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The link gaming and computing has been around since the early days of innovation in the computing field. The reading this week made me really sit back and think about the statement that “Before the 1980s, no one in the computer industry imagined that there could be a major consumer or small business market for computers.” (Irvine, 2018) This sentiment is something I have seen and heard many times over the years. Sure, breakthroughs in design had to occur for us to reach the ubiquitousness and power of the technology we use today. However, design is inherently not a practice one undergoes without a vision, goal, or at least motivation in mind.
Thinking back to the first truly significant compression of semiotic media into a quickly accessible format the creation of microfilm and microfiche came to mind. While initially a hobby form of photographic art, the reduction of visual images into small format that could be put behind a lens for consumption by the viewer was quickly recognized as a benefit by engineers, who frequently had to reference thousands of pages of engineering notes and specifications. In the 1920s and 1930s the practice of saving documents and particularly newspapers became institutionalized by the Library of Congress, the New York Times, and Harvard University, who all began creating repositories of important documents and newspapers on microfilm.
While Douglas Engelbart’s work to build a system that would allow for workers to augment their intellect was truly impressive in what it achieved, the underlying concept of amplifying the power of a single person to access and benefit from information without leaving their desk had already been a goal for many many years. The desire beget the design: access a great deal of information while sitting at a desk. This was true of the engineers and later of the libraries who installed very familiar looking readers:
(1) Ames Public Library, 1953. (2) 1956, Old Post Office building, microfilm reader, San Jose Public Library Collection
For me, the desire to have individual access to information at a desk, clearly laid the foundation for work to gradually improve the design of computers from the room sized early IBMs to the step by step, reduction of size and convenience. Early news pieces about microfilm in the 1930s talk about how one day we would all be able to have microfilm readers the size of a wristwatch through which we could read the newspaper… sounds like a clear goal for a current well known product in my opinion.
Another fuel for computer design and innovation I see is gaming. As mentioned some of the earliest games were in fact simply demos of computing hardware and concepts. The first computer games, Bertie the Brain (left), and Nimrod (right), seen below had little to do with gaming, they were demos of underlying computing technology on display at the Canadian National Expo in 1950 and the Berlin Festival in 1951, respectively.
While the companies behind them were set on demonstrating the power of the technology, spectators just wanted to play the game. Combine this focus by consumers on the power of technology to entertain, and we see the potential of consumers to desire electronic gaming in their homes. Early console systems like Magnavox Odyssey and Atari, brought computer based technology into the households of many consumers years before an affordable personal computer had been released. Soon the value of a computer for individual personal use beyond gaming was recognized and companies worked quickly to design the hardware and software needed to support that. The productivity was the goal, the personal computer was the design solution to the problem.
Looking ahead at the obstacles placed in front of users to improve on the design of just a few companies, I see most hope in the gaming community. I am fairly confident that an analysis of all custom built personal computers made this year would be overwhelmingly owned by gamers. These are your power users who demand more than what they can buy in a blackbox product off the shelf. They are the ones still creating components to give them an edge. But it isn’t just about competition.
Many gaming companies themselves have come to accept their own limits in designing games. Now most games on the popular Steam platform have communities of “modders” who design and code mods, or patches, for games that have been released. One of the most famous of these mods is for XCOM: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis Games. The Long War Mod, is a free add-on, yet is so extensive that it turns the underlying experience into an entirely new game. With over 840,000 downloads to date, the mod has greatly improved the sales success of the base game. In response, when releasing the sequel, XCOM 2, Firaxis Games included built in support for modding and modders. This includes access to base code and game algorithms.
While modding is still predominately restricted to the world of gaming, I could see its success resulting in more apps and companies opening up their software to user modification. This of course brings with it security and exploitation concerns, but could be an avenue for better products down the road.
Documentary: Alan Kay on the history of graphical interfaces: