I don’t think it would be quite as tricky as you’d expect. Any earlier and things would be different, but by the turn of the century, machines and novelties already existed. There would at least be vague analogues for this kind of thing.
The leap from board games to penny arcades is the big step. Suddenly mechanical monsters lived in tourist destinations attempting to represent sports and life in an entertaining manner. The devices would have control structures, and often be quite heavily abstracted, just like our games.
Once you’ve got an analogue, it’s just a question of getting over the ridiculousness, explaining the assumptions, getting across the controls, and hoping that you’ve found a person who can deal with the bombardment of the level of information required to parse a modern videogame.
One of the weird things about video games for people who play them, (this is true of a lot of other things, incidentally), is that people who play them don’t realise how opaque they can be to an outsider. I’ve played videogames since I was a babba. I know that if I’m in the first person I can steer directionally in space using WASD and the mouse to direct my eyes. I understand the difference between strafing and turning. I can think of a lot of different ways to interlock geometric tetrominoes (and beyond). I can also think of rude names for several of those shapes. It’s easy for me to grasp the concept of taking turns to give orders, or just selecting groups of men and clicking instructions for what they should do next. I can internalise a build queue or think to set geographical bookmarks.
For our Victorian, we’ll probably need something simpler.
I wonder what someone would make of Peggle. The funny thing here is that this essentially IS a penny arcade game, albeit with added slow motion, rainbows, fireworks and ode to joy (not to mention fireballs, crabs and cheating, for example). The extra bells and whistles might intimidate a little, but it might help adjust the mind to the amount of stuff that is going to be going on screen in a modern game.
People today have become excellent at sifting through huge amounts of information. The 90s hacker film stereotype of the geek who barely seems to look at the text streaming up the screen while they type furiously has become something of a reality. A majority of us are capable of looking at a screen loaded with data, and pick out the bits we need. The relevant stuff, from behind a wall of banner ads and nonsense.
I’ve heard it said that someone from a hundred years ago would see as much information in a year as we do in a day.
This is probably untrue, but only in accuracy of scale.
Getting our fin de siecle gamer to route through a world as hectic as ours would be tricky.
But eventually, they’d probably have a good time.
Illustration by Lucy.