How Video Games Relate to Interactivity

My name is Masuyama. I'm a freelance independent researcher, specialising in media-environment studies. Before I begin, I would like to introduce some of my work to give you an idea of what kind of topics I'm interested in:

I worked as an editor on a book called Denshi-Yugi-Taize which means "All About Video Games.", which was unfortunately only published in Japanese, about five years ago. As far as I know the book was the world's very first encyclopaedia of video games. If anybody has any information about similar projects, though, please let me know.

One unique feature of this book is that it is divided into three parts, physically cut in three, as you can see here. The first part is for historical, background information, also containing a variety of topics, interviews and columns about video games. The second part focuses upon key people and organisations in the video game industry, all the way from MIT to Nintendo. The third part is dedicated to the games themselves from Pong, the first commercially successful arcade game, to Tetris which was also included in this publication two years before its release world wide.

As you may have already noticed, we arranged this book so that it could be read as a sort-of hypertextual document. That is, in this book, the reader encounters the names of hundreds of video games, people and companies. We attached numerous signs and symbols to each important name in the text so that readers could easily cross-reference relevant information throughout the book. Five years have passed since we put this book together, though, and so we are now in the process of updating our files with a new version which brings the history of video games up to date.

This is a more recent project. Entitled Multi Media Frontier '93, it is a book and CD-ROM disk package. The focus of the book is 51 interviews with artists, visionaries, and theorists of the "Multi-Media" or "Virtual Reality" fields, such as David Collier and Bob Stein who are with us here today, and Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of "Super Mario." Since we only travelled to the US West Coast, most of those interviewed are American or Japanese. There are also short English texts about each of the interviews for the benefit of those who don't read Japanese. In the CD-ROM, you will find windows of the interviewee's portraits, the same bilingual texts, and some quick-time movie short interviews. Also included are demos of some of the interviewees' software, such as Joe Sparks' Total Distortion and Pepe Moreno's Hell Cab. Both of these books have special features on their "interactivity", in the first it is related to its physical structure, and in the second in the CD-ROM. We did this intentionally because both are about this thing called "interactive" media.

"Interactive" is a very familiar term for those have some interest in all of this digital, cyber, multi, virtual, hyper....etc. media, although it seems that the term doesn't go further than such specialist groups. I think that this is because interactivity is the normal state of affairs in the physical world. And to give a name to something which seems so obvious does not make sense to many people. For example, when we open the door we interact with the handle and hinge. For the most part, this sort of interface is well designed. But examples of "bad interactivity design" are all around us.

On the plane from Tokyo, my seat was right beside the bathroom, and I saw at least 5 people having trouble opening the door. Two of them even pulled out the ashtray which was located pretty close to the real door knob. Although there was a small "PUSH" sign written on the door. Of course, it was only in English. Two things came to mind. The first was, what is wrong with this toilet door? The second was, why does this "interactivity design" issue get so much attention? I am sure that if it was only about the toilet doors on aircraft, this conference certainly wouldn't be called "the Doors of Perception.

The reason some people couldn't figure out how to open that toilet door is simple. The door just didn't look like a normal door and the only instructions on it were in a language unfamiliar to people in that area of the world. In other words, its mechanism was non-standard and it depended too heavily on culturally-specific instructions.

The reason the term interactivity has become such a buzzword is also obvious. People started to realise that there are huge business opportunities in this new interactive "something," especially in the field of information technology, where the interfaces are notoriously too complicated to use. We are also coming to recognise the need to distinguish between traditional non-interactive, and the new interactive mass-communications media.

To my mind, video games are the first commercially successful new interactive communications media. This might sound strange to people who don't take video games seriously. They are just games, kid stuff. But I take them very seriously. The economic success of the companies involved and the extent of their use are facts which speak for themselves. And that is why I am researching the video game field in terms of "media environment studies." I examine the sociological factors of video game use as something that happens when people interact with new media, or in what I call a media environment.

No existing area of media studies that I am aware of has dealt with this issue for the simple reason that the video game phenomenon is very new. (Pause)I would like to briefly refer to the history of communication media as developed by Walter Ong and offer a few updates from my observations. In his book Orality and Literacy, Ong divides human history into two periods, the first of "oral culture," or the period before letters were invented, and the second, "literal culture" for the period after. He doesn't refer to electronic culture in the way that Marshall McLuhan does, rather calling it "the secondary oral culture," seemingly referring to recorded audio media. Once again, though, there is the issue of "interactivity." How can we put this element in its proper context? Ong seems to class electronic media as one element. Here, I would like to add two further distinctions.

I feel it is important to distinguish between, first, one-way media and interactive media, and second, the number of people who are actually able to receive information. Traditional oral culture was basically "interactive," except in the case of addressing others or in theatrical performances. Even in those cases, however, the speakers are able to hear the audience's reaction.

Then the letter was invented. It was, and still is today basically a "one way media." It does have an interactive element, of course, but by "interactive" I mean to say "realtime interaction." Further, literal media can be accessed by a virtually countless number of people, especially since the invention of mass printing technology. Since that time, as we all know, the world has completely changed. Except for the telephone, most of today's invented and socially accepted media fall within the confines of literal culture. That is, they are both "one-way" and can reach mass audiences.

