Black-box Consumer Design and Retro Gaming Communities

Friday, November 26, 2021 3:00 pm - 3:00 pm EST (GMT -05:00)

Speaker: Alex Fleck

Respondent: Toben Racicot


Responding to work in the fields of media archaeology and platforms studies that show changes in the manufacturing and design of consumer electronics after the Second World War, my research examines a shift in the ethos of technological maintenance and repair. During this period (WWII – Now), the practice of replacing parts has become the now-normalized practice of replacing whole products. Consumer repairable and understandable electronics have become proprietary and closed off, best described as “black box.” A “black box” rhetorical paradigm or set of strategies in consumer technology is rendered visible through attention to material construction (hardware), software, repair/return policies, and advertising. Today, Apple presents clear examples of black box rhetorical strategies in their repair/replacement model (AppleCare, “lease” plans for phones, antagonism toward third-party or user repair). In addition to hardware, companies that rely on data collection as part of their funding model typically employ black box, “obfuscation,” strategies in the way they withhold and deliver only certain information to their users about how user data is aggregated, bought, and sold (Brunton and Nissenbaum, 2015).

My case studies in this space – I will present some here – are drawn from communities of hardware/software enthusiasts and artists that mod, hack, maintain, and add functionality to defunct gaming platforms. These communities, their information-sharing practices and work, I argue, run counter to “black box” rhetoric and throwaway culture, presenting an alternative ideological and rhetorical model. Defunct platforms through the efforts of those maintaining, updating, and expanding them, often offer a more accessible creation space relative to the platform’s original manufacturer. New SDKs (software development kits or environments), emulators, ROM flash carts, and video up-scalers repackage and adapt older gaming platforms for an audience that might not have otherwise experienced them. The ultimate result is art, a platform archive, and levels of historical preservation that weren’t possible or viable before.

Speaker Bio

Alex Fleck’s (he/him) doctoral research studies retrogaming hardware, software, and modding/fan communities to understand changes over time to consumer culture, material literacy, and legacy platforms. He designs games with a group of other Games Institute (GI) researchers for ongoing projects and partnerships and is a part of the organizing committee for ICGaN (an international Games and Narrative conference hosted at the GI) if anyone is interested in learning more see here: International Conference on Games and Narrative | Games Institute | University of Waterloo (

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