Satirizing The New Machine

by , Dec 13, 2013, 9:16 AM
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The best antidote for a gadget-driven holiday gift-giving season may be a few words from the original satirist of the machine age, Rube Goldberg. The cartoonist from the first half of the twentieth century is best known for his comic strip send-ups of engineering “efficiency” via ridiculously intricate cause-and-effect contraptions. For baby boomers, Goldberg is best remembered through the Mouse Trap game his art inspired. A little white marble made its way through kicked buckets, winding gutters, flipping gymnasts and an elevated bathtub to catch a mouse in a descending cage. Most of us growing up in the 1960s couldn’t have told you who Goldberg was, even if the game was a direct embodiment of his work.

But Goldberg is getting his due this holiday across media. A magnificent coffee table book, The Art of Rube Goldberg, not only has an animated cover that depicts one of his most famous machines, but it gives a full accounting of the breadth of his talent. The book has a companion tablet game, Rube Works, that is more than a total joy to play. It is that rare licensed property that actually gives you greater insight into the source material. The iPad title actually recreates in color 3D many of Goldberg’s original comics. But this time it has you build the solution from assorted parts. This is gaming brought full circle. It recalls the early PC titles like Incredible Machine of the 1990s. But of course those titles really were themselves inspired by Goldberg.

This version is blessed by the new book’s coauthor and Goldberg's granddaughter, Jennifer George. In fact, the game is quite loyal to the source material. Specific cartoons are recreated in the game, and the original is shown to the player upon completion. The soundtrack evokes the sound of tinny radio music and old Victrolas. The human and animal characters are all done in the big foot cartoon style Goldberg favored for this series. Run don’t walk to your iPad to get this game.

The overarching point of Goldberg’s wacky machines was a persistent lampoon of modern engineering sensibilities. Of course, he is critiquing the machine age itself and the fetish of the gizmo. But even deeper, there is a satire of us -- our own obsessive search for efficiency, shortcuts and gadgets. And all of it is being driven by human needs that are as much a part of the satire as anything else. Chatterbox wives, lazy husbands, predatory animals -- all aspects of an immutable human and animal nature often are the very things powering and necessitating these byzantine creations.

If you think about the ways in which both consumer technology and digital advertising have evolved in recent years, Goldberg’s satirical lens might find similar ironies in the post-PC age.   

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