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A philosophical history of the "Press Start" screen

You’ve seen it hundreds of times: the hard-boiled detective…the sentimental criminal…the resolute housewife…each at the door to his or her respective futures, when, for one reason or another, there’s a pause. Who, or what, waits on the other side; and can I return from it? Of film’s ability to turn action and imagery into psychology, the door pause has to be one of its finest examples. And most common. I think of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men pausing at the door to a breached crime scene, where his fate has been laid unseen in the dark. He quietly chews the moment with a roll of his jaw. Close-up on the shadow of his gun pointing at the brass door knob. This, the contract into experience.

For the player-actors of the modern videogame, the contract tends to come much sooner. Like, “title screen” soon. Take 2007’s BioShock, which lures players into a mood with murky imagery and ominous piano taps. Or the pulsing circuitry-meets-personal-data of 1999’s Metal Gear Solid, conveying in a few moments of light and sound a game-to-be’s entire tone. In setting our expectation of an incoming reality, and configuring us toward a style of experience, the title screen needs only one last thing from us; a signature of sorts: Please Press Start.

Please Press Start. 

Ah, but this is a luxury not long for the world. In games such as last year’s Mountain, or the geo-location based AR game Ingress; in fitness and education apps such as Up24 and Duolingo; the membrane that separates game-life and life-life is quietly deteriorating. The contract has become obfuscated, and the promised experience therein less certain. More and more, we aren’t the ones starting the experience; we are the experience. The games are starting us.

It’s a classic case of why we can’t have nice things, I guess. Because we want agency, but don’t bother me too much about it now. Don’t put me in the position of having too much say; of having to grab the world by its handle and say, in the words of Sheriff Bell, “O.K., I’ll be a part of this world.”

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It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact position in space and time, but we know it was around Stanford, and we know it was autumn 1971. From there, however, the story forks down two paths: the first following recent graduate Nolan Bushnell and his partner Ted Dabney (the would-be founders of Atari), whose newly manufactured Computer Space began location-testing at a nearby bar called the Dutch Goose—and subsequently became the world’s first commercially-sold coin-operated videogame; the second following another Stanford alum, Bill Pitts, and his high-school buddy Hugh Tuck, who pooled together the $20,000 needed to build what’s commonly known as the world’s first coin-operated videogame, Galaxy Game.

Both independently developed over the span of years; both debuting within a month of each other; both just different enough to stake a claim on two crucial aspects of the videogame’s contract into experience: the Start button (Computer Space), and the cost prompt (Galaxy Game). The language of action meets the Faustian exchange. A contract rendered in the very spirit of America: in clunking coinage producing a new reality.

There was about to be a free market of it. The next few years would see a dozen more arcade games hit the market, including the next game from Computer Space’s Bushnell and Dabney, Pong. And while most of the new machines had some version of a “Start Game” button, they were all missing the on-screen contract that appeared in Galaxy Game. Pitts and Tuck’s homemade cabinet, while it had become very popular around Stanford’s Tresidder Union where it had been installed, had failed to attract any manufacturers, and the innovation of its on-screen contract vanished from the scene. That is, until the little-known manufacturer Midway, in a series of partnerships with the Japanese arcade manufacturer Taito, released their North American adaptation of Taito’s Western Gun, 1975’s Gun Fight—complete with the words we’re looking for across its screen: Insert Coin. Was it the new-fangled microprocessor that powered this particular game the same that powered this development, or was there something more artful going on?

 “Insert Coin” was a door, where before there had only been walls 

For the truth of the matter was, though it may have been happening in tucked-away Laundromat corners and musty arcades, the biggest industry of experience since Hollywood was coming into its own. Like film, games would need to reduce the anxiety between the audience member and her temporary reality. “Insert Coin” was a door, where before there had only been walls; and once introduced, the prompt quickly spread from game to game, as competition infected design. Manufacturers themselves had their own door that used to be a wall: the home market.

Good news for them: Interactive experience, as a commodity, was escaping inside.

That was the goal all along, really. For the reduction of anxiety between realities includes the reduction of physical distance, too. By the time of “Insert Coin’s” invention in the arcades, home consoles from Magnavox, Epoch, Executive Games, and Universal Research Labs had been already entering consumer’s homes for years, to mixed effect. Then, in the same year of Gun Fight’s innovation, 1975, another innovation was occurring in living rooms across America: the Sears-branded (and Atari-assembled) Tele-Games: Pong console. And with it, etched into the black-plastic at the center of the unit, came the home console’s first “start” button.

