January 25, 2004

Back to the Future at Musée Mécanique

by Michael Mateas · , 5:01 pm

A month ago I finally had a chance to go to Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. While wandering through this mechanical arcade, I found myself comparing these turn-of-the-century machines with contemporary game genres, looking for commonalities in design approaches and player/viewer experiences. A number of distinct machine types were immediately apparent.

Fortune Telling Machines
The classic in this genre is the gypsy or old crone who waves her hands over a crystal ball before dispensing a fortune, though many other forms, such as the Love Meter and Career Meter are on exhibit. Fortune telling programs have certainly been popular in computing; I remember many horoscope programs being sold for the TRS-80, Apple II, and Atari 800 (the first few computers I used). And there are more contemporary efforts, such as classic Mac program Synchronicity, by Paul O’Brien, the “father of interactive divination”. Interestingly, a number of the responses to project 1 in my class last fall involved horoscope or fortune telling programs. All such systems, whether implemented in gears or code, harness brute randomness to create a (more or less) engaging experience. Even when the systems involve some amount of interaction, such as grasping the levers at a specific time on the Love Meter, or sensing the exact timing of keystrokes in Synchronicity, these interactions are mediated by highly random processes, inducing almost no agency. So how do such systems elicit any sort of engagement at all? They work by giving ambiguous responses that can be interpreted by individuals in the contexts of their own lives; by having the responses relate to important life themes, such as love or career, these systems effectively push most of the sense-making onto the human participant instead of into the system. The participant does all the work of reading meaning into a random process.

Contests include mechanical sports such as early versions of Fussball, as well as race games such as a fire fighter game in which players race two fire fighters up ladders by turning wheels. One-player variants generally involve feats of strength, such as the classic pro-wrestler arm wrestling machine, whose arm is hydraulically actuated (it was amusing watching whole families try to pull on the arm and still lose – nobody’s going to beat a hydraulic jack at arm wrestling). These mechanical arcade machines have natural analogs in the contemporary game scene in the form of sports simulators and race games. The big difference between contemporary games and their mechanical counterparts is the appearance of system-controlled opponents. The mechanical contests have no equivalent of an AI opponent.

Many of the machines give viewers a peak into the forbidden worlds of sex and violence. The zoetropes tend to show the secret sexy lives of dancers and singers, revealing many a corset and sinfully bare ankle. Execution machines are a whole category, presenting a mechanical depiction of death by beheading, electrocution, or hanging. The executions are framed as a dramatic event: a curtain slides open, a priest rocks back and forth by the side of the condemned man (presumably dispensing last rites), wham! the blade comes down and the head drops neatly into a basket (for beheadings), and the curtain closes. Of course sex and violence play a big role in today’s games: Grand Theft Auto, BMXXX, Laura Croft, etc.

I was expecting to see all the above categories of machines. What really surprised me were the mechanical scenes which brought a little world to life. The execution machines can be considered an instance of this, though many of the worlds were much more sophisticated. The largest is a glass enclosed circus, roughly the size of a large kitchen table, which has dozens of mechanically activated figures: there’s the freak show, the gorilla in a cage, the carousel , venders, the lion act, etc. A constant crowd of people stood around the circus, peering into this little world brought to life. The contemporary game scene is dominated by a simulation aesthetics of worlds brought to life, where as much of the enjoyment of the experience comes from experiencing the world as from accomplishing game goals. It was interesting to see the same urge expressing itself in the form of mechanical contraptions, with the difference (a huge difference) that the mechanical worlds provide no interaction. But in some alternative steam punk future, it is these mechanical worlds that evolve into interactive game worlds, in the same way that non-interactive batch computer simulations evolved into the real-time game worlds of today.