The Domestic Spaces of Digital Media

On May 27, 2018, I joined my colleagues Brenta Blevins and Lee Skallerup Bessette in a session at the 2018 Computers and Writing Conference, held this year at George Mason University. It was my first Computers and Writing, and I had a good time learning from many interesting sessions. For my paper, which follows below, I had a chance to talk about the history and meaning of the Console Living Room, which I haven't written about for a while. It was great to think about and frame the living room work again, especially as Jim is fully engaged in a next phase project with Reclaim Video. Here are the words as I presented them, edited slightly for format and clarity.

In the 1970s, first-generation home videogame consoles had to work to find their place in the living rooms and dens of middle class homes in the United States. With televisions at the center from the 1950s on, phonographs, hi-fi stereos with 8-track players and later VCRs and Selectavision video disc players crowded the shelves that early game console had to find their places on. Early systems like Magnavox’s Odyssey series and Fairchild’s Channel F communicated embraced their relationship with television, as much of the marketing and product design of the systems positions these consoles as an enhancement to the TV.

As Sheila Murphy has noted, videogames’ emergence from inventor Ralph Baer’s idea to do more than just watch televisions effectively linked the sense of user agency associated with computing to the leisure activity of the TV.

"I'm sitting around ... thinking what can you do with a TV set other than tuning in channels you don't want. And I came up with with the concept of doing games..." -- Ralph Baer, qtd. in Murphy

It wasn’t until the second generation consoles and their enhanced processing power (thanks to the affordability of Zilog’s Z80 and more powerful versions of the MOS 6502 processors) that the marketing narrative for home videogames emphasized bringing the arcade experience home.

Between those periods, while arcades were encouraging deviant behavior in teenagers, the videogame console that came to characterize the late 1970s and ultimately make the most successful argument for videogames’ place in the home was the Atari’s relatively affordable Video Computer System or 2600.

There are many reasons for Atari’s success with this console, but a key factor of its reception that sometimes gets lost among the historical studies of this platform is the way the advertising for this system focuses on the whole family gathered around the television in order to play Atari. The rhetoric of their “Have you played Atari today?” campaign is that the Atari isn’t simply a welcome constituent of the living room media ecology or something that makes the TV better, it’s the whole reason for being there.

Media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo situates home videogame consoles as part of a longer history of domestic media consumption which surged with the mass production of optical media devices like stereopticons in the Victorian era, coinciding with an emerging bourgeoisie that was reorganizing the separation of public and domestic life. Huhtamo writes

“Media is never accepted into homes as such, in prepackaged forms and meanings; rather, its roles and identity are molded through continuous negotiations involving humans, the spaces they inhabit, and the specific codes they have internalized and apply in their daily operations” -- Huhtamo, "What's Victoria Got to Do with It?" 48

In this presentation, I will describe an ongoing creative and pedagogical project at the University of Mary Washington that attempts to situate digital technology in a historically contemporaneous domestic environment. This project is meant to be both educational and persuasive, arguing that media platforms -- especially videogames -- never exist as objects per se but are rather occasions for continuous, dynamic events that occur in specific kinds of places.

Of course, if one wants to learn about the history of videogames, web-based emulation is readily available for hundreds of games from the 70s and 80s, but videogame emulation is never quite right: in a nostalgic frame of mind, what we seek in experiencing videogames from an earlier time period is not simply the content of the game. Even if the nostalgic affect of playing classic videogames is, instead, a false, anamorphic vision of an idealized, younger version of ourselves that could have been playing these games in this kind of space.

Emulation is also a solution museums and other cultural institutions have turned to, for example, installing emulators alongside the original, fragile artifacts of game history, articulating what Raiford Guins writes about as the “activity / artifact” duality of videogame curation.

Our site at UMW is definitely not a museum, nor is it quite a “lab” in the sense used by the Media Archaeology Lab. Whatever it is, UMW’s Console Living Room space has been and is a demonstration of the significance of the physical spaces of digital media.