Four years after Computer Space and Galaxy Game’s split-contract into experience, the two paths diverged further yet. While the overt, Faustian exchange of “quarters = play” stayed put in the arcades, the language of action was moving into the homespace—and in the process, changing. It was the beginning of the videogame’s transition from the overt investment of cash, to the over investment of time.

It was the beginning of the one-button reality.

Having been originally designed and assembled by Atari, it only made sense that the button would appear again the next year on their own brand of successful Pong machines. Unorganized competition among American manufacturers, however, kept the button from becoming commonplace; and between the years of 1976 and 1978, Atari’s little invention made few appearances aside from Atari’s own additional releases—with a notable exception of the Fairchild Channel F (“Start”) and Universal Research Labs’ Video Action III (“Game Start”).

Then, in 1979, Atari expanded its efforts on the home front with the release of the Atari 400 and 800, the first 8-bit home computers. Naturally, the “Start” button went with them. Not long after, perhaps influenced by Apple II games such as 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein (which prompted its players to “Press Return to Begin), the one-button reality found its way into a handful of games, such as 1981’s Rear Guard—“Press Start to Run Selection”—and Ali Baba—“Press Start Key to Begin.”

the one-button reality 

At the same time, Atari was taking the next logical step and reducing the distance from consumer to product to its smallest possible amount—right on the controller itself. The Atari 5200, while not a major seller, can add this to its list of accomplishments, resulting in a series of experience-hungry games in the early 1980s, such as the arcade port of Pac-Man (“Press Start to Play Game”), Buck Rogers (“Press Start to Begin”) and, most significantly, the 1982 release of Midway Games West, Inc.’s strategy game, Countermeasure, which offered on its title screen the next phase of the transition of experience from being quarter-based to being action-based: the simple, poetic, well-known “Press Start.”

A full decade after Computer Space and Galaxy Game first split experience, the two paths—the language of action and the inherent exchange—converged at last … and in their meeting created something new. Whereas the contract of experience had been once distant and braced in cold, hard cash, now players were beginning their experimental realities via a private entrance, their own homes. And instead of exact change, what paid for it was the inexact sacrifice of time and patience.

Alas, this was 1982, and, in the same way that America was “temporarily float[ing] in a glut of oil,” according to Time Magazine, so was the videogame industry in games. After a decade of shortages, the market that Computer Space created had reached a point where it was churning out games at an unprecedented rate. This was especially true on home consoles, where two major events were taking shape: first, a failed legal battle on the part of Atari to keep Activision, a third-party developer, from creating games for the 2600, resulting in a me-too flood of poor-quality games; and second, Atari pouring its heart and dollars into “easy,” “big-profit” titles … such as the poorly received 1982 arcade port of Pac-Man, and the dismal E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

there were far too many experiences, and most of them were just plain awful. 

Unlike the turnaround surplus of the oil market, the game glut was having an adverse effect on videogame audiences: there were far too many experiences, and most of them were just plain awful. What had seemed to be a free market of machines had become a free market of realities—and they were snuffing each other out. It was, as is now well known, the crash of the videogame industry.

It was the crash of something else, too: the contract into experience, which Atari’s own Countermeasure (1982) had seen transformed from a matter of quarters to a matter of time. Problem was, the industry itself hadn’t seen it, or refused to see it. Though the videogame had risen to prominence atop a lack of real expectations from its audiences, it was now becoming clear that there was a flip-side to the contract into experience. “O.K., I’ll be a part of this world,” sure—but they must be worlds worth being a part of.

Cue Nintendo—who was, in a very specific way, late to the game. While the successes of Donkey Kong (1981) and the handheld Game & Watch series (1980) had certainly put them into an enviable position, the timing of their first entry into the home console market—1983, the year of the so-called “videogame crash”—was … unfortunate. Yet, due that timing, the company was afforded a unique perspective of a market that the competition was struggling to recover from. A perspective that spurred the decision for their first console, the Famicom, to bring something completely new to the videogame industry: quality control.

Nintendo’s manufacturing guidelines—the so-called “Lot Check”—established an additional, behind-the-scenes contract between the videogame player and her borrowed reality: that all Famicom and NES games would have been sifted like gold through a sieve, thereby minimizing the risk of terrible products. Whereas Atari’s hubris and legal fumble had let the market drown, Nintendo sought to create an expectation of quality—and moreover, an expectation of consistency regarding the experiences their home consoles offered.

