gladly play a videogame alone, but I would not feed coins to a pinball machine without a player two to join me. And if, as our credits ran out, if we scored a match, we extended the communal experience by playing 'a flipper apiece', accepting a higher degree of challenge by splitting the task across two nervous systems, but relishing our achievements all the more because of it. The time we earned a high score upon an Addams Family table is indelibly burned into my memory.

The virtue of the pinball player lies in the prowess, the experience, transferable to a great degree from table to table, of learning to aim with a mechanism wildly inefficient at precision, yet capable, deep in the muscle memory, of a mastery quite beyond the pattern-learning of arcade videogames that is far more a matter of mind than musculature. That, and the camaraderie; we did not play together to compete – victory over the other was tangential, utterly forgettable – it was inherently co-operative for us to play a table together.

My friend and I learned no table as intimately as The Addams Family, the most successful pinball table of all time. It was one of the first to make greater use of microchips and one of the last to rely upon the fundamental pinball skills over gimmickry. Although I greatly enjoyed the Star Trek: The Next Generation table, it was reliant on too many moving parts, and it is hard now to find one in serviceable condition because of it. So personal was our relationship with our preferred table that we, as with every pinball aficionado, knew precisely how to pull back the plunger to score the skill shot every time. It ceased to be a bonus – we were annoyed when we missed it.

Did others bond as we did at the pinball table? Puzzling out the behaviours, learning which drop targets activated which feature; discovering through meticulous trial and error how much force we could apply before triggering the tilt sensor and forfeiting a ball; mastering through patient application the angle and force required to strike a ball to ascend a ramp or sweep an orbit to prepare for a precision shot? Other games were always higher in my thoughts, but nothing is more vivid in my memories.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #52, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Joystick

Arcade JoystickAs a child of the arcade, the joystick presents as my most resonant, tactile memory of those now-fading shrines to electronic entertainment. To grasp the control stick firmly in your left hand was to begin a ritual that would plunge you into another world. I was unmoved by the verisimilitude offered by the forced feedback of Hard Drivin's steering wheel – the clack of the sensors beneath my wrist was where the whole of my arcade joy was quite literally felt. The intensity of experience was often so great in magnitude as to leave the black finger grip upon the pilot-style joysticks moist with the sweat of my near-panic stricken hands as I sighed with relief and disappointment when the battle came to its inevitable end.

Like many people, I had feared a more Freudian origin to the name, but it seems to have been either named after the pilot and inventor James Henry Joyce, or a reflection of the exhilaration felt by pilots. The joystick was a passport into a world of pure adrenalin-fuelled joyousness, and as such the arcade of the videogame Golden Age of the 1980s merely continued that tradition. Everyone, even now, who plays those games that demand an intensity of attention to their rapid and remorseless assault understands what this 'joy' implies, and it is not merely the hot flush of victory that carries the appeal.

Make no mistake, though, a great deal of frustration was inherent in those early coin ops. Then as now, economic constraints affected design: the coins must flow, thus the player must die. The difference between monetising frustration in this way and now is the designers believed in their designs as carrying player satisfaction: they did not frustrate in order to monetise, they ensured a high degree of challenge because that was the experience they believed in; that it also kept coins flowing was merely convenient, a design constraint, not a goal of the design process.

If we ask how the joystick encouraged virtue, the answer is twofold. In the first place, the excellences of gentle accuracy were as much the art of the arcade videogame player as of any artisan using their tool to carefully shape wood or stone. Precision requires patience, and we early arcade players learned a patience unknown to contemporary players. But also, we learned with the joystick how to control our frustration, to channel our anger. When we lost control, we might furiously slap the joystick, but as we did so we lost the focus required to play well. No hope of 'one more try' if our temper had already snapped, we would have to go play OutRun to calm down and come back later. No, if you wished to return to the challenge immediately you had to maintain emotional control. I learned that with my hand upon the joystick.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #51, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Coming Soon: The Virtuous Cyborg Ebook

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outPleased to announce the imminent publication of the ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg. Now, you can explore your hybrid relationship with computers and other devices from the comfort of your phone or ebook reader. Are you ready to ask yourself the question: what would it mean to be a good cyborg? 

The new ten part mini-serial, Arcade Cyborgs, making up parts 51-60 of A Hundred Cyborgs, has been held back to coincide with the release of the ebook edition, and will begin later this month.

The Virtuous Cyborg ebook will be available for all devices in two weeks.