Video Games and the New Look Domesticity
Issue #57, October 2001
"Domestication does, perhaps literally, involve bringing objects in from the wild; from the public space of shops, arcades and working environments; from factories, farms and quarries."
— Roger Silverstone
The Home That Video Built
At a time when the difference between a television, a computer, or a video game console is more a matter of their peripherals and room location than their functionality, the video game console has become a new inhabitant of the domestic landscape. Our living rooms are now the dominant place within the middle-class home for both collective domestic nostalgia and household media engagement.
Manufacturers attempt to 'own the living room' by locating a machine in the social space of every home. At a game developers' conference in 2000, Phil Harrison said Sony intended their video games to be more significant than more traditional media like the movies, television and the Internet. Video games will be part of a digital entertainment hub in the home, for personal creativity as well as entertainment. Through the design of machines like PlayStation2, Microsoft's forthcoming X-box, and Nintendo's cube, the television with a video game console aspires to become the home's central apparatus, not merely a broadcast receiver or games unit. The gaming machine with peripherals is a DVD player, a single and multi-player gaming machine, and a PC with high-speed Internet connectivity.
The incursion of video games into the home is a significant aspect of domestic leisure. The worldwide electronic game market is reputedly larger than the US motion-picture market. The Australian Bureau of Statistics states that 33 percent of all Australian homes have a game console that plugs into the television, and Stephen Poole, author of Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, cites that 90 percent of all games sold are console-based. Since the release of the first PlayStation, video games have migrated from the bedroom to the home's communal entertainment space, shifting gaming away from the isolated adolescent boy locked in his bedroom, to include more female and older players. Manufacturers contrast the pleasures of console-based gameplay with the rigors of working on an office-based desktop. For example, Microsoft goes to great pains to point out that the X-box is not a PC, not a beige box, but rather a game console designed to look good in the living room. The majority of PlayStation2 sales have been attributed to its DVD capabilities, with those keen to upgrade the VCR for DVD, outnumbering those seeking a faster processing game machine. This collision between gameplayers and TV watchers places the living room at the center of competing usage demands.
Whilst Sony and Microsoft claim the living room as the hub of electronically-mediated family entertainment, there has been little attempt by video game manufacturers to present the game console as a domesticated object or to analyze how the living room might be used by competing groups of users.
There is an inherent contradiction between the television as a place for watching media, and the video game console, with its extended paraphernalia of controllers, joysticks, cartridges and CD-ROM's, as a place for experiencing media. We need to reframe debates around video games by positioning them within domestic space and asking: What are the meanings attached to the concept of the living room as a televisual space, where humans and their machines meet and interact?
Arcades Go Home
"A long time ago there were no toys and everyone was bored. Then they had TV and they were bored again. They wanted control. So they invented video games."
— Victor Aurelio Bautista
In the early to mid-1950s, television moved in from the wild to be integrated into the living room, as a piece of furniture and a metaphor for travel to different realms. Some twenty years later, people began to consider what else might be done with this piece of furniture, rather than simply turn it on and off.
For Ralph Baer, one response to television's inertia was to develop a home video game called The Odyssey. The Odyssey was capable of playing twelve sports and maze games by using plastic overlays on the television screen with plug-in circuit cards for different games. Images on the original packaging show that it was marketed for the living room and for family activity as "a total play and learning experience." The Odyssey was licensed to the TV distributor Magnovox in 1972, which granted licenses to over twenty companies by June 1974.
The first programmable video game system emerged in 1976 from Atari, which used an electronic cartridge plugged into a game console. The console then became a software player like the hi-fi, where players could switch cartridges to play different games on the same machine.
Initially, the lineage of video games lay the living room and its association with TV and family-based entertainment. However, gaming's on-going development owed much to developments in the arcade, and continues to. Early arcade and sideshow alley games focused on what Stephen Poole calls "the aesthetics of wonder." These early machines belong to a history of magic illusionism demonstrated by the diorama, the hand-cranked kinetescope and the mutoscope. It was into this arena that the first coin-operated arcade game, called Computer Space, was released in 1971. Computer Space was based on the earlier MIT game Spacewar and bore a very loose resemblance to its closest cousin in the arcade, the pin-ball machine. The game was not initially successful. The film Soylent Green signalled the ultimate success of arcade video games. A stand-up console, with its curvaceous green casing and joystick controls as a stylish accoutrement for the domestic environment, became an essential part of the home.
