My setting is a late Steampunk science-fantasy, the world's technology is beginning to cross into the Dieselpunk era.

I have also played around quite a bit with nature of reality and technology in the setting to get things exactly the way that I want.

The aether is real, it is a field of particles pervading all of space. Aether particles contentiously rain down onto the planets bellow. The emanations given off by aether particles while harmless to living thing are very damaging to electronics. With a means of economically shielding devices from aether particles not yet developed, technology has progressed along different lines.

Simple highly robust electrical systems, sophisticated mechanical computing that incorporate fluidics systems and ferrofluid parts,electromechanical hybrids and optical technology.

Optical technology developed far earlier and faster in my setting than in the real world out of necessity. The beginnings of optical communication were developed in the Victorian Era, so optical technology isn't outside of the Steampunk aesthetics.

For example a very primitive form of optical tape is in widespread use. while actual computer remain bulky and expensive, simple data-readers are fairly affordable.

A lot of the computers in the setting are at least partially optimechanical in nature. Data is read from optical-tape and translated into vibrations which communicate with mechanical parts.

While my setting is very fantastical I would prefer not to handwave where I don't have to. Truth being stranger than fiction a real world solution could not only exist but prove more interesting than anything that I could imagine.

I ask the question...

Could video-games as we would recognize them be created with the technology that is currently present in my setting?

The earliest known electronic gaming device was the cathode ray tube amusement device.

  • $\begingroup$ Surely you can create game machines - something akin to pin ball, for example. Yet, for the "video" part of video-games... what display technology do you have? [Edit: Ok, I'll take that as part of the question] $\endgroup$
    – Theraot
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 5:35
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    $\begingroup$ Science often takes hint from nature. Doesn't the animals use electricity to move the muscles? I guess it is hard to do the experiment without proper aether shielding, but the thing is... nature figured it out! since, as you stated, aether is harmless to living things. The first aether shielding will come from anatomy. $\endgroup$
    – Theraot
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ i would say yes though it would heavily depend on whatever screen technology available to your citizens. Then again there could be plenty of games even if we assume the worst case which is lack of screens and you get outputs by paper and may be simple light bulbs. Quizzes, chess (even on a multiplayer scale over very short distances), hangman and guessing games are some of the first that comes to mind. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 6:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Theraot On the subject of cheap aethereal radiation shielding, my plan is that by the time that has been developed. This civilization will have absolutely no need for it. Because they can do everything that electronics in our world does with other already mature technology. An age of wholly optical computing is coming centuries down the line. As for display tech, i imagine that my settings optics is dependent upon crystal,glass,Glass fiber with some usage of optical-metals. So the display is likely something very similar to LCD tech. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @MustafaAKTAŞ As for display tech, I imagine that my setting's optics is dependent upon crystal,glass,Glass fiber with some usage of optical-metals. So the display is likely something very similar to LCD tech. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 13:24

4 Answers 4


You could have 80s/90s style FMV games! For anyone who isn't familiar with them, they were more or less linear experiences where you would solve a few static puzzles or make trivial choices while a b-grade movie played out clip by clip. This seems a perfect fit for your scenario - have a mechanical/hydraulic/whatever computer handle the game logic, while the states of the game are represented by switching between different projected films. Input could be anything from buttons or levers for multiple choice selection, as a minimal implementation, to a keyboard/console if your computers are advanced enough (and you have enough film to make a game that complex). A traditional FMV game would more or less proceed in a 'choose your own adventure' manner - press the right button and you see the good scene, or else see the bad scene.

Alternatively, if you wanted to get really baroque, you could apply the same principles of using projected films as a display, but with multiple projectors capable of movement. With that, you could conceivably implement say a side-scrolling platformer: one static projector for the backdrop, maybe another for the platforms, a projector exclusively for showing the hero - you move the hero projector around on rails playing a looped walking animation, then switch to a different loop of film for a jumping animation, all the while running the backdrop and platform films at a speed corresponding to the players left and right movement...... But at this point we might be stretching the limits of verisimilitude. Still, it could be done with the technology you've described, given a lot of time, and some very patient and capable programmers.

