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Meditations about Pong from different Perspectives

Overview

Tangled circuits/parallel lines: the emergence of videogames and new media art.
by Jason Wilson

 
 
One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.
 
Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction
 
 
 
 
 
 


Zen for TV
Nam June Paik, 1963
 (Television, magnet)

Tennis (Videosport, 1974)


 
 
Media artists represent a new type of artist, who not only sounds out the aesthetic potential of advanced methods of creating images and formulates new options of perception and artistic positions in this media revolution, but also specifically researches innovative forms of interaction and interface design, thus contributing to the development of the medium in key areas, both as artists and as scientists. Art and science are once more allied in the service of today's most complex methods of producing images.
 
Oliver Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion.
 
 
The beginnings and prehistories of videogames and new media art alike show practitioners working specifically on the problem of attention – the problem of seducing players into a prolonged intimacy with that interface and the suddenly immanent visual and auditory world for which they need to assume responsibility. Both groups explicitly talk about their ambitions of changing the uses and possibilities of television, and for a while they discuss ‘effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.’ The arrival of Pong, released by Nolan Bushnell’s Atari in 1972, emerged from a long struggle by engineers, programmers and artists to turn computers and related electronic devices to pleasurable uses, and in doing so to free them from their confinement in scientific and military institutions. In the end, it required that another technology, television, be freed from the ‘tyranny’ of its institutional uses. In laying out the broad parameters for subsequent movements in videogame design, Nolan Bushnell and predecessors like Ralph Baer paralleled roughly contemporary explorations in areas of artistic production, such as those of Nam June Paik, and together such practitioners, by changing TV, shaped succeeding ecologies of media technologies, ludic discipline and pleasure.
 
Beginning with his first television exhibition at Rolf Jahrling’s Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal-Elberfeld in March 1963, Nam June Paik, who had been and was to be so involved in the reconfiguration of institutional Art, made his attempt to free TV from the tyranny of its design. In Zen for TV, Paik redefined television as a technology of rapt attention (rather than distraction as it had hitherto, and has even hence been seen[i]). Here was television as an object for meditation, whose visual output was (ironically) offered as having transcendent significance. The means by which Paik produced the image – a magnet on top of the set – revealed the televisual image as amenable to direct, local action, and defined the screen as a pictorial surface for the artist. In a cheeky allusion to the vertical ‘zips’ which appeared in the work of mid-century abstract artist Barnett Newman, from Onement I forward, Paik not only playfully mocks the high seriousness of high Modernism, but takes over some of Newman’s purpose – the reorientation of the artwork toward the establishment of a close relationship with the observer’s body, and the relocation of the sublime in the products of human industry (part of Paik’s ambivalent characterization of TV was as the new Nature) (Kearns, 1988).[ii]
 
This part of Paik’s purpose, and his place within a tradition that works toward a closer and closer integration of the spectator’s body and the pictorial surface or world of the work, is even more evident in his Participation TV, from the same year. In this piece, a TV set’s visual output is not fixed; by speaking, yelling or singing into an attached microphone, the viewer is able to produce an endless variety of abstract shapes on the screen. The technical means here are a microphone and a sound frequency amplifier that transforms and feeds the signals directly to the TV’s CRT and its steering coils to produce scattergun kinetic images. Paik accounts for the results of his immersion in the minutiae of electronics that led to such works as a discovery that TV ‘was made of electrons and protons. It made sense to me that I might as well use protons and electrons directly.’(Kearns, 1988) He looked forward to ‘the day when the collaboration of the artist and engineer will progress into the unification of the artist and engineer into one person.’, since the artist’s getting things made to order missed the possibility for ‘precious errors’, and ‘I have found that the by-product is often more valuable than the envisioned aim.’ (Kearns, 1988)
 
