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.


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.

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 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.


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.


SkateboardWalking in the morning to San Francisco's Moscone centre whilst at GDC with the other pedestrians earlier this year, I could never suppress my smile at seeing some fellow upon a skateboard making full use of the roads, unabashed and unafraid of automobiles, quietly and confidently using their physical prowess to negotiate the streets of San Francisco swiftly and with style. When someone squeaked past me on the sidewalk on some disk-based robot vehicle, I could not help but snicker, watching money and electrical power substituting for skill.

I could never master the skateboard. Never mind standing up upon it, just sitting on one and trying to roll safely down our childhood driveway was a challenge at the peak of my ability. I did eventually manage to stand up upon a surfboard: never upon a skateboard. I think, in part, my fear of falling held me back. Perhaps more significantly, I had mastered hand-eye coordination as a child but did not learn to balance until I became a commuter, balanced precariously amidst the ever-shifting inertial shifts of bus and train. Perhaps this is the root of my admiration for skateboarders: I had no resentment for my failures, only admiration for other people's commitment.

The human-skateboard cyborg amazes me. I do not mean in the extent of the skill in display in sporting competitions with half pipes and precision moves. All sports are amazing in that way. It is rather the manner that this proud and self-sufficient cyborg comports itself, entering the streets of a city inimical to their presence and tackling it with casual aplomb. Others might read arrogance there, I perceive only confidence and assuredness, the self-worth of a skill earned, I can only assume, the hard way. While it is by no means the only vehicle to display cybervirtues of mastery, and thus to encourage persistence and resistance to minor adversity, it stands out in the urban landscape as emblematic of a willingness to prevail that is at odds in many respects with the assumptions of contemporary life. How many falls and failures precede a successful journey down a city street? 

That is what I should truly like the opportunity to observe: not the expertise of the well-rehearsed athlete but the faltering steps of the novice who fails, falls, and falters but does not give up, despite repeated injury. There is a virtue here worth emulating, and if perhaps it is pride that drives them forward in their inexperienced persistence then, well, how can I begrudge anyone who can take their vice and make of it a virtue of another kind? Would that we all could say the same.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #50

Team Captain

Nick FolesThe captain in a sporting team is, quite clearly, a variation on the military captain, even if the name is not always the same – the quarterback being one clear variation. The parallels between these two conceits of captaincy run deep, yet the degree of discipline and co-ordination that serves to make a military unit the metaphorical 'well-oiled machine' does not necessarily apply to sportspeople, who remain individuals working together for all that the captain may attempt to push them past this.

There is, perhaps, the added complication that it is the coach – the general on this 'battlefield' – who possesses genuine authority and despite the name, the captain possesses more of the metaphorical rank of sergeant than anything else. Here, as in the managerial power structure of corporate businesses, there are lines of control and communication (which is the cybernetic dimension of captaincy) but they are looser. The individuals do not share that common framework for acting that empowers a soldier, despite the common dependency on drills (practice) to embed habits.

Unlike the military Captain previously discussed, the positive qualities of the team captain cyborg are harder to grasp. Captaincy appears more of a reward for an exceptional player than a conduit for loyalty and discipline, but perhaps here an issue is that we do not see into the circumstances where the cybervirtue of a team captain might be observed. I certainly leave open the possibility that there are virtues at work in the team captains relationship with their team that I simply have no experience with.

It seems, however, that the positive ascriptions we can make in the context of the military Captain cyborg are inherent in the social technology that creates that very network of roles. For the sporting team captain, it seems rather that if the sportsperson in that role has the virtues to lead, then positive qualities come about. But if those qualities do not flow from the technology itself (the structuring of roles in this case), this is not an instance of cybervirtue as I have described it in The Virtuous Cyborg.

Perhaps the key difference here is that the military Captain cyborg is conditioned by the life and death circumstances it was created to address, while the sportsperson risks nothing but their pride and thus is more inclined to indulge their personal lust for glory. I suspect, but cannot know, that curbing this aggrandising instinct for personal victory over that of the team is precisely the challenge the team captain has to overcome, but that the coach in fact has to address. Perhaps the sportsperson, by virtue of their temperament, is ill suited to leadership as-such, perhaps it is simply rarer that it can be expressed. Whatever the reason, we can admire the performance of a team that can act in unison but we do not accredit this success to the role of captain. There is something significant in this difference.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #49


Poland's Wedding to the Sea by Wojciech KossakThe military rank of captain, much like the corporate rank of manager that partially descends from it, is an ancient cybernetic invention. It is different from the power structure of the chieftain over a tribe, and indeed, harsher, since the chieftain listens to the tribe before making the important decision – the captain does not, and the manager typically will not, for all that they could.

If it seems strange to talk of the Captain as a cyborg remember that cybernetics is concerned with communication and control: this is the essence of the role of Captain. Those with a higher military rank give orders that cannot be questioned, those beneath the Captain in rank respond to their orders in kind. The Captain cyborg is thus a conduit of communication and control: they execute the orders given to them by using their own experience and creative intelligence to determine how their squad will act.

When it comes to the cybervirtue of the Captain, the question is: does this technology (in this case, social technology) encourage positive qualities in those who participate in it? And here, we must answer in the affirmative in so much that both the Captain and their squad display loyalty, discipline, efficiency, camaraderie, and many more virtues beside. We may resist admitting it if our tendency is to be suspicious or denunciative of the military machine – but it is not coincidental that those with a military background frequently become respected members of the communities they return to after serving.

There is probably an argument that the Captain cyborg (of whom the squad are also participants) encourages negative qualities too, such as a restriction of judgement, and further risks of abusive consequence but I am reluctant to stress this aspect too hastily. The abusiveness that can flow from command is also a risk in its absence, something anarchists are loathe to admit, and the restriction in judgement that comes from the unflinching willingness to respond to perceived duty is not much different from the consequence of any speciality, which necessarily reconfigures your horizons of perception.

One of the reasons I have always respected honourable military service is because I have a sense of the virtue of the Captain cyborg. My issues with the military, especially the imperialistic actions of Western nations including my own, stem from problems higher in the chain of command, where virtue is lost and Consequentialism – one of the moral disasters of the twentieth century as I argue in The Virtuous Cyborg – gradually dominate and corrupt. It is hard, sometimes, to retain the respect of the captain and the squad when the mission they have been assigned is scurrilous and ill-advised. But I cannot, even as a near-pacifist, do anything but respect those whose allegiance to one another is the basis of something unique and admirable. I wish the same could be said more often of the manager...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #48

The opening image is Poland's Wedding to the Sea by Wojciech Kossak, and depicts a general rather than a captain.