Coming Soon: The Virtuous Cyborg Ebook


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.


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"When we lost control, we might furiously slap the joystick, but as we did so we lost the focus required to play well" this is true but there is no built in necessity to playing well that follows and I've seen many young men who can throw temper tantrums about how a game is going while still retaining the ability to manipulate the joystick enough to keep in the game.

Hey dmf,
Fair challenge! Are you talking about players in the arcade, or in the privacy of their home? I rather suspect the public performance aspect of arcade play helped encourage this emotional control, because we were playing together in a public place. It is certainly not the case that playing videogames with a joystick necessarily leads to this virtue, but the opportunity is there and, at least in my experience of the arcade, the swiftness of the arcade game created a very different rhythm in respect of its frustration that may be more amenable to teaching emotional control than contemporary videogames.

Although this serial isn't going to go as far as contemporary videogames (I hope to tackle this later in #100Cyborgs), I feel - perhaps merely as an intuition - that the conditions of the arcade were better suited to inducing good behaviour in its players, precisely because they were shared public spaces and belonged to no one player. In the privacy of your own home, different conditions apply.

Thanks for engaging!


I was remembering arcade days (I don't have much experience with contemporary home use/users) I think for regulars there was little to no sense of being in a public place maybe in part b/c of the average age/maturity of participants but also b/c folks seemed to think of the place as theirs, not so different perhaps from how expressive (even rowdy) folks could get in local bars with pinball, perhaps it's about (broadly speaking) personality types in terms of how one gets into the game or in a sense pulls the game into the outer scene.

Thanks for clarifying, dmf! I'd love to hear from other people on this to get a broader perspective... Although it's tough to get people to comment on blogs these days.

sure, a sort of gen-x thing I suppose.
I didn't stick with games in part because of how limited they were but of course limits play a vital role in developing mastery and in creative processes so perhaps there is a tipping point somewhere or just a point where ideally one graduates from limits set by other people to setting/manufacturing one's own.

Hey dmf,
Limits, as you say here, were an important part of the arcade experience and in some ways created the opportunity for mastery precisely by constraining the experience.

It is striking to me, as someone who never took an interest in the repetitive grind to mastery that sports entail, that the arcade was one of the few places that I was open to that kind of experience. Videogames today do not engage me in this mode at all (possibly simply because I am older, possibly because the designs are so different).

In fact, the governing design frameworks are entirely different: the goals thrown up to players these days come in the form of achievements i.e. ephemeral goals to be ticked off and discarded. These rarely build any kind of mastery, or at least, so it seems to me. I remain faintly horrified when my co-workers in game development have their game discussion around the achievement scoring dimension of their play. As I suggested in The Virtuous Cyborg and elsewhere, achievements risk a stultifying effect on the play of any game, robbing it of its creative character. It is a point I expect to return to in #100Cyborgs if and when I look at contemporary videogame design elements.

All the best,


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