What Grau describes as the contemporary crisis of the ‘work’, or what critics writing at the time of this work such as Jack Burnham called a ‘system esthetic’, is evident here. This piece is permanently unfinished, and rather than a realised pictorial work, it is a playful structure that seduces the viewer into certain kinds of physical intimacy with itself, and into performing and labouring within it. It divides the gallery audience: there are still spectators separated from the work as subjects from an object, but one by one the visitors who step up to the microphone inhabit a new kind of productive spectatorship. Here, the technology of TV is not only defined as something open to local pictorial activity, but also as a space for the cooperative activity of an audience and an artist, who designs structures of playful interaction. These works ask to be evaluated as ludic phenomena. The questions we ask ourselves about them are less to do with the use of colour, line and composition within the space of the frame, less the kinds of questions we ask of a work which is separated from us as object from subject, and more about the elegance of the relationship the artist proposes between our bodies and pictorial space, the kinds of actions we can take within this structure, and the quality of our pleasures of co-creation..
 
In 1965, talking about the tendencies in his work of the early 1960s, and looking forward to projects like Video Synthesizer, Paik said he wanted his own interventions leading to something
which anyone could use in his own home, using his increased leisure to transform his TV set from a passive pastime [sic] to active creation…. Communication means the two-way communications. One-way communication is simply a notification ...like a draft call. TV has been a typical case of this non communication and [the] mass audience had only one freedom, that is to turn on or off the TV... My obsession with TV for the past 10 years has been, if I look back and think clearly, a steady progression towards more differentiated participation by viewers (Kearns, 1988).
 
Whatever we might think of Paik’s position in the light of long-held notions of TV’s active audience, or of warnings such as William Boddy’s about the tendency to feminise and passivise the television audience in the promotion of new media (Boddy, 1994), his clear intention is to change and vary the uses of television, and to construct systems of interaction within which the audience could take their place as co-creators. Though Paik’s work was reproducible (and reproduced), the artisanal methods that characterized video art (and that still characterise much digital art), his failure or unwillingness to articulate such work with capitalist mechanisms of large-scale production and distribution, and its consequently limited circulation in galleries meant that Paik’s ambitions would only be partly realized.
 
A decade before Paik revealed these possibilities in the rarefied public space of the gallery, an engineer named Ralph Baer began working on a strikingly similar aesthetic problem, which he articulated in similar ways, but one whose solution was to be played out, eventually, in the intimate space of the domestic living room. At a time when television, as a channel of broadcasting, was making its most forceful contribution as a vector of ‘mobile privatisation’, and operating so centrally in the postwar reconfiguration of the American (sub)urban landscape, [iii] Ralph Baer, like Bushnell, was trying to develop the means of fragmenting the publicity and simultaneity embedded in TV’s hegemonic uses, its institutional frameworks and its address. Baer returned from World War II and graduated, on the GI bill, from ATTT in Chicago in Television Engineering. He returned to his home, New York City, and in 1951 he found work with Loral, then a small electronics company. His chief engineer put Baer and a colleague to work on designing a home television set, with the instruction to make it ‘the best TV set in the world’(Baer, 2003). Baer immediately suggested building games into the sets. His idea was rejected by his supervisor, and he was only able to devote serious time and resources to it from 1966, when he himself was a chief engineer at military contractor Sanders Associates. In the meantime, though, Baer recalls that
I had frequently been thinking about ways to use a TV set for something other than watching standard broadcasts. There were about 40 million TV sets in the USA alone at that time, to say nothing of those many more millions of sets in the rest of the world. They were literally begging to be used for something other than watching commercial television broadcasts! (Baer, 2003)
 
Here, Baer’s imtimate knowledge of television electronics and his scientific and creative ambitions caused him to conceive of TV and its domestic presence much as Paik did. For both, television was not so much a fixed medium as it was a readymade technological infrastructure, which might allow an ecology of varying uses, the insertion of parallel and parasitic technologies, and a plurality of relationships with its screened output.
 
