Retrospeculative Design

This afternoon on the INPUT POKE SAVE Discord server that the UNIL-EPFL Gamelab put together, I attended a presentation by my colleague Douglas about is projects. Based on a series of examples, he used the term “retrospeculative Design” that he coined with Antonin Fourneau. A term that refers to the sort of design approach he uses in their work as well as in the context of workshops in Art and Design school.

He used this expression to refers to “the designs of an entirely unknown parallel history of video game consoles and controllers, the designs of which were to be reconstructed out of the history and æsthetics of video game history”. The process goes like this:

To aid us in our reconstructive efforts, Antonin Fourneau and I designed a series of playing cards to be drawn randomly by each collective group which was made up of at least 1 game designer, 1 human interface designer, and 2 managers. Before each group we placed a deck of cards which were broken down into five different categories : Epoch (yellow), Æsthetics (fuchsia), Technology (cyan), Management (grey), and Black (black). With some slight variance depending on the number of game designers, human interface designers, and managers in each group, the following distribution of cards was selected: 1 Epoch card, 3 Æsthetics cards, 3 Technology cards, 4 Management cards (2×2). (…) The most important card in the group was the Epoch card. These epochs were organised into what we considered both the significant and the singular dates of the history of video games and video game interfaces. For example, most of the significant players were there: Spacewar (1962), Brown Box (1968), Pong (1972), Simon (1978), Game & Watch (1980), Gameboy (1989), Playstation (1994), Eyetoy (2003), Wiimote (2006), iPhone (2007), Kinect (2010), et cætera. But we also included some important obscure players (and which should probably have been significantly expanded), such as Atari’s Mindlink (1984!), Nintendo’s never-released Vitality Sensor (2009), Woz/Jobs’ Blue Box (1971), and Woody Allen’s ultimate speculative technology device, The Orgasmatron (2173).

Why is this relevant in the context of this research project about discarded electronics? While “the consoles/interfaces associated with each date were not a required aesthetic or even technical reference; they merely gave a quick shorthand as to what was design-able within the epoch of the card”, one can also take these references (say a GameBoy or a C64) as a starting point to peripherals or games using these “old” devices.

See for instance this controller called Caligari, designed by Catherine Brand and Michael Martin, retroactively designed for Sony’s 1994 PS One, with a retrofuture port for Sony’s 2002 LCD Screen for PS One. At the surface level, their proposal might seem perfectly obvious.
caligari controller

“Why using old cartdriges?”

Seen on the website of Iodine Dynamics, which recently “What Remains”, an 8-bit game for the NES console (released in 1985) that blends visual novel and adventure elements:
Why are you using old cartridges to house your game?  The game was made thinking about having as little environmental impact as possible. The choice for the NES was part of these considerations. The NES is a very sturdy machine, still functioning after 4 decades. The cartridges as well. Producing new hardware and purchasing new electronic components to create a game did not feel right, because in the long run we would just be adding to the already out of control pile of e-waste. There are so many cartridges out there which are abandoned and unloved, they can be brought back to life with a new ROM, giving them a new purpose with very little environmental impact.
Why blogging this? An interesting project that illustrates the kind of practices we are interested in here. Designing a game in 2019 on a console released thirty years before doesn’t mean it’s about privileging the past, mostly because game designed evolved and that the way to imagine game imaginary/design has changed… which is why this is not an example of “retrogaming” even though the aesthetic is close to the one of the 1980s, it’s much more than that, and we’re not sure such a game could have been produced (conceptually) back in the days.