  • $\begingroup$ That would make something like visual-novals the prevailing form of gaming for a long time, until the optical side developed enough for something like micro-processors to be created. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 13:34

If I had to make a fully mechanical "computer game", I would use mechanically moved cutout figures behind a somewhat shady glass frame. The background could be projected from dia-film, or a perpetuated painting. With this setup you could have a lot of games from driving simulations and shooters (FPS/TPS games) to adventure games, and using multiple layers of glass planes with special optical properties between the player and the cutouts, a pretty realistic look could be achieved.

  • $\begingroup$ These work as as arcade games,but nothing like that could be portable. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus Steampunk and portable are not friends. :D A clockwork will always be heavier than a microchip, and a steam (or even a diesel!) engine will always be heavier than a battery. (And they need fuel too.) Also: was "portable" a criteria? $\endgroup$
    – mg30rg
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ The client and server concept,could make things a bit more portable. Telecommunication in the form of aether-wave broadcasts do exist,as does aedar. I mentioned data-readers and optical-storage in the OP. So a game player need not be physically connected to the computer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ The type of game I imagined would then enable multiplayer, but the root of unportability is the nature of the display. It might be fixed by making the entire thing real tiny (like a few centimeter cube) and the actual console was a magnifying device combined with an aether-communicator. $\endgroup$
    – mg30rg
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ What I was innitially going to title the question was "The Electromechanical Arcade!" which ties into what I first envisioned, this huge complex of electromechanical computers acting as "serves" communicating with arcade-cabinates that act as clients. The console is just an input-output device, which my world uses something like a primitive LCD for video and a photophone-radio for sound. its the big bulky computational-engines that do all the actual work. On a tangent guided missile work on similar principles. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 17:30

Game machines are possible. For example, fully mechanical slot are doable, and simple games can be done fully mechanical such as pinball machines. Pinball in his origins was what would appear to be sophisticated billiards, but it evolved to be something different (as you can listen on 99% invisible episode 135).

Yet, I guess those aren't video-games. For video-games to exist, you need some form of video.

So, how can you create video without electricity? I'll provide a solution that uses only solid mechanical solutions, that is clock work tech that can be worked prior to the steam engine and requires no electricity. Clock work energy (springs, loads, etc...) can be applied if needed.

Visual output options:

  • You can use plotters [I don't mean large format printers, I mean plotters].
  • Another option for display is to use mechanisms to flip panels "pixels", where one side has one color, and the other has another.
  • You can use mechanisms to rotate needles (I mean, like clocks do) or rise small flags.
  • You could rise and move figurines to make a mechanical cutout theatre.

The OP claims to have a video display similar to LCD screens.

Internal logic can be done fully mechanical, for demostration see this LEGO NAND gate. AlthoughI would supect his idea of LCD screen uses his idea of logic gates based on fludics.

Anyhow, if you have logic gates you can build computers from NAND to Tetris. You can use that display solution of choice and it would allow to build a mechanical Tetris. Which, I hope, there is no arguing regarding whatever or not it is a video-game. It doesn't have to end with Tetris, you have computers! you have turing completness! program whatever you want.

For audio, you could always use bells (or horns for that matter), or allow the a phonograph to play or something like that.

Note: You could also add a printer for text output, if you consider text only games to be video games. In case of doubt, make it work like a type writer.

Thinking beyond solid mechanics, I have come up with another idea: you could have a machine that has hydraulic fluids of multiple colors, and have them fill small translucent cavities arranged as a large panel. To avoid having the fluids mix, you can have an RGB arrangement, so that each cavity is dedicated to a color.

For abstracts: you can make game machines + you can make machines output video + you can program Tetris in a machine => you can make video-games. QED.