For Baer, this was defined primarily as a technical problem, but Grau’s reminder to us is important here: that where the ‘media artist’ is concerned, scientific and aesthetic problems are difficult to unpick (Grau, 2003), and we should remind ourselves of Paik’s electronics learning curve leading to his early TV works. Later, when Baer came to work for Sanders Associates, his thoughts about changing TV had not gone away. Some crucial notes from 1966 show him mapping out ideas for a ‘range of low cost data entry devices which can be used by an operator to communicate with a monochrome or color TV set of a standard, commercial, unmodified type’ (Baer, 1966) This is strikingly similar to what Paik achieves in Participation TV, but if anything Baer’s ambition is larger. He considers different possible means of connecting games machines with television, different kinds of games (‘Action games… Board skill games… Artistic games… Instructional games… Board chance games… Card games… Sports games…’ (Baer, 1966)) with different kinds, and different levels of interaction.
 
There was a long period where Baer and engineers under his supervision tinkered with the problems of ‘TV games’. Working initially with valve-state electronics, he worked on devices that would produce manipulable on-screen images.for television. His experiments with controllers and transmission yielded one moveable spot, then two and his first game, Fox and Hounds, which worked on the principle of tag. Ongoing involvement by engineers like Bill Rusch led to the concept of a ‘third spot’:
[which] was born sometime in October or November [1967]; unlike the two manually controlled spots we had been using so far, this spot was to be machine-controlled. Bill Rusch came up with the idea of making that spot into a "ball" so that we could play some sort of ball game with it. We batted around ideas of how we could implement games such as Ping-Pong, Hockey, Football and other sports games. I am not sure that we recognized that we had crossed a watershed but that’s what it amounted to.
 
 By the end of 1967 Baer had built and tested prototypes, including one for a light gun which could be used in play, and one for the ‘ping pong’ game, and by 1968 had filed patents which were finally issued in 1971 for a ‘Television gaming and training apparatus’ (Baer, 1971). The ‘ping-pong’ game was developed with engineers at Sanders associates, demonstrated in 1967 before Baer’s patents were filed, and by 1968 was incorporated in a ‘complete switch-programmable video game unit capable of playing ping-pong, volley-ball, football, gun games and using colored, transparent overlays as backgrounds’. Baer modified this design further to create the ‘brown box’ which was the ‘first fully-programmable, multi-player video game unit’, which was displayed to American television manufacturers in 1968, picked up and dropped by RCA, and finally accepted for manufacture by Magnavox in 1971. In the prototype, and in the eventual commercial release player movement and the range of actions the player’s avatar could take in the visual world of the game was produced and limited by a range of contollers - a dial, a light gun.[iv] Baer’s essential design was to be issued as the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. It toured trade shows with the ‘Magnavox profit caravan’ in 1972, and this is how Nolan Bushnell came to play it, and sign the firm’s guestbook at the Airport Marina Hotel in Burlingame, California.
 
Nolan Bushnell’s newly formed Atari released Pong in 1972. Its success followed the failure of Bushnell’s attempt to port Spacewar  – designed by Steve Russell and others for MIT’s PDP-11 mainframe computer from 1961 – to a cheaper, more accessible arcade format in the form of Computer Space (Burnham, 2001, Anonymous, 2004, Cohen, 1984, Herman, 1997, Winter, 1999-2003). This game – featuring a myriad of controllers and instructions – failed to garner much interest with an arcade-going public still besotted with pinball. In retrospect, Bushnell recalled the problems with Computer Space: ‘You had to read the instructions before you could play, people didn't want to read instructions. To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play.’ (Winter, 1999).[v]Computer Space resisted entrance into its economy of attention, deterred the intimacy upon which gameplay (and profits) depend, because of its complexity at a time when ‘computer-literacy’ was the preserve of engineering faculties. Bushnell needed something more simple, and more seductive, in order to realise his aesthetic, technical and commercial goals.
 