It started with an idle conversation in January 2015 at UMW’s then brand-new Information Technology Convergence Center. Building manager Cartland Berge and Jim Groom were configuring a Playstation 3 in order to make it available for students to check out and play in any of the collaboration spaces in the building. I pointed out that, if we’re going to have newer games, we should also have older consoles available, ideally in some fixed location with a dedicated contemporaneous TV so that the games could be appreciated in their original cathode-ray glory. Jim was all in, and after some brainstorming and planning, we arrived at the idea of building a fully furnished living room based in the 1980s, skewing slightly toward the 1970s.

In this space, we included several consoles: an Atari 2600, a Commodore Vic 20, an Intellivision, a PONG-clone, a Channel F, and a Vectrex. Jim, whose historical interest leans more toward film, also acquired a nice stereo system, a vintage VCR and Beta player, and an RCA Selectavision.

I was particularly fascinated with this Selectavision videodisc -- it’s a “video on vinyl” system which, like the name implies, reads encoded video data from a vinyl disc with a stylus, just like a phonograph player. The resulting video quality isn’t great, but the disks, which are loaded and unloaded to the player with a cartridge system so that the vinyl is protected, offer a larger canvas for artwork, which is usually a slightly cropped version of the movie poster. So simply as aesthetic objects, these made a nice contribution to the space, which we started calling the Console Living Room, not realizing at the time that that name overlapped with the web-based emulation projected hosted by the Internet Archive.

With the assistance of Michael Branson Smith of York College, we hooked up two low-power broadcast antennas to a couple of Raspberry Pis playing 1980s TV programming. This way, any of the five or six working TVs we had in the space at any given time could tune in one of two stations we’d programmed based on a local 1980s TV schedule. Channel 7 started at 6AM with an aerobics show, filled in the mornings with game shows and the afternoons with soap operas, concluding with Magnum PI and Airwolf for the evening. Channel 9 screened series marathons movies and like the Cronenberg film Shivers -- in coordination with a class on exploitation films.

This convergence of TV programming and media consoles showcases with the performative aspect of our living room installation and aligns with Ralph Baer’s initial conception of games as extending TV programming, not replacing it. And, after all, in the University’s so-called Convergence Center, a space that combines collaboration rooms, classrooms, media production studios, technical support, Digital Knowledge tutoring and infrastructural IT, so it made sense to imagine our space as a reflection on how media have always converged in other, non-institutional spaces like living rooms.

To flesh out the living room effect, we filled out the space with furniture from the University’s surplus warehouse: end tables, chairs, a coffee table and entertainment center helped the space fulfill its function, but a funky plaid loveseat became one of the iconic character pieces for the installation.

The final element that gave the space an unmistakable specificity were its walls. Kenny Hornung from the theatre department’s carpentry shop showed Jim and me how to construct “stage flats,” which we paneled with some cheap MDF wood paneling from Lowe’s. Erecting these in the two walls that formed our space.

Wood paneling -- the signature interior cladding material of the 1970s and 80s that helped Stranger Things earn an Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Production Design for a Period Program” fulfilled the contextual signification of that space. Viewed in isolation, the faux wood-grained paneling on several of our TVs and most of the game consoles seems like a quirky design choice, but in a room where the walls are wood paneling and most of the furniture is at least accented with dark-stained wood, that design choice suddenly makes sense. Raiford Guins quotes Al Alcorn -- the designer of PONG saying that


“[we made it brown] to look good in an American living room.” -- Al Alcorn, qtd. in Guins

Inversely, we made our room brown so that PONG and similar systems would have a room to look good in.

The wood paneling walls had a negative side effect, however, in that that campus safety officer deemed them a fire hazard. Surprisingly, she wasn’t that worried about the large swaths of flammable material wound through with extension cords connecting snares of circa-1970s wiring. Instead, it was the way that the wood paneling sat off from the actual walls by about 1 foot on two sides, changing the effective safe occupancy limit of the space. Seemed arbitrary to me, but I had no choice but to remove them, and as Jim Groom left the University at about the same time, he took many of his devices with him.

Many of those devices, including the Selectavision, have recently found a new home in Jim Groom’s “Reclaim Video” storefront.

