Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

Publication date: 22 March 2012
Originally published 2011, in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 08-Feb-2013.


The human brain is hard to please.

Well, actually it's pretty easy to please. If you're not severely clinically depressed, you can probably think of several pleasant things you could do right now, or, preferably, do while the boss thinks you're working.

But human "happiness", insofar as anybody can even define it, is not the simple, uniformly traversable scale we've been led to expect by serious psychological research software like The Sims.

(Sims are actually pretty realistic, compared with most of the alleged humans you encounter in single-player video games. But so is anything that has more mental states than "perfectly OK with the player wandering into my bedroom" and, moments later, "sworn to kill the player or die trying, because he accidentally picked up one of my onions".)

One particularly mystifying thing about human happiness, as any student of the history of entertainment technology can tell you, is that people in the past always seemed to be delighted by things that are, today, staggeringly tedious.

OK, if you've never seen a video game before, and the local milk bar has just got a Space Invaders machine, then the pure novelty of the thing might lead you to drop your pocket change into it for a while. But later arcade games, and then the computer and console games that've left the remaining arcades trying to survive with giant loud specialty machines, keep on making everything that came before look like rubbish that people wouldn't play if you paid them.

I, myself, am only slightly ashamed to say that even if I know there are tons of fascinating things to do in an old RPG where everybody talks in boxes of text, I still find it very hard to get into the game, because fully voiced games - with, frequently, much lousier writing than the old games - have spoiled me for text-boxes. I'm sure, in the future, games that have large (possibly synthesised) voice casts will similarly cause me to wonder what I ever saw in a game where every old man in the world sounds exactly the same.

Take a little trip back to the Sears Roebuck catalogue from 1897 (conveniently reprinted in 2007!), and you'll find a Graphophone cylinder-record player/recorder would set you back $35 with a dozen two-minute records. A wind-up "Regina" music box...

...that played different tunes when loaded with different perforated discs was $15, or as much as $78.95 for the super-deluxe version. A magic lantern - a primitive oil-fired slide projector - suitable for home displays was maybe $15, including a decent number of slides.

In 1897, the average income in the USA was less than $450 a year.

Multiply up to a modern average income of about $50,000, and that $15 music box suddenly costs about as much as an iPhone. The Graphophone, with its atrocious audio quality...

...and playing time, costs as much as a mid-range ThinkPad.

And yet, people bought these things. And liked them.

(To be fair, 48 fluid ounces - 1.4 litres - of laudanum from the 1897 Sears catalogue was only three bucks plus postage, which is about $350 if you multiply up to modern incomes. I suspect, based on the continuing popularity of today's illegal equivalents, that rather more people bought and liked that, than bought and liked record players and magic lanterns.)

(While I'm digressing, antique Reginas and Graphophones today cost about the same fraction of the average wage as they did in 1897. Working Reginas sell for at least a few thousand dollars; Graphophones look like a bargain in comparison, for a mere several hundred.)

The psychological explanation for people being perfectly happy with things that seem today to be as dull as dishwater is that humans tend to map our emotional range onto whatever our life happens to be. A day spent ploughing fields followed by watching a magic-lantern show can therefore be psychologically equivalent to a day spent writing business software followed by watching a Blu-Ray movie.

Or, as I prefer to think, the billionaire who's finally sorted out the Alcantara harness in his 10,000-horsepower motor yacht so that he can outdistance the F1 cars coming out of the tunnel at the Circuit de Monaco while simultaneously having sex with a physically perfect specimen of whatever organism most appeals to him is, as a result, not actually quantifiably happier than I am when I've got a meat pie and a new episode of Futurama.

Technological advancement means that entertainments are now being superseded a lot faster than in the olden days, but I think we're starting to see that trend change. The... things... that George Lucas keeps doing to Star Wars don't mean that revamping old film and TV is inherently a terrible idea; look at the "Remastered" version of the Original Series of Star Trek. Video games are even easier to improve.

The "Enhanced Edition" of The Witcher, for instance, is much better (and more profane!) than the original English version. (They're doing the same thing with The Witcher 2, now.) World of Warcraft has had whole fundamental engine changes over the years. Valve have, in more subtle ways, monkeyed around with several Source-engine games, and not just to make pointless changes like adding achievements. (By now, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Valve made a version of Half-Life 2 without any loading screens.)

PC gamers are used to these kinds of changes arriving in big, awkward patches, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if a lot of games started to update like the Chrome browser - so smoothly and silently that the first you know of it is when you start a new game and the starting town's twice as big.

I accept that an ever-expanding, ever-improving fantasy world provided to me for the price of an 1897 straw hat may not actually make me any happier.

I'm still looking forward to it, though.

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