Hello, Operator!

– Number please?

– Line 2244! Said a man, with an impatient tone.

– One moment please. Said the telephone operator.

In front of a switchboard, holding a connecting wire in her left hand, she checked the lamp over the #2244 line and saw a flashing light.

– Line is busy. I will call you when it is available. She said soothingly.

– Please connect me NOW! this is an emergency. I am speaking clearly? Said the male voice, irascible.

– Thank you, I will call you when it is available.

The work of telephone operators was not an easy task. Especially when the telephone system scaled up and hundreds of lines were added to the cities and countries’ networks, the task of connecting two lines and allowing two people to be on a call, was stressful. Imagine dealing with angry and impatient customers who wanted to be connected to different line while receiving multiple calls per minute. Imagine responding to each of the callers in a polite and calm manner while at the same time looking an analogue panel of blinking lights, numbers, and entangled wires.

By the early 20th century almost all telephone operators were women. They worked at central telephone buildings in noisy rooms full of manual switching boards. Their job consisted in connecting customers and allowing the telephone exchange. Although during the early days of the telephone system, answering calls and operating a switchboard were executed by boys, soon those tasks became a job only for young women. Female operators became the norm at telephone companies because they could manage the stressful conditions of that kind of work in better ways. They followed a strict code of conduct that included a repertoire of phrases and postures. As with other technology jobs such as programming, in the early days of the telephone system women were protagonist in connecting people and machines to each other. They were human mediators.

Making Hello Operator! A videogame for the Global Game Jam

Last weekend I participated at the Global Game Jam (GGJ), a descentralized event that takes place at multiple locations around the world. During the 48 hours teams worked in the creation of new digital and analogue games, with the only constraint of a theme. This year, the theme was “transmission.”  As a result many of the games that teams created were about electricity, airwaves, radars, antennas, satellites, telepresence, ghosts, and broadcasting signals. My team made Hello, Operator! a digital video game about operating a telephone switchboard.

One of the boards at the GGJ hosted at MIT, with game ideas and paper colors with team members.

Teams are built at each location, after game ideas are pitched in the spirit of open unconference. I joined the Helllo Operator team after the idea I initially pitched –about a Pirate Radio Van crossing post-apocalyptic cities and broadcasting news and music—, was not popular among the 75 participants at the MIT jam site, hosted by the MIT Game Lab. Chris Chung, originally pitched the idea of a game about manipulating a telephone switchboard, messing around with wires, plugging and connecting cables. When I heard Chris’ pitch, I thought about synthesizer’s wiring, and patching, and felt interested in the game mechanics possibilities for such a game of switching wires and making connections. Also, I felt curious about the background and context of the telephone operator task and practice. I could relate to it because of popular culture but cannot really imagine how it worked.

Telephone Archives: Photos, Videos, and other Ephemera

Fortunately for curious minds, the web is full of information about the history of the telephone system. Photos, videos, infographics, patents, and all kind of ephemera documents can be found with simple queries on any web browser. Especially about the telephone industry in the U.S., which was also the pioneer and set up the standards for the telecommunication revolution that spread through the world in the 20th century, the visual documentation of all the stages of the evolution is quite impressive. From the Graham Bell improvements in telegraphy patent in 1876 to the AT&T switchboards operators of 20th century, there are thousands of multimedia documents to dig.

Since in the Hello Opperator! team I played the role of artist and game designer, I had the opportunity to explore many of the documents available on the web. It was not difficult to decide among the 4 members of our team that the mechanics and aesthetics of our game should  emulate the ones of the earlier manual switchboards, with wires, analogue plugs, jacks, blinking lights, and wood cabinets. With all the visual imagery that we found, we decided to embrace the analogue look & feel of the switchboard telephone operators of the early 20th century.

All the four members of our team agreed that the game had to resemble the intensity and speed of making connections and patching wires, under  pressure, and at an increasing pace. The game mechanics were clear: the player, as a switchboard operator, had to connect incoming calls with certain telephone lines while looking at a switchboard with numbers, jacks holes, and blinking lights. Many of the archival video footage give us ideas for the kind of visual user interface and interactions we wanted to have in the game.

From Idea Sketch to a Working Digital Prototype

We went from idea to working prototype to final version of the game pretty fast. On Saturday morning, we sketched the visual interface of the game on a blackboard, discussed the game mechanics, and decided the visual aesthetics. We divided the production and design tasks among the four members of the team. Chris was in charge of writing the code, using the Unity environment. Ryan Buss made the sound design and the music, and Justin Tardiff and I worked on the sprites and backgrounds.

Ryan recorded all the sounds on location, with a mobile studio set up he brought to the jam. Finding quite spaces for recording sounds on the Stata Center was not difficult. It just took us some explorations through the halls and stairs of building that resembles a labyrinth. The best location we could find was  a colorful red telephone booth in the third floor. In there we recorded the dialogue that the callers will speak to the operator. Ryan suggested that we used gibberish for representing the different characters.  So we had to imitate different gibberish speech for all the 7 characters we decided to have in the game: an angry sales man, a grandma, a woman, a kid, a guy in an emergency, an old man, and a man.

While making Hello Operator! I had the opportunity of learning how to create pixel art characters and objects.  The pixel art aesthetic consists in making digital images with software such as Photoshop or GIMP, using a grid and drawing at the pixel level. The images have a quality that resembles the 8-bit graphics of early computers and videogame consoles. We agreed that we could use this aesthetic for our game, since it matched well historical theme of the game, and its retro look and feel. Justin, who was a programmer, had done some pixel art before so he decided to tackle the task of making the switchboard. I focused in making some of the small objects that were attached to the switchboard and wires, and making the characters.

As with other aspects of game design, the abundance of learning resources on the web about pixel art was quite impressive. I found several tutorials for learning the basics of pixel art such as this and that. I enjoyed very much the process of drawing at the level of the pixel and discover some of the expressive possibilities of creating shades and textures. I was surprise with the level of expressiveness one can achieve by just adding simple pixels to a face. I decided to work with a very small grid of 15×25 pixels that added an extra limitation to the process.

Click to try out the web version of Hello Operator!

Although we discussed the possibility of having different levels, we were not able to implement them in the final version of the game that we uploaded to the Global Game Jam. So our published version of Hello Operator! has just one level that goes on and on, increasing its complexity, until the player hits the escape key.  We demoed on Sunday afternoon, among the other 18 games that were developed at the MIT location. Below are some screen captures of how the game looks like. If you are curious about experiencing being a telephone operator, you can try playing our game in this link. More information about the game can also be found at our Global Game Jam page.

The Art of Connecting

Designing a game about a telephone operator gave me the opportunity to think about the labor of making connections, and the role of humans in that kind of task. The humans in the loop of the telephone system were replaced by automated switchboards by the 1960s. However, the art of connecting people, continues to be one of the most important one. Machines have become better at it, and especially with networked computers and mobile devices, connectivity is available almost anytime, anywhere. Software applications have leveraged the ubiquity of computers and networks to innovate with new kinds of services that not only connect people to talking to each other but also to make businesses, work together, share a ride, or engage in a romantic relationship. No human operator mediates that kind of connection. Instead, sophisticated algorithms, powerful computers, and big data sets, are the ones that make the connection. Either it is the match of a driver with a passenger or  the one of two humans searching for company, the connection is made by a computer.


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