What does Missile Command have to do with Digital History?

I am spending the week at the University of Victoria for this year’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI). I was here last year and had the chance to make a lot of new friends – indeed, I think one of the most powerful experiences of attending DHSI is the engagement with the people and the community. The people here are awesome.

I’m in the physical computing course with Jentery Sayers, Bill Turkel, and Devon Elliott. We’re getting introduced to a variety of technologies – 3D printing, Arduino boards, Raspberry Pi, Max, and Makey Makey. One of the projects a group of us are working on is reviving a 1983 gaming desk that originally played Missile Command. Missile Command was a 1980 game published by Atari where the game player had to aim three anti-missile batteries at incoming missiles and bombs. (Want to play? It’s online.)

The one question that I keep returning to: why build this? Well, if you are an historian of technology, or game culture, or want to understand something about the design decision that went into the production of Missile Command, or you’re thinking about the historical preservation of video games and the devices they were originally played on, then engaging with physical computing makes good sense. After all, the process of of recreating the system may lead to understanding the decisions that went into the circuit design, wiring, and programming of the game itself in ways that reading primary sources may not. It strikes me how often we’ve had to think about certain design decisions for our own technological limitations. For example, the Raspberry Pi only had fifteen pins open that we could interact with, but the controls and other features we were adding on required more than what was available. Our solution was to pair Makey Makey to handle the controls, and feed that into the Raspberry Pi. That left enough pins to control coin detection, audio, a way to escape the emulator, and a way to select the number of players. If we’re running into design and technology considerations with modern computing devices, what sort of things did the original game designers run in to? And how do their decisions reflect something about the technological history of the 1980s?

But I don’t study those questions. Maybe they’re obvious questions to those who do. So why am I interested in creating a game emulator within a 1983 gaming desk? As a teaching tool, I find physical computing immensely compelling. I could envision a course on the history of computing or the history of electronics that asks undergraduates to re-create historical objects using modern-day technology. But our technology today – like any technology – carries limitations of function, energy, availability, affordability, and so on. Design decisions are made throughout the process. As they ask questions about their current technology, that opens up an opportunity to ask questions about historical technology. With those questions in mind, plus their physical
interaction with the device, we could turn students towards primary sources to understand the historical limitations of technology. We come to understand the past through a material engagement with the present.

And as a public history tool, physical computing likewise holds promise. I could envision an opportunity to use such devices to prompt users to think about the historical preservation of electronics, electronic media, and games. Or, to completely repurpose something like a gaming cabinet as an alternative interaction device. You could, for example, set up the cabinet to run Google Earth and allow the game controls to be a method of guiding yourself through historically-recreated virtual worlds. Or replace the cabinet with a physical globe that controls Google Earth. What other perspectives could physical computing lend to the ways that we appreciate electronics or interact with explanatory devices?

Anyway, some initial thoughts about the intersection of physical computing with digital history. We’re doing a lot more in the courses and I have many more ideas swirling about – 3D printing, historical reconstruction of electronics and devices, and so on – but those will come later.