  • $\begingroup$ Video display technology does exist in the setting, in the OP I mentioned data-readers; they use something like LCD screens. The world's optical tech uses a lot of crystal, as well as glass and glass-fiber. What the data-readers read are cylinders containing primitive optical-tape. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus you don't need displays to read or write optical tape, all you need is a focused light source, a device to move the tape, and light sensors. I was unable to figure out you had the equivalent of LCD screens. Ok, by watherever means you can control those LCD screens, and with whatever technology you prefer for logic gates, the answer is still: you can make game machines + you can make machines output video + you can program Tetris in a machine => you can make video-games. $\endgroup$
    – Theraot
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ Thus I've introduced optical-computing to my setting, and the great age of analytical engines will soon come to an ended. Also LCD is closest real world technology to how Imagine the display working. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 21:57


Mechanical games have been around for quite a while. The predecessor to pinball, for instance, was around in the 1700s, though bumpers weren't added until the 1930s, and flippers until 1947. Still, the electronics in a pinball machine would be easy to replace with fluid, and the scoreboard could easily be lit with lights.

Similarly, the venerable Pong could be made into a purely mechanical game today, even going as far as having a wind-up motor to run the game; a fluid-driven motor would be quite simple.

Of course, you may argue that those games aren't, strictly speaking, video games, which is true. However, with just a little bit of stage-magic, it's easy to convert a purely mechanical game into a "holographic" game, through the use of curved, mirrored glass, such as that used by the game Time traveler. The game itself would, technically, be purely mechanical, but miniaturized. A bright light, shining onto the game, would cause the image to reflect from the curved screen, giving the illusion of both size and depth.

With a little mechanical work with mirrors, it wouldn't be hard to convert a tilting maze into a joystick-controlled game; pushing the joystick right would tilt the maze, as well as a series of mirrors, which would lead the player to believe that the joystick motions move their character, rather than the board itself.

Shadows could make excellent "video" displays; a light, shining past a set of figures on thin wires, would cast dark shadows. As the characters move, the wires are twisted, causing the characters to either change shape (by having different profiles), or appear and vanish (by simply being flat). A game like Space Invaders would be fairly simple to design.

One step further, you could use fully colorized "sprites", drawn on sheets of clear glass (plastic would be easier, if possible), in front of a scrolling, fully colorized background. A second, synchronized roll would have a cutout area for the player to move through. As the background scrolls top-to-bottom, the player's character can move left and right, controlled with a joystick. A third layer of sprites would contain a sheet with the 'bad guys' for the player to avoid - oncoming vehicles, falling rocks, or pitfalls in a race track. In fact, this kind of game could be made into a multiplayer game quite easily, just by adding more joysticks and player scrolls. The entire game could be purely mechanical.

On the other hand, you could make a choose-your-own-adventure style game, with full-scale video and few (or at least recycled) choices, such as FMV games. As long as you have several reels of full video tape with a system able to mechanically switch between them, it becomes almost trivially easy to write a game.

You could combine any number of these, as well; a holographic side-scrolling game, a shadow board with full-video cutscenes, or even a mechanical game with full video projected on it.

In all these cases, each machine would be nearly the same size as a modern arcade machine. In fact, using scrolling paper or video would mean that a single basic machine could have several "adventures", each with their own set of scrolling paper, meaning the manufacturer could spend more money on producing games, and less on producing game cabinets. If taken to the logical extreme, a gaming cabinet could be purchased much like as a game console is today, with replaceable cartridges to play different games, even replaceable controllers!

As long as full video type screens exist, any number of games are possible. Look through older video games, like Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space-Invaders, and so on; the amount of code to write those games is tiny, easily enough for an optically driven machine. As long as the screen exists, the game can be written for it. A hydraulic system that opens and closes tiny holes, allowing a bright light to shine through, would be a fairly simple way to implement a projection screen capable of full video; from there, it's easy to make a game, and cheaper than using optics, too.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, video monitors do exists, the data-readers that I mentioned have something similar to an LCD screen, and they use small cylinders containing optical tape as for storage. My idea is that optics handle display and input-output,audio comes through something like a photophone. The actual computing is done by an electromechanical computer which is connected by capable or wirelessly to a console. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 4:18
  • $\begingroup$ I remember a aerial dogfight game that seemed to be based on such princples. It used projected images on a screen that appeared to be generated mechanically: computer animation was years away and this was full color and even seemed to have some depth. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 2:01

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