Finally, we approach the topic of interactive media. I have come to the conclusion that video games are the very first interactive media that have the ability to reach mass audiences. This interactive element of video games, as well as their broad appeal are the essential elements in defining its newness. Never before have so many people had to learn a skill of this nature. It is also important to note that video games are the first interactive media with audio-visual capabilities. This has changed what media mean to us. Traditionally, most of one-way mass media provide us only with information. When we play video games, however, the media provide us not only information, but I think it's more appropriate to say, they give us various "experiences." And, these experiences are made possible, I believe, by this audio-visual function coupled with the element of interactivity. Imagine, for example, playing Space Invaders or BreakOut without any sound effects. It would eliminate a fundamental part of the fun and realism of playing.

In the same way, some people might describe watching a spectacular movie as being an "experience." But I will take the Japanese term hamaru to point out the difference between this traditional kind of media and video games. Hamaru usually means to "fall into something" or colloquially "to be stuck on" something.

However, among video-gamers or "game freaks" in Japan, the term means "the game is so exciting so you cannot stop playing". In English you might say that the player is totally absorbed in the activity. This slang is rarely used in referring to traditional media. We might say something like "Hey, the movie Jurassic Park is awesome" but we wouldn't say "I'm stuck on that movie." Again, the term hamaru refers to the interactive nature of video games. The action of players and the real-time reaction on the video monitor creates a kind of data circulation, or feed-back loop. Players are caught in this loop and their mind becomes "stuck."

The question arises as to whether certain aspects of this experience might not have been influenced by the nature of the input device. Let's take a quick look at the evolution of the input devices which make video games interactive.

From an early stage, video games have encountered difficulty with the user interface. The first video arcade game released commercially was called Computer Space in 1971. It was basically modelled from earlier video games played in the computer research lab from early 1960's called Space War. Computer Space wasn't a commercial success, and its creator couldn't get further sponsorship from its publisher. He had to establish his own company, Atari. His name is Nolan Bushnell. He claims that "Computer Space" was too complicated for the people at that time, both in terms of game system and user interface. It had one joystick, with trigger buttons on the top and other several buttons on the console. He made his next game as simple as possible, both in the game itself and its interface.

It was called Pong, a very simple ping-pong type game anybody would understand, with one rotary knob as its interface. It became the first commercially successful video game.

After that, many variations of the user interface were developed. We had dozens of joysticks, steering wheels, track balls, key-pads...and so on. But none of them had been standardised until the first Nintendo machine hit the market in 1983.

This Nintendo controller became the prototypical 1980s home game machine interface. I can name a quite a few similar systems, such as Sega, Panasonic's 3DO, Atari's Jaguar, and the Amiga CD32. Nintendo started to use this cross-bar key plus A/B button interface from their hand-held Game Watch series in the early 80s, so the Nintendo home machine was not the first system to apply this interface.

But I believe that the subtle invention of this user interface can be regarded as one of the key factors in determining how Nintendo became so popular in the video game industry. What then is so special about this controller? I think that the most unique element can be seen when you compare it to other interfaces, especially how you hold and operate them. Joysticks and steering wheels require a certain kind of posture. Obviously, it is almost the same as real levers or steering wheels. The Mouse and Track ball require a hand posture very similar to the one used to hold a pen. Needless to say keyboards look like 19th century typewriter.

Then came the Nintendo controller. It is clearly evolved from joysticks and buttons, but the holding and operating posture is absolutely unique. It gives a nice steadiness because you are holding it with both hands, and another unique feature, I think, is that you can operate it with very little finger movement. Thumbs mostly. Most other interfaces require greater hand or arm action. In my opinion, video games would not have become such big business without the invention of the Nintendo controller. I even believe the user interface - hardware interface in this case - can play a profound role in popularising new interactive media.

Another good example of how an input device has played a key role in shaping a new market can be found in Japan, where the second biggest home-use interactive device is not a PC, but a Japanese word processor. Ironically, the new input device in question is the keyboard. As we don't have a history of using typewriters, using a Japanese word processor is for many the first experience of touching a QWERTY keyboard. Although everyone has to learn typing from scratch, familiarity of input device has made the devices success.

What kind of input devices will find mass applications in the near future? Last year, Nintendo released a new interface for a different type of application. The software is called Mario Paint and it was sold with the first mouse for home game machines. The Nintendo controller is fine with most games, and the keyboard is great for typing texts, but you need another interface for painting. In other words, a mouse is very good for pointing and free hand drawing. As I mentioned earlier, the feel of using a mouse is very similar to that of a pen.

What we should learn from this is, I believe, that interactive media needs not only sophisticated software and reasonably priced hardware, but also a suitable user interface, which gives us comfortable interaction.

Today, I discussed what I see of importance to "interactivity" in the video game field, first socially and second from the studies of user interface. Although it may sound too repetitive, I'd like to emphasise that "interactivity" alone will not necessarily open the door of perception.We need smooth and comfortable interaction. Interaction itself has to be fun.

From the success of video games as the first established interactive media industry, we should learn the element of perfect real-time interaction and a more practical usage of audio-visual interaction. Only by doing this can we make the leap from the established use of unidirectional media to something which is fundamentally different. I believe that there is now a generation which is no longer content with only watching and listening to the media. They want the media to react to their decisions, they want to participate. The new interactive media make this possible.


updated 1993