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New Metaphor for Game History

Nathan Altice (University of California, Santa Cruz)

History is indelibly bound to metaphor. Arrows and arcs, foundations and ruptures, trees and roots, currents and courses—these poetic juxtapositions give structure to the intractable chaos of lived experience. We speak and think their shapes into being, and those shapes, in turn, guide our understanding. Some slip away, bound to the times and thoughts that first gave them life. Others reify into doctrine. What once was allusive or evocative becomes dogmatic.

In the early history of computing, people made sense of room-sized calculating machines through metaphor, anthropomorphizing them as “giant brains.”1 John von Neumann’s foundational report on the EDVAC computer characterized its architecture as part mechanical apparatus and part sensory system, composed of organs, memory, and neurons. Marshall McLuhan extrapolated this metaphor beyond computers, claiming that all media were (in the language of the early 1960s) the “extensions of man”2—peripheries of our senses, central nervous systems, and bodies. As decades of technological progress shrank our giant brains into increasingly imperceptible circuits, the metaphor flipped, and we internalized our machines. Our brains became computers, and the language of computing described how we thought, reasoned, and remembered. For decades, no matter their orientation, metaphors have shaped the histories of human–machine interaction.

Game history has its own metaphors. One of its most ubiquitous is the generation, which organizes its tangible objects—hardware and software—by rough metrics of temporal and technological filiation. Game history becomes the story of evolving progeny, each child more capable than its parent. The first generation of ball-and-paddle consoles begets the second generation of cartridge-based consoles begets the third generation of 8-bit consoles and so on until we arrive at the inevitable apex of now. Generations structure game history in organic, reproductive terms, but there is nothing natural about them. Industry and commerce push the metaphor because it reinforces a consumer culture of rapid obsolescence, fuels competition narratives between contrived market rivals, and builds and surveils categorical boundaries. Battle lines are drawn. Winners are crowned. All the better to fetishize, then sell, the next generation. Meanwhile, the people, platforms, processes, and practices that don’t fit the family mold—that belong to no generation in particular—no longer count. History loses the losers: the weird, the obscure, the silent, the marginalized, the amateur, the transgressive, the bespoke, the baroque, the banal.

Metaphor is more than mere wordplay. Each metaphor has its own depth of field, pulling aspects of game history into focus while blurring others. Each motivates new work, allows new viewpoints, assembles new canons, and surfaces new subjects for study. And each has its own blind spots. As Siegfried Zielinski wrote, conventional models of media history, hastened ever upward by the arrow of progress, are misleading, creatively stifling, and should be abandoned along with their accompanying “images, metaphors, and iconography.”3 Novel metaphors sharpen methodologies and dislodge stodgy dogma. Metaphors are lifelines for the lost or languishing. Viewing media, in Zielinski’s words, as “spaces of action for constructed attempts to connect what is separated,”4 allows metaphors to act as links rather than chains.

The history of games can be rich with new metaphor.


1. ^ “Giant Mechanical ‘Brain’ Does Intricate Sums,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 8, 1944.

2. ^ Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill. 1964).

3. ^ Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2006), 5.

4. ^ Zielinski, Deep Time, 7.