Perhaps Bushnell’s inspiration for the solution to his central problem did come from his visit to the ‘profit caravan’; Bushnell admits attending the show but claims to have been unimpressed by Baer’s efforts. Successful legal action was brought by Magnavox on Atari in 1973 (Winter, 1999, Winter, 1999-2003, Anonymous, 2004). By this time, though, the horse had bolted, Atari had entrenched itself as market leader, and although the Odyssey sold well, it is Pong that is remembered as the first computerised tennis game, and the first successful videogame, to reach a broad market. Bushnell’s cause was helped considerably by the arrival of affordable integrated circuits – unlike valve state electronics or even single transistors, ICs sped the calculations and reduced the space necessary to producing a successful, dynamic form of TV-based play (Jairosoft free university, 2000). Bushnell and Alcorn had taken advantage of the small window between the advent of ICs and the arrival of cheap microprocessors, the technology that powered many of the dozens of Pong copies that came in their wake.
 
If we hold that the genealogy of Pong stretches back to Willy Higinbotham's oscilloscope tennis, designed for an open day at the Bell National laboratories in 1958 (Winter, 1999, Winter, 1999-2003, Anonymous, 2004, Herman, 1997), as well as Baer’s patents leading to Magnavox’s products, we can anyway see Pong as emerging from a line of experiments with a more popular orientation. The location of the first Pong cabinet in a bar (Winter, 1999, Winter, 1999-2003, Anonymous, 2004, Herman, 1997, Cohen, 1984), the reference in the on-screen images and the title to table tennis, and the allusion to televised sport all show an intuition that a breakthrough game would need a more obvious popular currency. An omen of the success was a prototype’s immediate success at a bar near Atari’s first production plant until at the end of its first night of residence there, when the machine, overstuffed with coins, stopped working.
 
The simplicity of the game itself resides not only in its subject matter, but also in the instructions and the character of the images and their movement in space. By contrast with Spacewar, Pong's instructions were almost absurdly simple: ‘Avoid missing ball for high score’. The physical interface was equally simple. A continuous dial controlled movement of the player’s block avatar on a single, vertical axis. From the relative simplicity of these instructions and actions, though, emerged an entire economy of attention embodying new, clearly seductive relations between the apparatus of human perception, players’ bodily movement and the images, and between these and dimensions of space and time. Fulfilling the instructions, or attempting to, requires that the player divine the relations between their manipulation of the controller and the vertical movement of her surrogate or avatar on screen, to predict the angle of reflection resulting from the avatar’s contact with the square 'ball', to conceive of the extension of the experience of play in time as open-ended, potentially limitless, and dependent upon her own skill. This is not the kind of relationship with the television monitor to which most people had hitherto been accustomed. But the player is integrated into this disciplinary/performative system in a way that seems intuitive, and belies its complexity and (in 1972) its novelty. Cohen writes about how quickly the patrons of Andy Capp’s Tavern adapted:
One of [them] inserted a quarter. There was a beep. The game had begun. They watched dumbfoundedly (sic) as the ball appeared alternately on one side of the screen and then disappeared on the other. Each time it did the score changed. The score was tied at 3-3 when one player tried the knob controlling the paddle at his end of the screen. The score was 5-4, his favor (sic.), when his paddle made contact with the ball. There was a beautifully resonant "pong" sound, and the ball bounced back to the other side of the screen. 6-4. At 8-4 the second player figured out how to use his paddle. They had their first brief volley just before the score was 11-5 and the game was over. Seven quarters later they were having extended volleys, and the constant pong noise was attracting the curiosity of others at the bar. Before closing, everybody in the bar had played the game (Cohen, 1984: 29).
 
Where Computer Space’s structure was complex enough to resist the player’s entrance, Pong presented a system where the relationship between the playing body and screen images, mediated by the simple dial interface, was such that players were quickly able to attend to it, and quickly able, too, to derive pleasure from immersing themselves in it.
 