In Spring 2017, I worked with a group of nine students to resurrect and reimagine the living room space under a broader name -- the Media Anachronism Project -- and a focus on a new decade -- the 1990s. Students did research on many different aspects of 90s digital and visual culture like the rhetoric of toy commercials, the predominance of sitcoms made for teenage girls, the emergence of the web, and the evolution of messageboard culture.

Noting that the original living room was subtly masculine in various ways, this group of students chose Clarissa from Clarissa Explains it All as their muse, and we did what we could to design the space in a way that would have made sense to her. Some obstacles stood in the way of achieving that, unfortunately. Clarissa’s primary set is her bedroom, and we were told explicitly that we were not allowed to install a bed in this public space. We also couldn’t paint the walls in patterns, but we compromised with bright colors wherever possible, Lisa Frank stickers, and a pink filing cabinet.

For the videogames, I built a shelf with slots and an eight-channel RCA video switcher. Keeping with the decade, we loaded this shelf with an NES, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Playstation One, Sega Genesis and even a Sega Saturn.

We also adopted the nearby information display screens and built a 90s- style website (really just WordPress with a Geocities theme) to convey the findings and outcomes of our projects.

Although we recognized from the beginning that finding a signature 90s look would be more challenging than it was with the 1980s, we hoped that the then-trendy vaporwave aesthetics would help us find our visual cues, but in the end the living room space ran into more challenges than we were able to overcome.

In both iterations of this space, two guiding principles have oriented our work: to playfully engage users in rethinking digital space, and to explore and celebrate the ways in which digital technology informs a lived experience. By situating digital platforms in specific places that evoke their historical contexts, we defamiliarize those spaces for a pedagogical purpose. Additionally, by situating this space -- with its smelly tweed couch, sagging wood paneling, the loud videogames -- in a shiny new technological marvel of an academic building, we call attention to the influence of design on behavior. Creating space for a different kind of social experience. In other words, by foregrounding the quirkiness of our space, we hope building users will reflect on the otherwise “normalcy” of the spaces which our space interrupts, and perhaps the social contexts of gaming will support or augment the other kinds of collaboration that happens in the Convergence Center.

Finally, a fundamental principle to the UMW Console Living Room is that its materials should remain as accessible as possible. Nothing is locked down, and situated as it is, there is no way to restrict access to the room. Everything is at least meant to be played (that is, some things are broken) but they can still “do work” as playful cultural artifacts, and this is a stance that I assume other similar collections and exhibits have not taken. From a curatorial standpoint, this is a risky approach, and a small number of items have indeed gone missing. But as evidence of the amazing things that can happen when you trust people, more items have mysteriously appeared (from anonymous donors) than have disappeared. It’s truly a social curation. In his book No Medium, Craig Dworkin extends McGann and Kirschenbaum to delineates the predicament of media such that

“Media -- if there are such things -- are only recognizable as collectives” which are necessary for meaning to take place. Furthermore, “the close one looks at the materiality of a work -- at the brute fact of its physical composition-- the more sharply a social context into focus” in these ways media are not just “actively dynamic processes, but that as such they are nested within a recursive structure.”

“Recognizing a compact disc, say, for what it is -- acknowledging its medial status -- thus comes to be seen as analogous to the CD player’s recognition of that disc’s digital binary data, which is in turn analogous to a listener’s recognition of the playback from the disc as music.” -- Dworkin 32

Following Dworkin’s lead, I think the Living Room offers a way to move beyond Katherine Hayles’ medium-specific analysis toward a media-situated analysis that acknowledges the gritty, insistent hacceity of individual media and their platforms, like my students have begun doing with their study of 90s digital culture.

Works Cited

  • Dworkin, Craig. No Medium. MIT Press, 2013.
  • Guins, Raiford. Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. The MIT Press, 2014.
  • Huhtamo, Erkki. “What’s Victoria Got To Do with It? Toward an Archaeology of Domestic Video Gaming.” Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History, edited by Mark J. P. Wolf, Wayne State University Press, 2012.
  • Reclaim Video. Accessed 27 May 2018.
  • Sheila C. Murphy. How Television Invented New Media. Rutgers Univ Pr, 2011.
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