Remember H.A.L? That evil-genius-space-robot from Clarke/Kubrick’s 2001? It seems like most of the time I hear him mentioned it’s from some miniaturization fetishist from the Church of Jobs (Steve). Something along the lines of “can you believe how big they thought computers would be back in the 60’s?!?!” Nevermind that the ability to create a sentient AI is still far beyond our reach, and that supercomputers still take up entire rooms. Fans of the MacBook Air expect super-intelligent robots to get lost in a container of Tic-Tacs.
But H.A.L’s massiveness underscores a point about machines that gets lost nowadays: that they are composed real objects and are themselves physical as well as intellectual. David Bowman doesn’t defeat H.A.L. by uploading a virus or outrationalizing it until it “cannot compute.” He inserts himself into its innards and takes it apart circuit-board by circuit-board. It reminds us that there was a time when computers (and gaming consoles) weren’t just an anonymous collection of whatchama-gidgets hiding behind a sleek exterior. Instead, they were relatively easy to understand from power source to pixel. While Steve Wozniak became famous for decreasing the number of chips needed for a cart of Breakout (and subsequently getting ripped off by Steve Jobs), my understanding of modern game design is that it doesn’t involve a lot of soldering.
I bring all this up because I just got an Atari 2600, which I think is the first multi-console gaming system (tell me if I’m wrong). It’s frequent glitchiness and minimalist aesthetic make me believe that – if I had the time – I could sorta understand how electricity gets turned into the images on my TV. But more than that, the clumsiness of the joystick and the Atari’s general unresponsiveness makes me feel like I’m wrestling with the console. The result is that I’m not only “playing against the computer” in the traditional, mental sense; I also have to wrangle the Atari into committing acts of violence against itself, UFC-style.
Unfortunately, since the Atari is in charge, I can’t win. Literally. Missile Command is my favorite so far, and from what I can tell there is no chance of an upbeat ending to the game. No cut-scenes of happy citizens saved by the eagle-eyed Missile Commander. The most you can hope for is a longer delay before everyone gets nuked by the anonymous enemy. The sparse simplicity of the game and its imprecise handling makes me feel like I’m back in the seventies, during the height of the cold war. Simple arrays of colorful lights once symbolized the lives and possible deaths of millions of citizens. Somehow, playing Missle Command reminds me how much that representation trivialized the lives of those people, and made their (seemingly) inevitable deaths all the more tragic.
After playing my new Atari for a while, I can’t say that its games are less fun than newer, fancier ones. Nor can I say the opposite is true. What I can say is that somehow, possibly without noticing it, we’ve lost something important and fundamental about gaming. While I wouldn’t advocate heading back to the time when we blew into our NES cartridges to get them to work, I wouldn’t mind feeling that my games were closer to existing in the real world. It’s hard for me to conceptualize what I think we’ve lost, since it is little more than a feeling (maybe just nostalgia). Maybe we’ll all understand when real missiles rain on us from above, and we’re all stuck trying to remember what transistors are.