Controlling an Art: Video Games and Interaction

by Matthew Ari Elfenbein

On a recent visit to The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, I came across the Arcade Classics installation. The exhibition showcased vintage arcade games in a way that interactivity components became apparent in their evolution over time. While looking at the manipulation the user has on these games, with controllers, brought me to further study the narrative structures. Watching many generations fawning over these machines brought me to ponder why these nostalgic interactions are still sought out. The variety of manipulation of the storyline and characters has changed with the new technologies. By mapping out these concepts the physical controllers of video games can show us how we experience this augmented reality.

The aesthetics and automation of the video game utilizes designs found in cinematic artistry. The two formats utilize some form of narrative and character development, and the advancement of plot from some antagonizing force. In the 1970s and 1980s, while other media and media-reproducers were garnering public use in the domestic sphere, the cinema experienced some trouble finding its place with user manipulation within a cohesive and economical fashion. Of the forerunning interactive experiences, 3D was becoming used in increasing films; however, this was not easy to come by and there did not seems to be any innovations to invigorate the spectator’s palate. There was fear that this artistic period was void of all participatory art forms, ruminated by Rudolf Frieling, who was convinced that the period’s social concept of partaking in art was altered (Carpentier, 15). However, when the opportunity was not in the theater, a chance to engage with a new form of entertainment emerged with the video game. Video games possess a transference of narrative disposition in its attempts to move from “showing not telling” along to “doing not showing.” This idea becomes clear through the use of external controllers connected to the virtual world.


“Pong” utilizes two knobs to move the virtual paddle, thus changing the landscape of the game.

Many various forms of knobs and sticks have gained us access to these virtual worlds, but arguably the most primitive of them all are the buttons, which allow users to control a variety of commands. This mode has an interesting story in the context of the relationships of video games and cinema. The button allows for an easy and tactile way for the participant to manipulate the environment of the medium they are watching. Especially in video games there are many aspects where interactivity and predestined actions become blurred and one could attribute them to embodying an omniscient force. This connection is made more believable by using tactile controls to engage, which Erkki Huhtamo theorizes makes the game a “conversation versus a lecture” (Huhtamo, “Seeking Deeper Contact”). Instead of being passive, like in mainstream cinema, the video game encourages and demands taking advantage of the mobility in the game. One place where this concept intersects with cinema is the film, Kinoautomat, which is considered the first interactive film. The mechanisms of this cinematic experience are two buttons, which allow the participants to vote for the path they want the character Mr. Novak to travel. The spectators are the cause of plot maneuvering, which also continues the conceptualization of the spectator as an omniscient agent. Erik Bucy quickly contradicts the concept that the conversation is predetermined, calling it, “erroneous” that through an interaction of machine and person the outcome usually will be steered towards optimism because it aligns with the user’s desires; however, it is quickly apparent in Kinoautomat and many video games we are faced with negative outcomes from our consequences (Bucy 374). Arguably, Mr. Novak becomes a video game character in the sense that there is a two-way exchange with the film and the participants. He embodies the manipulated character dependent on the user to decide his destiny, similar to a video game. This only illustrates a fragment of the manipulation capability of the users, as we see with more complex games becoming broader in interactivity.

The joystick, a popular and traditional mode, allows for 360-degree movement in the games plane; however, in more primitive games it was usually strictly restricted for horizontal and vertical movement. (There was also the use of knobs, like in the arcade version of Pong.) The games that utilize this control do not allow for much human input, since the game will guide the gestures, and there is the idea of “[thinking] with his/her fingers,” since there is not much agency in this contact (Huhtamo). While there continues to be a forward progression in the narrative, there seems to be more limitations of changing the outcome, compared to using the buttons. However, people still flock to these games because they remember a time of happiness. The game “Pole Position” utilizes a steering wheel and a joystick in order to maneuver the playing field as if you were driving the virtual car. There is a sense of “safe-danger” by using the apparatus of the wheel; thus, allowing horizontal movement, while the joystick is used to control the speed and represented with vertical progression. Basically, the controllers allow for up and down, side to side movement; thus, putting people in pseudo-control and providing a connection with the material.


