Press 6 to move right – the world of phone in video games (Part 3, BBC and ITV in house)

For the previous article in this series, click here.

In the early 1980’s, the BBC made its first foray into the phone in game field, adapting the American TV POWWW syndicated setup as part of their holiday programming strand Get Set For Summer (the US version of this is included below, as featured in Barney’s Army, a local childrens TV strand from Raleigh, North Carolina).

The games were based around the Fairchild Channel F console (later the Intellivision), modified to respond directly to a single voice command. As the games were simple shooting or sports endeavours, this simple command was sufficient, although there’s evidence to suggest that for the BBC implementation, rather than using direct voice control, a technician was taked with pressing the controller at the appropriate time.

Aside from the syndicated games used in this field, the TV companies themselves would produce or buy in their own titles. These significantly predated the more technologically sophisticated solutions, but were none the worse for it. The very first such title may not be considered a phone in video game directly, but was certainly close enough to be considered a progenitor, and perhaps came from an unusual location. Central’s “The Saturday Show”, featuring Isla St. Clair and Tommy Boyd had during its second series a computer and technology strand known as “Interface”. The technology journalist Chris Palmer (later a regular contributor to the likes of Micro Live) hosted this rundown of the latest technology news, including such TV firsts as the live transmission of a computer program via audio, and in the form of Up for Grabs, the first fully interactive networked phone in game. Instead of communicating by voice over the phone, the idea was that viewers would interact via modem to move a robotic arm to grab prizes from a turntable. No footage currently appears to exist of this (although a kind reader with recordings from the time is apparently trying to track it down), but what I’ve been able to glean from Wikipedia and contemporary reports suggests the game was incredibly difficult due to lag and the foreshortening effect of the TV picture. Nevertheless, this level of interactivity soon caught on, with simpler, visual games become part of shows like The Untied Shoelaces Show and the various holiday runs of Children’s BBC’s But First This. Mostly these involved vocal instructions that helped to remove some sort of distortion from a photograph of a famous person, with prizes for those who could identify the person in question.

As technology improved, and the Acorn Archimedes took hold within the BBC Special Projects division, these got more and more elaborate, with quizzes like the 9:25 Express and word games like Alphabet Attack given an elaborate visual treatment, alongside the typical picture quizzes, by this time given the title Wizz Vid.* Although ITV did not do anything so complex with their children’s strands, Saturday morning shows did start picking up on this, with later series of Motormouth using the then recently released Amiga game Magic Pockets, with players shouting commands for the main character to follow.

The BBC, rather than dare use a commercial title, continued to produce their own for Going Live such as Feed the Dog, with the holiday mornings featuring a Pacman-styled game called Maggot Moments.

The first time a commercial game was used within the BBC was for the independently produced Saturday morning show Parallel 9, which for its second series invited callers to take part in Parallel 9 Pinball (in fact the Electronic Arts Mega Drive game Virtual Pinball, a construction kit that allowed players to make their own designs). Interestingly, this represented the first time that players were mandated to use touch tone dialling to play as the numbers were mapped directly to the Mega Drive’s control inputs. However, as the BBC had to remain accessible to all, those still on pulse dialling could order a touch tone pad that would play the appropriate tones when pushed, and if held to the mouthpiece of the phone could still work effectively. A later holiday morning show, Reactive, took this to extremes when many contemporary console games were played in this manner, but, as you can imagine, as some of these featured between 6 and 10 unique outputs, things got very complicated in terms of explanation and operation.

It is at this point that ITV started buying in the ITE and TCM titles to play in on shows like What’s Up Doc, and within their own programming, but the traditional voice controlled games were still used on both channels. The Totally Interactive GameShow (TIGS), a combination of ITE titles and a home made Quick Time Event game based around a practical slot car racing setup known as The Devil’s Track had some success, but as the years progressed these started to be phased out again.

As digital TV and its subsequent lag caused problems, these would occasionally be run in simple contexts on analogue channels, CBBC taking their “Where’s Your Head At” promotional campaign to make a PC-based Whack-A-Mole game for links, and CITV used a live action version of a Hugo style dodging game for the final series of Ministry of Mayhem (by now retitled Holly and Stephen’s Saturday Showdown, and using a Battle of the Sexes dynamic). This game, Dodge Dolly’s Balls was later removed from the show after it transpired that the ‘live’ call in element was often prerecorded using studio guests, and with the scandals affecting many call in contests and shows at the time, it was decided to remove it.

Nowadays, live games of this nature have been made obsolete, but whole shows now exist based around internet interactivity, made for the BBC. Darrall Macqueen’s SMILE, a live Sunday morning show mad much currency of its interactive games, including Pacman clones, a Puzzle Bobble-esque strategy title and a live sketching game in which home contestants drew pictures for studio guests to guess. In more recent years, whole shows have been produced around these direct linkups. These include Remotely Funny, a kids game show in which each contestant resides in their own home, and Last Commanders, a sci-fi show in which a team on Skype control a live actor via a first person perspective, creating in effect a live action video game. However, the days of the simpler game styles are long gone, with technology effectively relegating them to objects of curiosity.

UPDATED 2/2/2019 to include TV-POWWW.

* At this point, you may want to read about my own experiences with the Special Projects team here.


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