Case study #3 from the Media Archaeology Lab: The Vectrex Gaming Console from 1982

The Vectrex gaming console of 1982, which is housed in the Media Archaeology
Lab and was produced for only two years, was remarkable for its lightpen
and its portability, among other features.

Assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder

#MALcasestudies is a weekly blog series featuring treasures that exist in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Media Archaeology Lab. Check out parts #1 and #2.

This week I’d like to use the Vectrexgaming console, housed in the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL), as an opportunity to return to a point I made in last week’s post: that ‘technological progress’ is a fiction we find next to impossible to see as fiction rather than reality.

And more, it just so happens that even those who understand the former is a fiction often recite in the same breath urgent warnings against technological determinism—we don’t want to advocate for the metanarrative of progress and neither do we want to give too much (or any) agency to our machines, or so the logic goes.

That is, in media studies it’s fairly common to decry ‘technological progress’ and ‘technological determinism’ in the same breath, usually allowing both to stand in as facts that require no further explanation. (It’s not too difficult to think of my career in media studies as one punctuated with bi-annual warnings or accusations of technological determinism by reviewers, colleagues, and audience members.) But while we all agree so easily and so quickly that narratives of progress are ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’, why exactly is this the case? Don’t we all prefer our small, sleek, smartphones to the mobile phones of the 80s that meant you had to carry around a heft briefcase to make a call? Who in their right mind would want to use a Commodore 64 with a cassette drive instead of any number of the ultra powerful, reliable contemporary devices we have to choose from? More, at the same time as technological progress seems to be a given, bizarrely, it seems it’s equally important to make sure we constantly assert that culture is in control of these machines at all times—to say that we are not responsible for these smart, small, sleek machines, and that these machines actually “determine our situation,” is heresy. In other words, inside academia the two concepts are all too often loci for the unthought while outside of academia, the widespread belief in technological progress and the concomitant fear of technological determinism are equally unthought. Somehow life inside and outside the academy have come to mirror each other.
The MAL, however, has been tremendously useful to me, in both my teaching and my research, as a means by which to escape this mirroring that leaves us flip-flopping between two equally fictional extremes. Particular machines in the lab such as the Vectrex clearly demonstrate not only that there are certain affordances to this gaming console from 1982 that we no longer have access to but also that this machine does in fact affect, even determine, what and how we think and create.

While it was only produced for two years—first by General Consumer Electronics and then by Milton Bradley, leaving the market shortly after the video game crash of 1983—the Vectrex is remarkable for its lightpen (packaged in a felt marker casing), its portability (it weighs less than ten pounds—a fraction of the weight of other luggables coming on the market at the same time), its refusal to build on to the television set and the keyboard as a way to make users feel more comfortable with its newness, and also for the way it was a miniature version of a vector-based arcade machine. As I explain to visitors to the MAL, vector graphics basically means that images appear on screen as lines between point. Among many other capabilities, this means that with the lightpen and a cartridge such as Animaction, one can create (and save!) fairly complex animations in a matter of minutes. Think of the months it can take to master creating animations using ActionScript or HTML5—by comparison, why wouldn’t we see the Vectrex as better? Or as a profound disruption to the narrative of technological progress? Or, given the way the machine demands a predominantly vertical engagement from its users in contrast with the horizontal interactions demanded by tablets with styluses that attempt to masquerade as paper and pen, or the vertical and horizontal engagement demanded by the keyboard/screen/mouse, why wouldn’t we say that the Vectrex deeply affects what and how we create?

In short, the Vectrex is a machine we can use to clearly explain the unreality of technological progress while pointing to the inanity of warnings against technological determinism.


Lori Emerson is author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, soon forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press. She is assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“This is the first book to bridge the fields of media archaeology and literary studies, specifically poetry and poetics. It offers new readings—and sometimes a first reading—of important texts, it performs historical spadework that adds to the existing narratives of how the personal computer has evolved, and it contributes to current critical conversations by making the category of interface central to its explorations of textual materiality.”—Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination

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