Once again, though, the abstract character of the imagery grounded the formation of this new, seductive relationship between body, screen and surrounding spaces. The recruitment of players to a new kind of popularised 'participation TV' was not possible for Computer Space: the game was too complicated to coax the user into a position where, as Woolgar puts it, that user might be herself be ‘configured’ by the machine (Woolgar, 1991). Though by no means naturalistic by comparison with the games of today, the imagery in Computer Space registered a more thorough attempt at depiction than Pong. The game’s mise-en-scene included two picture planes – the plane of action and a starry background. Combined with the fussy instructions and interface, this complexity of imagery represented another potential barrier to entrance into the world of play. By comparison with Computer Space, it is striking that Pong or Tennis add little to the image Zen for TV beyond the most rudimentary movement (though clearly, this is of enormous importance). Pong’s abstraction of tennis is of such rigour to be the zero degree of representation.
 
Throughout the mid and even the late 1970s, a plethora of machines which were unabashed copies of Pong, as well as proprietary Atari adaptations of the arcade version, flooded markets and, eventually, living rooms. Along with the Magnavox Odyssey, a number of major electronics manufacturers, like Philips and Hanimex, and more short-lived enterprises, like Videosport, sought to fill the demand which an undercapitalised Atari could not supply.  The movement of these technologies into domestic space is a moment where the possibility for all television to become ‘participation TV’ is signalled.
 
While Pong and its clones established a new relationship between the spectator’s body and the screen, and used abstract imagery to ground these new relational systems, Pong also reprises the achievements of Paik’s 1960s works, condenses them into a single text, and extends their implications. Like Zen for TV or Participation TV, Pong recasts the TV screen as a locally manipulable pictorial space, immanent to the activities both of the game designer and the player (Bushnell recalls the surprise of patrons at Andy Capp’s at this new use of TV technology – one patron asked him which station was broadcasting the game (Anonymous, 2004)). In achieving this through abstracting and flattening the televisual image, Pong once again affirms the utility (and, by then, the charm) of the abstract aesthetic.
 
Like Participation TV, Pong incorporates and relies on feedback from the audience within the structure of the work. The game designer (unlike the TV or cinema filmmaker) is not the producer of a finished work in the traditional sense but (like Paik’s and other kinds of conceptual art which depend on feedback) a designer and builder of structures and systems of play. (Given this, we might evaluate a videogame not only by the character of its images but also by the elegance of the relationship between those images and the playing body, as mediated by the interface.) And like Paik’s TV artworks, Pong transforms the TV from a receptive, broadcast oriented ‘window on the world’ into a monitor for local, participatory activities. This is the first mass technology which, parallel to TV, turns TV into a monitor, and remakes it as part of a modular system, whose images are open to alteration by means of local technologies and actions. The consequences of this resonate still, not only in game design, but throughout our entire contemporary systems of leisure and work, including the field of production called new media art.
 
This part of the history of games is one, but not the last, where we can see a variety of pressures pushing designers into the creation of a new medium. If we follow the reflections of the philosopher Stanley Cavell on the ontology of film, we find that he comes to a point in his discussion of the origins and peculiarities of film and photography where he says the first motion pictures were not
applications of a medium that was defined by specific possibilities, but the creation of a medium by their giving significance to specific possibilities. Only the art itself can discover its possibilities, and the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium. A medium is something through which or by means of which something specific gets done or said in particular ways… in art, they are forms, like forms of speech (Cavell, 1971).
 
The creation of a medium is not here defined by mere technical possibility or by aesthetic ambition (the ambition that, in the Benjaminian phrase, awaited ‘a new art form’), but by an act of performative discovery within or beyond their limits, which itself sets out new performative possibilities for its audience. The artistic possibility of a pleasurable, live interaction with television, functioning as a monitor of local activity, with a physical interface and visual world that drew the player into the magic circle of intimacy with its technologies, was aspired to by Paik and Baer alike. But the discovery of this new possibility, granting the possibility significance in a way that answered a complex of technical, aesthetic and commercial problems, and the resultant creation of a medium, was left to Atari. In the three decades since, videogames have come to be a major commodity form in global cultural industries, and a central element of our everyday cultural lives, but the question of whether or not they constitute the unitary field or medium that is so often criticised from the perspective of new media art, or essentialised in some areas of game studies is open. For this was not to be the last time that these kinds of pressures and opportunities resulted in the creation of new ways in which ‘something specific got done or said’ in the context of gameplay.

