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Technology always changes, but people always stay the same

A couple friends were in town recently, and I went with them to the Mechanical Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, where they have lots of different old mechanical arcade machines. The oldest one was from the 1920s, and the average period looked to be 1950s or so.

It reminded me that while technology advances, human nature stays the same.

Love calculators
First up, we have a bunch of machines that are sort of like the "How good of a lover are you?" quizzes in  trashy women’s magazines. In general, you stick in a quarter, put your hand on the pad (or some other interactive action), and then it gives you a score.

Here are pictures of the machines I took on my iPhone – click to see a bigger version:

The main emotions that are being elicited in these cases are some combination of:

  • narcissism
  • curiosity
  • competition

Extra points to the first (left-most) machine for the tagline:

"What do your friends call you behind your back?"

Is this really so different than the various quiz, comparison, and other applications on Facebook? And take a look at a site like this: Best Love Calculator. It even evokes the look and feel of these machines.

Telling the future
Also, we have machines like the ones below, which are focused on telling the future. The first machine is the most fun – you put your hand into the machines mouth! The second and third ones are both palm reading.

Here are the pictures:

Of course, horoscopes are still big these days, and people still inexplicably talk about their "signs" – I would ask "who knows why" but the answer to that is simply "because people are people." I’d boil the emotions down to:

  • narcissism
  • curiosity
  • insecurity?

In the modern world, the entire clairvoyance thing is still around, via numerous websites that you find when you google for "psychic". Here’s a good example of what you get when you click on one of those ads. And don’t even get me started about John Edward’s Crossing Over and psychic shows like that.

Jackass and YouTube, oldschool style
These next machines are probably the most dated (and hilarious) – basically when you put in a quarter, you’re then able to watch some "kinky" (defined by the 50s). The first machine was the "French Execution," which played some music and you got to watch a guillotine chop off a miniature doll’s head. The second machine had you grabbing a hand-crank to operate a flip book with pretty boring material in it.

Here are the images:

This is obviously Jackass and the YouTube of the 1950s.

Emotionally, this is catering towards:

  • novelty
  • scarcity
  • curiosity

Of course, the problem with these machines (unlike the other ones) is that after you’ve seen it, it doesn’t seem so special anymore, and you’re unlikely to watch it again. And of course, in a modern society where this type of stuff is available at a much more, ahem, liberal standard, it’s really boring. These were fun mainly because they show how dated the place is.

Simulation games
While Will Wright is often heralded for creating the Sim games for the PC, you can look further back than that to see simulation games. In these machines, we see one which is a helicopter machine and then a crane, both of which are operated using a set of simplistic controls.

Here are the images:

Free Image Hosting at

Interestingly enough, both simulation games were "directed" rather than undirected. They weren’t pure sandbox games (like SecondLife) but rather had a goal structure for the user. This is something that Erik Bethke (of GoPets) and I have talked about in the past.

Rather than just letting the user fly the helicopter, instead there were lights around the area where you were supposed to hover the chopper. The longer you hover, the more points you score. The lights rotate around the area, and you have to move the chopper there accordingly. The construction crane does the same thing, where you are supposed to grab as much dirt as you can in as little time as possible.

The emotions here are quite different than the other ones:

  • aspiration
  • fantasy
  • competition

And of course, it’s obvious that the modern versions of this range from things like The Sims to MMOs to any other game that is about role-playing.

Differences with regular websites and Facebook apps
Interestingly enough, the machines above are actually quite different than what you would want to build for a modern consumer product.

The reason is that these machines are incented to:

  • Have a great hook to draw a user in
  • Make them give you a quarter
  • Provide some value, but focused less on retention and more on pumping in more quarters

This is misaligned from websites, which share the attribute of drawing users in, but are focused around retention and constant usage, because that’s what drives advertising revenue.

Similarly, Facebook apps have a different incentive structure:

  • Have a great hook to draw a user in
  • ALSO, have a great hook to get the user to pass it along to their friends
  • Provide some value, but mostly focused around virality
  • Make the structure around frequent usage with continuing value

That’s why things like Magic 8 Balls and Fortune cookies and such are gimmicky products that might drive acquisition, but have problems with overall retention and active usage.

I often find that studying older historical products like this to be really fascinating. I think you can learn a lot about human psychology by looking at things like:

  • card games
  • physical architecture
  • con artists
  • old advertisements
  • public speaking
  • magic and psychics
  • etc.

While many things are not directly applicable to the world, many of these have underlying themes and emotions that might be useful for modern entrepreneurs.

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