Nintendo sought to create an expectation of quality 

It was a reboot of the one-button reality. By 1985, the darling returned—first in the Japanese release of Championship Lode Runner (“Press Start Button”), then two months later in another Hudson Soft-published title, the Famicom-only arcade port, Star Force. By year’s end, the prompt would make several more appearances in one form or another: in the choice-based “Start”/“Continue” of The Tower of Druaga and Bomberman; in the weirdly localized “Push! Start Button” of Volguard II; these right up to the final days of the year, when—in Square’s first Famicom game, Thexder—the most well-known variation would appear: “Press Start.”

So, having weathered the crash of its own medium, the contract into experience was right back where it had left off with Countermeasure years previous: in a fusion of 1971’s Computer Space and Galaxy Game’s two paths, the language of action and the inherent exchange: “Press Start.”

Also like that decade-long twin path … Nintendo had only played one part.

For the truth is that the one-button reality—and the contract into experience that it carried—was bound to something more fundamental than markets: the desire to control the self. While the “start” prompt (and by extension “Insert Coin”) may have begun as doors leading back to themselves, they were becoming the player’s self-conscious decision to leave this world for other ways of being. And that had been brewing elsewhere from Nintendo’s machine—in the held-steady home computer market, for example, where Championship Lode Runner had an Apple II debut two years prior to the Famicom version; or where Volguard II-developer dB-SOFT first plied its trade on the Japanese-made MSX series of home PCs; and where Bomberman’s NEC PC-8801-title screen declared “Push Space To Start Game” a good three years before the Nintendo version gave players a mere “Start”/“Continue” choice. “Push Space To Start Game,” “Press Enter,” “Press Any Key” … these had all long-become standards in the home computer market by the time of Nintendo’s contribution; and by being so they represented a kind of revolution that had been simmering in the world of videogames, as players began came to realize—before the mainstream console market had—that games didn’t have to be rooms leading back to themselves, but grand mansions to more mansions. Not mansions; galaxies.

At last, the prompt had come into its own. By the 1990s, “Press Start” had become near-ubiquitous as a contract into experience, made all the more pronounced by elaborate, moody intro sequences that would climb, climb to a crescendo and—white flash, fade to title screen—release the prompt into our willing fingers. And it wasn’t just Nintendo’s hardware either. No, the Start button had dominated the market.

 The door to the mansion had become a high iron gate. 

At the same time, however, videogames were beginning to dominate entertainment. By 1995, with a revenue of $30 billion, the videogame industry briefly surpassed the old guard of oohs and aahs, the film industry; this in conjunction with the creation of the (now-named) Entertainment Software Association, a trade association made up of the industry’s top publishers, ready to organize, homogenize, and monetize. The contract into experience, which had evolved to represent the door between our world and another, was now transforming into another kind of contract entirely: the corporate kind—regulated, mandated, pinned in place by non-disclosure agreements.

Where the “Press Start” prompt had once revolutionized the interface of player and game, now had it become a passionless tick mark on a secretive compliance checklist. The door to the mansion had become a high iron gate.

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Where there had been revolution, now was there a checkpoint; and when you turn people away, some of them will decide they wanted to be elsewhere after all. You get Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, which has been dodging the Start/Enter prompt for going-on twenty years. You get 2008’s Braid, whose developer Jonathan Blow fought Microsoft’s Technical Certification Requirements mandate that games must have a title screen dismissible only by user input (i.e. “Press Start). Most curiously of all, you get the PC game market, who seem to be on the verge of eschewing the “Press Start/Enter” prompt entirely; and from there the thriving Oculus Rift VR development community, the goal of which is to render all reality into gameworld … all except one small item: our say-so.

It’s a classic case of why we can’t have nice things. Because as the videogame continues to climb the ladder of legitimacy, we have fooled ourselves into believing it must be seamlessly interwoven into our lives—the way a button is legitimately on my coat because it’s sewn into it. Because a hubris inherent to existence fools us into believing we have total control of our reality, and we tote that like a packed lunch into the next one. And because we are too trusting of those who would obfuscate the contract into experience, who by blurring one world and the next enigmatize both—and in doing so, ourselves.

Header image from Marcin Wichary

Body image from Stephen Velasco