The 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.