Strange Loop

September 26-28 2018


Peabody Opera House


St. Louis, MO

Making Games for 1920s Hardware

"Hello, Operator!" is a game played on a vintage Western Electric telephone switchboard from 1927. Players sit down at the physical switchboard and learn how to use it as they actually would have in the 1920s. Under the hood, the game is a blend of old and new technology, with a JavaScript-based game engine running on a modern computer wired directly to 90-year-old electronics.

This talk will dive into the development and design process of "Hello, Operator!". As someone used to working purely in software, how do you approach sitting down with 90-year-old hardware and actually figuring out what's going on? How do you make sense of something that has no documentation or source code, where "legacy code" and "tech debt" mean not a pile of spaghetti code but a literal tangle of wires, and the equivalent of "console.log" is a multimeter?

More than just dealing with hardware, making a fun game is all about having a tight feedback loop between prototyping and putting things in front of actual users. That sort of iterative design is tricky when it involves 200 pounds of vintage hardware! We'll talk about the cross-platform game engine powering "Hello, Operator" that can run anywhere from the physical hardware to a Unix CLI to an iPad with a custom touch-based interface, and engineering considerations and design patterns that can allow you to seamlessly transition between prototyping in code and in silicon.

Mike Lazer-Walker

Mike is a Berlin-based artist/engineer who makes interactive art, experimental games, and software tools. Most of his work focuses on using nontraditional interfaces to reframe everyday objects and spaces as playful experiences. He's built projects as far-flung as a site-specific generative poetry walk, a game played on 19th century telegraph hardware, and a commercial board game that uses Amazon Alexa. In the past, he's worked at companies like Pivotal Labs and Etsy, on beloved games and apps such as Words With Friends and Timehop, and as a researcher in the MIT Media Lab's Playful Systems research group.