The arcade is still used to sell home video games. Game retailers encourage potential customers to preview soon-to-be domestic games, encased within stand-up arcade consoles. In many ways, the home's video game zone is the arcade made miniature, the street brought into the home, and an emulation of the bodily engagement of the arcade player. In many studies, players cite arcades as their preferred place to play games because of the increased range of peripheral devices, full-scale driving vehicles, simulation realism, and social contact. While for some, video games conjure up the image of the socially withdrawn and uncommunicative male, the milieu of video games is intensely social. Friendship and companionship extends from the arcade to the living room via the culture of exchanging hacked games, magazines, downloaded cheats and hints, and the associated paraphernalia of T-shirts, caps, badges and cards. The home offers game players increased comfort and better economic value. The primary location of the video game within the privacy of the home then suggests the possibility of perfect play, enclosure, interiorization and social exchange.
Machines and Humans, Face to Face
"We live in this very weird time in history where we're passive recipients of a very immature, non-interactive broadcast medium. Mission number one is to kill TV."
— Jaron Lanier
There is a curious interplay between the passive screen function of television and the navigation and gameplay of video games. Players of war, sport and adventure games perceive their activity as a more radical form of consumption than watching videos or broadcast television. It is a form of consumption that involves a sense of leaving the body behind and actively engaging in complex strategies with very fast motor skills. The video game itself trades on the idea of a domesticated VR experience, where the medium of television is pitted against the visceral participation required for gameplay.
As Marshall McLuhan points out, a game is a machine that can get into action only if the players consent to be puppets for a time. In consenting to be a puppet, a sense of difference between the physical machine and the physical body is erased. The interactivity between the player's body, imaged as a puppet or avatar on the screen, and the real body in the living room, is replaced by the cyborg or console body. The player is attached to the TV via an umbilical cord from the nipples and keypad of the controller to the RF socket of the television. The unit (with rumble pack) sits within the player's hands, with D pad, nipples, action, shoulder and symbol buttons for maneuvering on-screen action.
For experienced players, muscle memory soon takes over from a conscious manipulation of these devices. Sherry Turkle outlines this sense of immersion or machine intimacy in her analysis of computer play in young people in The Second Self. The dissolve between machine parts and body parts is extended in eXistenZ, David Cronenburg's 1999 film about video gameplay, which was partly funded by the Sega games company. In eXistenZ, the pod's bioport connection is inserted into a hole in the base of the player's spinal cord with the help of lubricant. The system runs itself off the body's nervous system, metabolism and energy creating the ultimate merging of human and machine.
This fascination with our cybernetic connection to machines, a recurring trope of both science fiction and Cyberpunk, contains the anxiety, described by Donna Haraway, that our "machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert."
Visceral Armchair Video
"The phantasmagoria's of the interior. For the private individual the private environment represents the universe. In it he gathers remote places and past. His drawing room is a box in the world theatre."
— Walter Benjamin
Benjamin's concept of the living room, as a universe where inhabitants could gather items across space and time, gained an added dimension with the arrival of new domestic entertainment technologies. Fantasies for an enclosure of humans, simultaneously in disembodied engagement and social interconnection, are reflected in Reyner Banham and Francois Dallegrett's image of the Un-house (1965), where the house disappears to leave a membrane including humans and their technologies in a safe private space.
This dream of infinite connectivity and perfect control of the domestic interior is central to ideas around the 'home of the futureâ' and the 'smart home.' Bill Gates' digital palace in Seattle is an example of a 'smart home' that neatly reworks Le Corbusier's modernist ideas: "the house is a machine for living in...an armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on." In Gates' house, wall panels are huge flat screens that morph between architectural structures and electronic windows. These electronic windows bring in information and entertainment, echoing Le Corbusier's idea of the window as a projection screen that provides a view of a separate exterior.
In advertisements for hi-fi or digital television systems, we also see the viewer transported and projected into this exterior. Through media engagement, a viewer, initially located in the minimalist cream or white space of a living room, is transformed into a floating figure or teleported out of domesticity into virtual space.