“Pole Position” uses a steering wheel and joystick to maneuver the terrain.

There is an entire culture behind the idea of reminiscing and older media, such as video games, converge with the concept of technostalgia, coined by Tim van der Heijden, which shows how older technology becomes repurposed or invigorated in order to give a sense of nostalgia. Since van der Heijden mentions how this concept cannot recapture feelings from the past, this means that when interacting with the games, new attributes conglomerate with past ones. When the user plays these games again, with familiar tactility and story, it allows them to access their memories and relives them. Since the video game is somewhat limiting in this regard it does still evoke the feeling of interactivity because the experience is as much pragmatic as it is encompassing with technology (Bucy 376). While the user’s interaction can come from the tactile control they have within the joystick, there seems to be a large aspect of it that resonates internally as well.

According the Huhtamo, the end-goal for these interactive arts does not come with encompassing the spectator or participant into the cinematic or virtual environment; however, society has seemed to turn off this path, and immersion became less of a hypothetical practice in more recent years (the article was published in 1995). A composite of cinema and video games has came into existence, where intersecting comes in the form of 4-D and motions games. In these environments, the spectator is physically contained inside the movements and situations of the mise-en-scene. In 1988, Sega came out with “Galaxy Force II” which fostered inclusion of narrative and participant, being in control of the “spaceship” and the responsive 360-degree rotating and tilting was in response to a controller. While being totally immersed in the narrative and environment, it was easy to feel totally in control of the video game. By introducing the movement aspect to the occurrence, it gave the game added dimensionality and made the narrative address the user more directly. This experience can be attributed to the direct act of controlling character’s agency, as embodied in the film Gamer. This motion driven game, “Galaxy Force II,” removed the automated aura and replaced it with the concept of user-control; although, in retrospect there was still limited control due to the limited capacity of the technology. Here the users all “perceive a different range of affordances,” bringing to the forefront the concept that interactivity becomes a subjective experience, which is not necessarily associated with the technology of the piece (Bucy 376). This concept is not alien to cinema, especially in the modern theater, where exhibitors are trying to draw in customers by immersing them with motion seating and wall-to-wall 3D projections. Audiences are also able to physically be in a familiar world, allowing them to marvel on their imagination and enter a world that is marked with being safe and unharmed, like the memories of childhood. In terms of “Galaxy Force II,” by clarifying that actions create consequences with the joystick, the technostalgia reminds of this lesson and can remind someone that their actions are not the end-all in this situation, they have another chance.


“Galaxy Force II” brings the user into the narrative through the responsive motion.

The visit to the Museum of the Moving Image sparked my curiosity of appreciating how interactive technology has conglomerated within the video game medium, and how it further translated into the cinema and the human psyche. There are many more areas to discover with this parallel, for example where will video games and cinema finally cross? Will we continue to see advancements on the older modes of interacting with narrative and how will that bring about a new era of cinema? These are just some questions that seemed relevant to explore in relation to recent scholarship of the processes of interactivity. It is an exciting time to be able to witness the full timeline of this art, and how this the modern period continues to experiment how audiences will be able to interact with media.

Word Count: 1508


-Bucy, Erik P. “Interactivity in Society: Locating an Elusive Concept.” The Information Society 20.5 (2004): 373-83. Web. 10 Sept. 2016.

-Carpentier, Nico. “A Short History of Cultural Participation.” Transforming Culture in the Digital Age. Eds. Agnes Aljas, Raivo Kelomees, Marin Laak, Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, Tiina Randviir, Pille Runnel, Maarja Savan, Jaak Tomberg, Piret Viires. Estonian National Museum, Estonian Literary Museum, University of Tartu. 11-19.

-Heijden, Tim Van Der. “Technostalgia of the Present: From Technologies of Memory to a Memory of Technologies.” NECSUS. European Journal of Media Studies 4.2 (2015): 103-21. Web.

-Huhtamo, Erkki. “Seeking Deeper Contact.” Seeking Deeper Contact. Ken Feingold Artworks, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2016.

-Kinoautomat’s official website: