Is it a video game if there’s no screen? At the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, that’s one of the many questions being explored by the Alt.Ctrl.GDC, a showcase of games that explore alternative interfaces, control schemes, and examine the outer boundaries of gameplay experiences and interactions.
Hello, Operator! is the creation of Mike Lazar-Walker, who works as a research assistant at the Playful Systems group of MIT’s Media Lab. The game is designed to simulate the minute-to-minute tasks of a 1920’s-era telephone operator. The software for the game was written in an abstracted manner so it could be run on any hardware—a Mac mini, an iPad, or on the hardware panel that he fabricated on his own to better simulate the experience. But the project really found its voice when he found a vintage Western Electric 551a telephone operator panel on Ebay, which was last used at the Mead Paper Mill in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Mike wanted to use as much of the original hardware as possible. The mechanical switches, the plugs, the wiring and the housing are all exactly as they were in the machine’s original service. The indicator lights needed to be replaced, and a band of four Arduino Megas manage the interface between the hardware and the Mac Mini which runs the software. Hello, Operator! is an unintentional follow-up to his showing at last year’s Alt.Ctrl.GDC event, which took players through the experience of being a telegraph operator while teaching them morse code. Mike isn’t quite done exploring this concept either—he is interested in exploring the sort of narratives that can be established by listening in on multiple conversations in Hello, Operator!, or seeing what can happen when connecting people with others that they didn’t anticipate.