The new machines that enter the living room — the video game/television combination — are conceptualised within these futuristic home ideas. The television, as established domestic furniture, is reconfigured through the video game console into an immersive private pleasure zone. These minimalist machine spaces of perfect control are central to Microsoft's vision for the digital living room and PlayStation's concept of the digital entertainment hub. Underlying the rhetoric of the X-box and PlayStation2 is an image of the TV cabinet transformed from domesticated object into digital hearth. It becomes a portal to cybernetic utopian fantasies of speed, danger, and freedom. The domesticity of rooms disappears in links to a fictional exterior space or journey. Advertisements for game players draw heavily on this vision of the private sphere sent into orbit, with the player now inhabiting a different space, or what Baudrillard called the terminal or "micro satellite." The video game orbit of interactivity attempts to offer an escape from both domesticity and the confines of the body, whilst locating the player in "a visceral social experience" within the confines of armchair-based ideas of comfort and private security.
Redecorating Electronic Living Rooms
"You can't force interactivity on a couch potato."
— Robert Lemnos
"The post-pub PlayStation session is one of the joys of modern British life."
— Stephen Poole.
Whilst game developers describe the digital living room as both the hub of family entertainment and an escape from suburbia and the body's limits, the social expectations and organizational dynamics of family interaction conceive the digital living room in far more ambivalent terms. Mirroring Corbusier's uninterest in the electricity, heating and ventilation specs of the machine home, manufacturers have paid little attention to how these domestic technologies will fit into the home and how its inhabitants might live with them.
We are still living with the legacy of the living room as a predominantly female space, as a place to welcome visitors from outside into the private interior of the house. Historically, the living room has been privileged as the site for adult leisure activities — reading, talking, and passively watching TV. To consider living room technologies such as television as more than broadcast-receiving machines, as machines for active play, there must be a reworking of the relationship between people and technology. One European survey showed that respondents were unsure whether they actually wanted interactivity from their television. As Robert Lemnos of ZDNN puts it, "How do you transform the living room from a couch potato's palace ruled by the television into a digital interactive playground featuring digital technology?"
Older non-players view the incursion of games into the home as an erosion of social family interaction and a challenge to the codes of activity for the home's central cultural entertainment space. For them, video games (unlike television) are invasive or at best marginal to cultures of domesticity. For the players, domesticity itself is considered marginal to the gameplay experience. The game console and television as a new phantasmagoria of the interior offers the player an electronically augmented body only partially located in the physical space of the living room.
Advertisements for new games depict the living room as a battleground where game culture wins by destroying evidence of domesticity, leaving a space of ravaged bodies and destroyed furniture, with game console intact. The armchair or couch is targeted as "an icon of television's stubborn and problematic domesticity." This icon of suburban conformity and femininity is destroyed with fireballs, explosions and other brutal attacks to clear the way for a closer encounter between player and game experience via nipple pads.
Some envisage the living room as a digital interactive playground, but it has also become an increasingly regulated and surveilled space. The domestic gaming machine functions as a box within a box, where the rule-based environment of the game, with its fantasies of perfectibility and perfect control, is played out within the regulated space of the home. Some of these regulations are time restrictions, trade-offs between television viewing and gameplay, location arrangements, seasonal variations, and limitations to multi-player sessions.
The uptake of games in the living room by younger household members imposes a traditionally male-associated space of the arcade upon the female-associated space of domestic leisure, transporting one system of sexually-organized space into another. This re-organization is having a profound effect on social relations and domestic arrangements in the main family entertainment room. Fundamentally it points to a collision between an old organisation of sitting space with the requirements of an interactive technology. There is little evidence that designers and architects are addressing this issue. Assumptions seem to be that assimilation patterns will be similar to previous domestic technologies, such as the radio and television. However, video games do demand a different machine engagement and relationship to domestic space, a relationship that has the potential to create as significant a shift in domestic spatial organisation as the 19th-century requirement for a ladies' withdrawing room.
It remains to be seen whether the video game machine as a new technological incursion into the home heralds a new form of domesticity or a hybridised digital hearth. Either way, it will be interesting to observe in what ways this particular wild machine is further domesticated.
Bernadette Flynn is a Lecturer in screen production at the School of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Griffith University in Australia.