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Playing Operator on a Vintage Telephone Switchboard

"Hello, Operator!" game at the 2016 IndieCade at the Museum of the Moving Image (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Hello, Operator!” game at the 2016 IndieCade at the Museum of the Moving Image (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Mike Lazer-Walker has repurposed a 1927 Western Electric 551-A switchboard into a hectic game that tasks players with quickly learning the obsolete job. “Hello, Operator!,” although controlled by a discrete computer, involves the tactile mechanics of inserting the vintage cables into the right blinking names, and flipping the coinciding switches, all while you listen through your phone receiver to manage the increasingly frantic incoming calls.

Mike Lazer-Walker working on the refurbishment of the 1927 switchboard (courtesy Mike Lazer-Walker)
Mike Lazer-Walker working on the refurbishment of the 1927 switchboard (courtesy Mike Lazer-Walker) (click to enlarge)

“It lets you connect with the past in a deeply personal and individual level,” Lazer-Walker told Hyperallergic. “The most common comment I hear when people walk up to the switchboard is: ‘Oh, I always wondered how these things worked!’ To me, this sort of interactive experience is a way to satisfy people’s natural intellectual curiosity for how people in the past lived their moment-to-moment lives.”

Lazer-Walker presented the game at this year’s IndieCade East in the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. As part of IndieCade’s Strange Arcade installation, it was among a number of games that involved unconventional hardware and controls, such as Robin Baumgarten’s “Line Wobbler” with a rainbow-hued LED light strip; Kaho Abe’s “Hotaru” where two players don gloves and power packs to defeat an invisible monster; and Mildmojo’s “Disc Jockey Jockey,” based on an FM tuner.

At last year’s IndieCade, Lazer-Walker, who is part of the Playful Systems research group at the MIT Media Lab, showcased another game of augmented retrotech. Called “What Hath God Wrought?,” it involved a 19th-century telegraph key (its name inspired by the first telegraph sent by Samuel Morse from the US Supreme Court in 1844), and players tapping out Morse code. He’s also experimented with historic material in digital interactives like “La Culture Physique de la Femme Elégante” for smartphones, a “Jazz-age Parisian exercise simulator” evolved from a 1920s French fitness book for women.

“I’m big into the idea that what I make isn’t ‘edutainment,’ or something with the explicit goal of teaching you something,” he explained. “I make things that are unique experiences and fun games where, as a by-product of having played them, you’ll happen to have a slightly richer view of the world.”

Detail of the original 1927 switchboard (courtesy Mike Lazer-Walker)
Detail of the original 1927 switchboard (courtesy Mike Lazer-Walker)
"Hello, Operator!" game at the 2016 IndieCade at the Museum of the Moving Image (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Hello, Operator!” game at the 2016 IndieCade at the Museum of the Moving Image (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

You can only try out “Hello, Operator!” wherever the device is installed, the cumbersome switchboard’s heaviness and antique controls an integral part of the experience of the game. So anyone who sits down and picks up the black receiver and starts to hear the calls coming in will likely have no practice with switchboard skills. Yet participants at IndieCade were spending long lengths of time at the game, almost treating it like their first day at a new job, as they adapted to the unfamiliar machine.

“I expected most people would play the game for five minutes or so, but if left undisturbed, people regularly sit at the switchboard for upwards of half an hour,” Lazer-Walker stated, adding that there’s “something inherently magical about using the same actual hardware that someone used 90 years ago as part of their day job.”

You can read the step-by-step process of refurbishing the switchboard, tangles of 1920s wires and all, on Lazer-Walker’s blog.

"Hello, Operator!" game at the 2016 IndieCade at the Museum of the Moving Image (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Hello, Operator!” game at the 2016 IndieCade at the Museum of the Moving Image (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Mike Lazer-Walker’s “Hello, Operator!” was part of the Strange Arcade at the 2016 IndieCade at the Museum of the Moving Image.

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