Shocking grasps: An archaeology of electrotactile game mechanics

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In this archaeological analysis of gamic electroshock, I link recent electric shock game machines such as PainStation andTekken Torture to prior ludic and therapeutic deployments of electric shock, with the intention of disrupting the conventional and taken-for granted associations between electric shock and violence. Beginning with the 'electric kiss' game popular in Europe and America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I chart the changing status assigned to sensations of electric shock as it was mobilized by different machines in varying social and cultural contexts. By focusing in particular on the many 'shocker' machines that littered arcades beginning in 1886 (such as Electricity is Life and Spear the Dragon), I show how shock was deployed simultaneously as a game mechanic and as a means of curatively charging the body's depleted vital forces. Following Erkki Huhtamo's suggestion that we read game machines as part of a broader history of human-machine relationships, I position arcade shockers as a response to the nervous fatigue brought about by existence in the sensory chaos of early twentieth century urban environments. Shock indexed machine-generated electricity's capacity to rejuvenate exhausted nerves, indicating the ease with which energy could be transferred from batteries to bodies. Shock sensations, I argue, were not accidental byproducts of these transfers, but instead signifiers of their success. Though employing a similar mechanic of passing electricity through the gamer's body, PainStation and Tekken Torture celebrate the resulting shock for its capacity to inflict a distracting pain on the player. Where prior game machines situated shock as a curative, these "games of pain" (Laso, 2007) conjure cultural memories of electroshock torture, electroconvulsive therapy and fatal electrocution; by doing so, contemporary electroshock games naturalize a set of historically-contingent associations between electricity, pain, and bodily vulnerability. I conclude by suggesting that Game Studies has, in general, overlooked touch's primacy in constructing gamic experience; building on Huhtamo, I offer the concept of haptic topoi as a way to think productively about the embodied sensations produced through interactions with game machines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalGame Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2013


  • Electricity
  • Game history
  • Game mechanics
  • Haptics
  • Media archaeology
  • Rumble feedback
  • Shock
  • Tactility
  • Vibration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics, Probability and Uncertainty
  • Applied Mathematics


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