Gaming Consoles: The Most Blackboxed of All?

Saturday, April 12th, 2014 by samanthalong88

Recently, I had an unexpected opportunity to tinker with my Nintendo 64 (after a roadtripping friend brought it from my hometown, AKA now best friend). It seemed a perfect chance to continue my inquiry into a media archaeological study of video games and video game consoles, since it seems to be a developing theme for me this semester. So I sat down with some old favorites, and got to it.

ImageWhat was initially obvious is that my N64’s AV cable is likely on its last leg, or that my flat screen TV is somewhat incompatible with the 64. While the sound comes in perfectly, the display was mostly in black and white (with flickers of color). I’ve ordered a replacement AV cable to give a whirl, but–of course–this slight hiccup unfortunately reveals the mortality of these devices, whether they simply give out over time or the necessary surrounding technology closes them out (I would say becomes too advanced, but, oh, the linear progression in that).

But, okay, I’ve already talked about the problems with both valuing and preserving these older consoles as something more than nostalgia machines. And I’ve looked for new in the old when it came to the SNES TMNT II game and its blatant product placement; in the same regard I could talk about the absence of long load screens, the strange design of the 64 controller, and the immediacy and physicality of cartridge games. But I just can’t help but feel that this is surface scratching. I end up sitting there, blasting away enemies in the Frigate level of Goldeneye, wondering what else I can do, how one can dig deeper into this media without making it a progress narrative or a mediation on violence (the seemingly dominant ways of thinking about video games). Perhaps why I feel so restricted when discussing them is because media archaeology (as I understand it) encourages experimentation, and video game consoles provide the least amount of room for or access to experimentation, tinkering—thinkering.

Unlike a computer that even a standard user can try to program (and, barring catastrophe, will still work even if your program doesn’t), the “guts” of video game consoles seem to be some of the most blackboxed and unalterable, especially when considering older consoles like the 64, SNES, and NES. Even modding newer consoles seems to require expert-level knowledge so one does not brick the device (and typically, any such tinkering voids warranties or can even block access to online content). While newer consoles essentially model computers (and newer computers/computer-like devices like tablets become increasingly “just-trust-us” blackboxed), there seems to be a huge gulf between the standard video gamer and their device. I guess I look at it is way, that I can fix basic problems with my computer and even make slight changes (admittedly, not in its OS) to make it run in ways I prefer. But, as my N64’s visual output flickers in black and white, I can only hope its a problem with the AV cord and nothing internally. The internal workings are a total mystery and far too precious to attempt altering.

This raises another question about the limits of experimentation in media archaeology, and how you can maintain an archive which allows for experimentation (i.e. the potential to destroy or permanently alter a device). I suppose if I had the money I could buy another 64 off eBay to tinker with and keep my own, providing the opportunity to transgress while still having a (mostly) usable device–my cake and eating it too. But I wonder, as time goes on and these devices become rarer (or it becomes rarer that they have all their original parts), whether there’s almost a sort of ethics surrounding how much we can/should tinker, if we want to preserve these devices (like gaming consoles) in their original form/maintain those that remain. At what point so you need to put it behind bullet proof glass in a museum, I guess? And, then again, what are these devices without users?

As I put my 64’s game cartridges away, I noticed–for the first time–the list of warnings on the back of them. One of the warnings read “Do not blow on the edge connector or touch with your fingers.”

ImageOf course, the childhood standard for a glitching game had been to blow into the cartridge and even the device itself, removing dust or whatever other bogeymen could be found. And, surely enough, when I discovered the output was in black and white I had repeated the same action as of old. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a moment worthy of media archaeological inquiry, but it seems to capture the mystery between gamer and console and the disconnect between user and designer.

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