Games of the Soul: An Anecdotal Introduction by way of Missile Command

Andy Phelps
9 min readSep 1, 2020

NOTE: In May of 2020 I announced a book project with Dr. Doris C. Rusch at the Uppsala University in Gotland, Sweden entitled ‘Games of the Soul: Creating Transformative Experiences Through Experiential Existential Design’. (Hopefully out spring of 2022!) The following is a small excerpt from some of the early work I am thinking/writing about, what led me to this work, and a story-based introduction to some of the themes and ideas. It references other parts of the text that are not available, but should be largely self-explanatory.

Memory is a funny thing: I don’t remember large sections of my childhood, at least not in any linear, time-oriented way. Instead there are just select events, feelings, experiences that jump out as having some kind of lasting impact on who I am now, how I think, the way I evolved and the people and environments that shaped that evolution. This is the story of one of them, that has stuck with me ever since, and has probably shaped a lot of my thinking about game design as well.

When I was in approximately fourth grade, it was 1984, and I had recently moved and lived in Bakersfield, California. Bakersfield back then was rather small, it was not yet a major suburb of Los Angeles, and it primarily existed as the closest city to Edwards Air Force Base. The roads were a perfect desert grid, letters on one axis and numbers on the other, and an avenue for tumbleweeds in both directions. In 1986 an unidentified (read ‘classified’) aircraft [1] crashed in the mountains near the city [2] and the military police closed off our route up the Kern River Canyon, thus ending a planned weekend getaway. It was a military town with military roots. But this story begins a bit earlier.

Specifically, it beings in the very early morning that year in fourth grade, at an exact time I can’t quite remember but a time that was both (a) consistent, and (b) prior to 7am: that was when the fighter planes broke the sound barrier en route to the Pacific Ocean for maneuvers. Day after day after day. Maybe you have seen an air show with a fighter jet or two, or something with the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds. I can tell you, as a young child, that hearing an entire squadron of fighter jets hit Mach 1 over your head is at once really cool and also really scary. The sky rained noise, and by the time you hear the noise the planes are already gone.

That same year was my first experience with a ‘duck and cover’ drill, which was an event at school wherein we were instructed that when we heard a particular siren to get under our desks and hold our heads between our knees with our arms up over our ears. If you’ve ever been in the Midwest it was similar to a tornado drill. This exercise, however, was an emergency preparedness routine as a part of civil defense training and response for nuclear war. Yes, you read that right, this was a program that told children that the way to survive a thermonuclear strike was to hide under your desk.

Also that same year we had a media presentation that involved filmstrips of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. See the planes that carried the bombs — BEEP — see the cities from the air — BEEP — see the bombs falling through the air — BEEP — see the mushroom cloud — BEEP — see the skyscrapers disintegrating in the skockwave — BEEP — see the city after the blast — BEEP — hurry past some censored pictures of radiation victims — BEEP — see the president talking about the decision to drop the bomb. We watched a film strip, and I would glance at it and look away, glance at it and look away, as I watched the class pet tarantula wander around its terrarium, feeling just as trapped as a spider in a cage.

I was not always the brightest student, but I remember connecting the fact that a small elementary school desk was unlikely to have much effect given a nuclear detonation, and I remember connecting the fact that we lived within range of the base. If the Soviet Union fired, they were firing, quite literally, at me. I was terrified. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, wet with sweat, panicked. It wasn’t a question of if, it was merely when. I remember thinking as a child it was less than even odds I would ever be an adult.

Then I went to an arcade, and I played Missile Command. By this time, I’d played lots of games, and I’d probably even played Missile Command before, it wasn’t new by then, just still somewhat popular. But in that moment, playing Missile Command was transformative: it provided a way for me to process my frustration, my fear, and my anger. It offered an outlet for my grief, and it also, amazingly, provided a sense of agency and control over a situation in which I had none of either. While the hopelessness of my plight was being reflected in the press covering the Cold War, in popular music on MTV, and in the comic books and action heroes of the day, Missile Command did a unique and (at least to me) profound thing: it didn’t offer some escapist view of the situation — everyone that plays the game eventually loses — but it did offer both a way to trivialize and compartmentalize the fear (it is, after all, an arcade game and you can play it again with a quarter so there is always another life) — while simultaneously holding out the idea that you can win for a while, and for a pretty significant while at that [3]. You can laugh at yourself for the stress you feel while playing the final moments of the game, and then savor the fact that you’re still alive in the arcade and get a piece of pizza.

It is interesting to note some of the history of the development of the game. “Dave Theurer didn’t come up with the idea for Missile Command, which was originally titled Armageddon.” (Reubens, 2018) It “came from a magazine story about satellites showcasing a radar screen that caught the eye of then-president of coin-op and VP of sales at Atari, Gene Lipkin. Lipkin passed the magazine clippings to Theurer’s boss, Steve Calfee, who put Theurer in charge of the project.” (Rubens, 2013, para 2) That ‘project’ was described only in the most general terms, as “you’ve got these missile trails coming in from the top and you’ve got these bases at the bottom. The trails are missiles coming in and you shoot missiles from your bases to intercept them. You try to save your bases.” (ibid, para 2) Originally, the ‘bases’ in the game were named after six cities in California: Eureka, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Indeed, Theurer was haunted by visions of thermonuclear war. (Barkan, 2004, p140) The original source code, silk screens for cabinet art, and other errata are now preserved at the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, as a cultural artifact of media engaged with the Cold War.

