Pong, in one of its many forms, was the first consumer video game. Marketed as the "Magnavox Odyssey," its combined digital and analog circuitry generated, on the family television, a space with otherworldly rules and actions. A strange rectangular ball "bounced" at 45° angles around a nearly featureless black plane, interrupted only by glowing "paddles" and a dotted midline. Consumers already were comfortable with the fantasies and advertisements television insinuated into their domestic space. Pong was many people's first experience of true interactivity mediated by a screen. They had to learn a new, constructed idea of space, and new, constructed concepts of "movement," "collision," "winning," and "loss." Thus, Pong may well have been the first time consumers were subjected to a purely constructed and limitedly participatory signifier of an artificial physics, of a world designed entirely by men.
While the entrance of the television into the domestic space brought an era of marketing and control-by-advertisement, the introduction of Pong into the television space brought an era of participatory but rigid fantasy and control-by-program. Pong presents a brutally abstracted version of ping pong or tennis. The social element has atrophied; users now sit facing the same screen, unable to look at each other. The game designer picked and chose physical rules. (Velocity yes, collision yes, friction, acceleration, and rotation no.) This constructed physics, this fantasy, was conceived and controlled by engineers. Users, enticed by "winning," buy into this abstraction, forgetting their experience of reality in favor of a constructed one. In this way, Pong marks the entrance into the home and the psyche of the insidious tyranny of programmer over user, manifest today in nearly every technology.
In general, video games exist for the purpose of pleasure. An unwinnable game is unfun, and therefore will never be played with the same enthusiasm as a winnable one. But in today's environment of omnipresent computation, where machines have already recalculated and molded deep aspects of reality (like money, law, information, mathematics, and thought), where trust in anonymous programmers', engineers', and authority figures' intentions is a human necessity on the order of love and sleep, where the control structure that began with Pong and may never end is the stark bedrock of society, one must question the obligation of a video game to induce pleasure. In a world where computation is the substance of power, why must a video game subscribe to any rules at all?
Why should the video game not, instead, fool the user? The user has already been blinded by the trust demanded of him daily by the programmers, engineers, marketers, architects, and government. Why not break that trust to show how weak it is?
Why not break it, just as it is broken daily? Why not break it as an artist, in an effort to illuminate it, to expose it, and to free the user, rather than to control her? Why not foreground tyranny in the place where tyranny might be least expected: in a simple game?
Typically, in video games, the implicit contract between programmer and user ensures the computer puts up a "good fight," while always leaving a way for the user to "win." Even on a difficult level, the programmer must LET the player win at a some stage of the game. This inherent irony became our starting point. So what if a video game did the opposite? What if the player could never win?
In an effort to answer this question, we designed an unbeatable version of Pong which subverts and exposes the trust of users by mocking them and changing the rules of the game. The user tries to control her paddle with the arrow keys on the keyboard. This is her only channel of input. The computer may cause the player's paddle movement to be flipped, may stretch its paddle to the size of the screen, may send many balls to attack the player's paddle, may alter the speed of the balls and paddle, or may make the balls go through the player's paddle. These events are scripted on a timeline, designed to make the user as frustrated as possible.
To add to this frustration, the computer displays messages, appearing to taunt the user. The script is meant to increase the frustration and to anthropomorphize the computer as mean and self-satisfied, laughing at its own jokes.
Some questions raised by this piece include: What happens when the player can never win? Is it "fair" to make a game impossible to win? By what metric should fairness be judged? How does pleasurability work to hide control structures? If its outcome is predetermined, is this a "game" at all?