High Score

Arcade high scoreWhat would the arcade be without the concept of the high score? Striving to beat a target had long been a part of the funfair sideshow, and pre-1940s pinball tables (which did not have flippers, and were more like Victorian Bagatelle) often had target scores to win drinks and the like. Then came the high scores. At first, games like 1976's Sea Wolf (a videogame descendent of Sega's 1966 electro-mechanical game Periscope) offered extra play time for hitting a 'high score', which was a set target. Then, with 1979's Space Invaders, the high score could be saved. By the 1980s, every arcade game – pinball included – offered you the chance to "knock" the previous player off the high score or, as soon came after, off the top of the high score table.

Sometimes, our relationship with technology is so subtle we cannot even recognise that there is a cyborg relationship at all. Even when we engage with games with high scores we might not notice any effect on our behaviour. Yet the high score significantly alters the way we act whenever it makes itself felt – it inflames our natural competitive desires, and focuses us towards a purpose, a goal: to claim the high score. It moves us from mastering a game to undertaking a specific mode of engagement. The high score was the gateway drug to the Achievement system that dominates commercial game platforms today.

When Microsoft first announced Xbox Online at a conference I was attending, I was surprised that they made online ranking such an enormous part of their presentation. It left me cold. When I think back through my own episodes of high score chasing, I was always avoiding directly challenging someone else's high score: I preferred finding those machines with only a daily table and setting the score for that day. I was still being influenced by the high score, I just wasn't letting it draw too deeply upon my competitive side. Even now, when a game gives me a choice to opt in to an online high score, I always decline. I have no wish to reduce my play experiences to mere competition.

For many, the desire to compete is central to their aesthetic appreciation of videogames: for me, there is a negative connotation here, a bad memory of whenever my competitive streak burst through to ruin my enjoyment of a game – or indeed, someone else's. If high scores are a design feature so subtle that their influence is mostly unfelt, or is only a tremor foreshadowing the behaviour-distorting Achievement earthquake to come, there is still a worrying sense, for me at least, that the high score cyborg risks narrowing the rich experience of videogame play to the mere pursuit of victory.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #57, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Press Pause

Control ButtonsAway at Develop this week presenting The Narrative Design Survival Guide, so I'm pausing Arcade Cyborgs for a week. I hope to get some blogging in at ihobo.com while I'm in Brighton, but we'll have to see how it goes.


Buttons

Williams DefenderThe thing about buttons is the immense variation in what they can cause to happen. Push a button to start a game, push another to jump, or to throw shuriken, or to select a power up, or to teleport wildly to some unknown and potentially fatal position on screen. The joystick may have given us control, but the button gave us choices, tactics, possibilities... the button slowly and imperceptibly transformed games from boards and levels to worlds and universes.

I vividly remember how early arcade coin ops used a different kind of button – sometimes a small red plastic wart – for One or Two Player start, and another, sturdier, spring-loaded concave button for game actions. We had the buttons before the videogames, of course: pinball tables had the robust springy buttons for flipper controls decades before silicon chips, but the meaning of the button exploded in the 1980s.

Coin ops began with a wild mix of buttons – one for Space Invaders, none for Pac-man, five for Asteroids and Defender. Then two became standard, and stock cabinets were manufactured on that basis. Then, the stock cabinets moved to six buttons, even though most games used only half of them. Finally, as videogame revenue for the home outstripped that of the arcade, buttons became part of specialised hardware – triggers on guns, accelerators on driving coin ops, eight giant foot-operated buttons for Dance Dance Revolution and its brethren.

The moral impact of the push button world and its ever-changing configurations was far from constrained to the arcade. Vending machines, telephones, and more besides absorbed the button cybernetics, until touchscreens supplanted the mechanical joy of the button with infinitely configurable simulated buttons, like the ones on my phone I am stabling with my thumb to type this. With buttons come expectations. Push a button, something happens, automatically. A world away from the skill of the pinball plunger, or indeed the use of the button to control flippers, which was deeply analogue and sensitive to more than just timing. The human-button cyborg expects things to happen in that moment of pressing, and from the cascade of many-presses that arcade games required.

It is not that we children of the arcades did not learn skill or precision from our love affair with button mashing, and those that followed us are similarly equipped with newly learned reflexes. Mastery of buttons has indeed become purer: Crossy Road turns Frogger's four way control to just one button. But in the expectation of results the button engendered, did we not also learn to expect instantaneous gratification? The arcade, ironically, used the button to allow us to learn new skills. Elsewhere, the button is perhaps more emblematic of a replacement of competence with the expectation of immediate results.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #56, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Change Machine

Change MachineThere are few more specialised robots than the change machine, a staple of arcades my entire life. It has exactly one purpose: to change a note or coin into smaller denominations. In the UK, typically into 10p coins or tuppences, in the US almost exclusively into quarters. You can find them in certain other places (coin-operated laundromats for instance) but whatever the venue, the role is the same: to convert one kind of money into another, to feed into the hungry mouths of other robots.

We only form a cyborg with a change machine for under a minute – long enough for it to 'thunk' out coins (almost always with a slower rhythm than a fruit machine jackpot). But then we are bound up in its cybernetic network for however long it takes to spend the coins; perhaps an hour in an arcade if we are lucky or skilled enough. The money it dispenses is the same value as what we put in, but in a way the coins are almost 'spent' the moment they are delivered since they are destined for the coin slots of other machines nearby. Considering the technology of the change machine is nearly identical to that in the fruit machine, the experience is radically different, and never comes close to touching the rush of the win that is mechanical cousin offers. 

How could we even begin to make a moral judgement about the qualities of the change machine-human cyborg? It does not seem very likely that this technological configuration could encourage positive qualities in us. Yet recall the risks of contactless payment, the backgrounding of the exchange of money. The change machine has the opposite tenor: it brings into abundant clarity the money we are about to spend. When I feed one a five dollar bill and walk off with twenty quarters I know I am about to spend five dollars on videogames, or pinball, or laundry. When the coins are gone, I have to make a conscious decision to get more. There is a positive value here, that of mindful prudence with respect to money, that is inherent in the cybernetic network of the change machine. It is a most curious situation to reflect upon, since who in their most abstract moment would suspect that such a device could be seen in such a positive light?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #55, part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.


Fourteen Today

Birthday-cakeToday is Only a Game's fourteenth birthday! I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported my blogging, both here and over at ihobo.com, as well as my book and game projects, over the many years that have passed since I first threw myself out here. It is no exaggeration to say there would be no point to anything I do if there were not readers and players to engage with it. For this, my unlimited thanks to you all!