At that time in my life I’d already played many games, and I was also playing others at the same time both at home and at friends’ houses. But this was different: in all that other game playing I played games mostly in an abstract way. The person, ship, or character I controlled was just a means to an end, the story was mostly a way to advance the action, the setting was kind of arbitrary. It never mattered much to me if it was robots or spaceships or turtles or wizards blasting one another or cooperating to defend an island, the goal of the game was to learn the role and beat the scenario. Weave and dodge, aim and fire, solve the puzzle, beat the maze. I had a great time with games, and even enjoyed the narratives and settings, but they were a fantasy. Missile Command was a game that reached into my soul as a young boy and provided both understanding and a cynical form of hope for the future. It provided in a very strange way a form of solace through action. It was the first game that, as I played it, I was no longer the same person I was before I had done so.

Much later, in 1989, I read Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. (Adams, 1989) The book again moved me out of my normal pattern of media consumption and forced me to think not just about the work itself, but about my own place in the world. My relationship with existence. My position on the planet and how I felt about it. What it meant to be a young person in an adult world, frustrated with rules and values that I didn’t create nor necessarily agree with, but was forced to navigate and interact with regardless. The title of the book itself is a nod to the theological treatise Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross, and contains within it the following passage:

“In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know that you’ve had all the baths you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.”

As a young teenager just learning to process an entire range of emotions, just beginning a process of introspection and trying to find balance and understanding of one’s adult self, this work spoke to me in a way that transcended my normal patterns of escapism and immersion with science fiction and fantasy literature. The title of this book, Games of the Soul, is in direct reference to this experience.

What is different about these media, and in particular games such as Missile Command, and their design, if anything? Reubens (2018) notes that Missile Command was one of the first to be “ripped from the headlines” — but surely there is more than just media currency or cultural reflection. In addition to the structure that Doris just established with regards to this text that examines these questions first through design theory, then design interviews and worked examples, and finally via player studies, there are several core themes that wind their way through all of these explorations. One is the role of myth and ritual that ground these works in a shared cultural experience and consideration of their meaning. This is often done through narrative, character development, setting and/or role play as in Adams’ work, but also can be proceduralized and abstracted as in Missile Command. A second theme is a recurring focus on existential themes and questions contained within these works, and how they convey to their players provocations and questions that do not dictate direct answers, but rather encourage introspection and contemplation. And finally, the concept that these works are deeply experiential, and that experience is a relationship between the game as designed and the actual engagement with the player who brings to this interaction their history, thoughts, and lived experience in ways that often have profound impact on the entire exchange. Experiential games are those that have the power to transform us merely through the act of playing them, to act as a catalyst for change, but only if we are listening and ready for the nudge.

These themes span the entire text and are more formally laid out in the chapters that theorize our notions of existential game design. They reappear in our interviews with designers, and again in our examination of players as they engage with these kinds of game experiences. But to me they will always have begun with Missile Command in the hot desert sand of California, the warm velvet decay of a dusty arcade, and the first game I can remember that changed me for life.

References:

Adams, D. (1989). The long dark tea-time of the soul. Pan Books.

Barkan, S. F. (2004). Blue wizard is about to die!: Prose, poems, and emoto-versatronic expressionist pieces about video games, 1980–2003. Rusty Immelman Press.

Good, O. S. (2014, April 22). Museum acquires “virtually complete” source code from Atari’s arcade heyday. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2014/4/22/5640114/maze-invaders-atari-arcade-source-code-strong-museum-icheg

Rubens, A. (2018). 8-Bit Apocalypse: The untold story of Atari’s missile. H. N. Abrams.

Rubens, A. (2013, August 15). The creation of Missile Command and the haunting of its creator, Dave Theurer. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/features/2013/8/15/4528228/missile-command-dave-theurer

Footnotes:

[1] Vartabedian, R., & Malnic, E. (1986, July 12). Stealth jet believed to have crashed: AF seals off site where pilot died near bakersfield. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-07-12-mn-22615-story.html

[2] Richelson, J., T. (2001, July 1). When secrets crash. Air Force Magazine. https://www.airforcemag.com/article/0701crash/

[3] Marathon gamer Victor Sandberg played the game for 72 hours, earning an incredible 103,809,990 points. See: Shearer, S. (2013, December 31). Missile commander record holder plays game for nearly 72 hours | the escapist. The Escapist; Enthusiast Gaming LLC. https://v1.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/130946-Missile-Commander-Record-Holder-Plays-Game-for-Nearly-72-Hours

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Andy Phelps

Professor at @AU_SOC, Director at @AUGameCenter, President at @theHEVGA. CLO at @Endless_Games. andyworld.io he/him