By Adrián Maldonado
Try not to think about it too much, but we have reached the stage where anyone of college age or younger has lived in an era of the Internet and 16-bit-and-above game consoles. One can only imagine the very strange sort of mid-life crisis people of my generation will have, where instead of buying fast cars we’ll probably just find ways of fully inhabiting 80s movies and games à la Ready Player One and never be seen again. Until then though, we are living through a golden age of 8-bit scholarship, going beyond nostalgia to actually thinking through why we care so much about old video games.
One of the better recent examples of this is the wonderful new video by Joe Hanson which has been making the rounds amongst us nerds of a certain age. In it, he picks apart the reasons why we all seemingly felt it was good idea to blow into Nintendo cartridges when they didn’t work. He doesn’t go into the technical reasons why the NES so often didn’t work, covered ably elsewhere by Chris Higgins for Mental Floss. Rather, he focuses on the cognitive fallacy of confirmation bias, or why we tend to favour the explanation we like even if it requires ignoring most of the evidence. It’s a salutary lesson for everyone who uses the Internet, really. But what really struck me was this line: “The strangest part about [the act of blowing into NES cartridges] is that everyone did it. Even in a pre-digital world it spread like a thought virus. There was no how-to video on YouTube, it was just common knowledge.”
It seems to me that none of the articles on blowing into NES cartridges have really tackled this extraordinary point. Why, and how, did we all know to do this? Despite the fact that many of us were children at the time, with little knowledge of science or how electronics worked, we all came up with ways to get the game to work. We all had our own secret tricks – mine was pressing the inserted cartridge all the way to the right, worked like a charm – but blowing is the one that everyone seemed to share. Why not slapping the cartridge, or shaking the console, or any other just as potentially damaging actions?
I may well be pushing the boundaries of credulity here, but I believe archaeologists can add to the debate. Why not, it’s the Internet.
In recent years, the social sciences have undergone a material turn, meaning there is a renewed interest in objects and materials across sociology, anthropology, psychology and, yes, even archaeology. To completely mischaracterize a very complex and multifaceted paradigm shift in brief, it is about paying attention to the ways in which we humans are not always in charge of how we act or understand the world. As much as we like to think we are all free agents with the right to choose what we believe and how we present ourselves, our ways of thinking are also structured by the things around us. Things, even things we make, make us who we are in ways we are only now beginning to understand.
In archaeology, a discipline that has always focused on things, this material turn has opened up new ways of looking at changes in human behaviour in the long-term. To take one famous example, Ian Hodder’s recent book Entangled puts forward a vision of human history with things explicitly playing a leading role. Complexity arises not from evolutionary progress, but from a greater entanglement with things over time. One particularly interesting point he makes is that the larger our networks of entanglements are, the more opportunities there are for knots to fray or stop working. It is at these moments of failure where creativity comes in, and the fixes and workarounds develop new entanglements.
Thinking about all aspects of human life as ‘networks’ or ‘assemblages’, which include things along with abstract concepts such as emotion and cognition, has allowed archaeologists to get past evolutionary models of progress as the guiding force of all history. We have also borrowed extensively from technology studies and philosophers of science like Latour and De Landa to introduce concepts such as emergence and emergent behaviour – the way things spontaneously and unpredictably arise from a network of actors. The usual analogy for this is ant colonies, which seem to work together in ways which their individual cognitive capacities should not allow them to do. But there’s now lots of more interesting examples, for instance the practice of moshing at heavy metal concerts and the self-formation and regulation of online communities in MMOGs.
Thus far, studies of emergent behaviour tend to focus on networks or other large groups of actors. But if every object is an assemblage of different materials, practices and actors, it is worth focusing on the materiality of the object itself. This brings us back to the original quote: “The strangest part about the Nintendo thing is that everyone did it. Even in a pre-digital world it spread like a thought virus. There was no how-to video on YouTube, it was just common knowledge.” Like shaking a Polaroid picture, it was something we all did even when we were told not to. Something about the floppiness of the Polaroid and the ability to grip it using the strip for labelling your photo made it almost compulsive behaviour.
If archaeology has any lesson to add to the question at hand, it is that we have not yet paid enough attention to the stuff of gaming, and the physicality of game cartridges, consoles and controllers, though this could all change with new work on the Atari Burial in Alamogordo. While there are plenty of students of material culture now across the social sciences, archaeologists’ speciality is attention to the long term and the large scale. I would like to put forward the idea that this is the right moment to study the embodied act of gaming and the ways in which these little plastic boxes themselves played a role in structuring what we were later surprised to see was shared behaviour. In his Mental Floss piece, Higgins drew attention to the ‘zero insertion force’ mechanism of loading NES cartridges and the fact that the connector was hidden as a possible reason why new workarounds such as blowing were attempted. Or maybe this behaviour even pre-dates the NES and it was habitual to the use of cartridges more widely – I have seen commenters note that the act of blowing was associated with Atari games, and more work on habitual practices relating to cartridge-based games might reveal new insights.
All this is mainly a call to arms for archaeologists, as experts in material culture, to contribute to the study of gaming. Thanks must go to Joe Hanson for inspiring it!