 

 
As games studies matures and diversifies, it will become more and more difficult for those seeking to patrol the borders of new media art to insist on videogames as a uniform collection of bad cultural objects. This is precisely because necessarily ‘transmedial’ histories of the digital show the degree of interchange and intersection among practitioners, aesthetic concepts and problems, technologies and traditions. At the same time that histories of gameplay reveal its depth and breadth, its instances of excellence, and designers’ and players’ successes in intervening in the uses of technology or media, including prior forms of gaming, they show that set of common interests, strategies, concepts and problems exist between game designers and artists. The figure of the artist-scientist that Grau or Paik propose fits as well for Baer, Bushnell or Konami’s engineering team; the aspiration to certain effects, to free machines, like TV, from the limits of their design, to lend specific possibilities significance can be read as clearly from the history of Pong as from that of Osmose. The trajectory that opens the artwork up to participatory co-creation is as pronounced, perhaps even more so, in the history of gameplay as it in the creation of new forms of digital art. And the history of new media might be the history that requires us to account for the discovery of new possibilities such as these at the moments when they are concretely enacted, wherever this may happen.
 
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[i] The idea of modernity as instituting a condition of distraction comes to us from Walter Benjamin: see esp. (Benjamin, 1979). In specific discussions of television as a medium, a prominent example of the idea that it is characterised by distractive qualities is John Ellis’s distinction between the ‘gaze of cinema and the ‘glance’ of television (Ellis, 1982).
[ii] See (Reise, 1970) for a seminal reading of Newman’s work that emphasises his play with the relational scale between his works and the viewer’s body.
[iii] Central accounts of television’s role in ‘mobile privatisation’, and its position in suburban domestic life, are to be found in (Williams, 1992), (Hartley and O'Regan, 1985), (Spigel, 1992), (Spigel, 2001). There are connections yet to be made between television’s position as public leisure and as an organiser of public space, such as we find in (McCarthy, 2001), and the placement of games in bars and arcades.
[iv] The light gun, which was one of Baer’s many late 1960s patents, remains largely unchanged as a widely used contemporary interface. Though it may embody a fantasy of discharging projectiles into the visual world of a game, it is in fact premised on the reception of light. Baer’s original patent describes something designed to switch when it detects white pixels on the TV screen. This basic design needed to be changed when players discovered that they could increase their scores by pointing and shooting the gun at any strong lamp!
[v] Perhaps this is a retrospective self-attribution of insight on Bushnell’s part. Some accounts of the game’s history suggest that he has his employee, the engineer Al Alcorn, build the game as a practice run for more complex projects, and in one of Paik’s ‘precious errors’, it found an enthusiastic audience. Whatever the truth of this, we can take it that Bushnell had given some thought to the reasons for Computer Space’s failure, and that he had isolated its complexity as a design flaw.
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[1] The idea of modernity as instituting a condition of distraction comes to us from Walter Benjamin: see esp. (Benjamin, 1979). In specific discussions of television as a medium, a prominent example of the idea that it is characterised by distractive qualities is John Ellis’s distinction between the ‘gaze of cinema and the ‘glance’ of television (Ellis, 1982).
[2] See (Reise, 1970) for a seminal reading of Newman’s work that emphasises his play with the relational scale between his works and the viewer’s body.
[3] Central accounts of television’s role in ‘mobile privatisation’, and its position in suburban domestic life, are to be found in (Williams, 1992), (Hartley and O'Regan, 1985), (Spigel, 1992), (Spigel, 2001). There are connections yet to be made between television’s position as public leisure and as an organiser of public space, such as we find in (McCarthy, 2001), and the placement of games in bars and arcades.
[4] The light gun, which was one of Baer’s many late 1960s patents, remains largely unchanged as a widely used contemporary interface. Though it may embody a fantasy of discharging projectiles into the visual world of a game, it is in fact premised on the reception of light. Baer’s original patent describes something designed to switch when it detects white pixels on the TV screen. This basic
 
 


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