I'm an old. By which I mean a somewhat recent quadragenarian. Folks used to call people like me Xennials, but that was seven years ago when we still had a spark of life left. Now that we're all just waiting to die, we're geriatric millennials.
Anyway, as an old, there are times I feel the need to lecture the younger generation about how things were in the old-timey days of the 1980s and the 1990s. So, kids, if you're reading this, I know you don't like lectures. But I think this is an interesting framing of a concept, and worth your time. If you read the whole thing, I'll mail you some Werther's Originals from between my sofa cushions.
(I'm not sure what the average LessWrong reader age is, but my gut tells me it's twenty-something. Apologies if I'm way off and most of you are my age or older).
So, check this out. The arcades of the 1980s were a lot like the arcade bars of the 2020s, but instead of ordering a $15 IPA you would order a 50¢ Pepsi, so you didn't need a fake ID. If you were in high school, knew CP/M, had a 1200 baud modem, and were friends with Ally Sheedy, she might know to find you in the arcade. If you were lucky, one day she just might whisk through the door and ask you to commit a felony for her! (To be fair, you offered as much earlier.)
Of course, you being you, you anticipated this and already committed the aforementioned felony. So, good job, you?
(Protip: Please don't actually commit cyber crime felonies, especially not as foundations for romantic relationships).
Get to the point, grandpa!
Okay, okay... So arcade games have what people now call attract modes. That's what they do when they're on and no one is playing them. The job of what's displayed during the attract mode is to get your attention, make the game look worth playing, and get people to insert coins and play.
While people call this 'attract mode' now, I promise you zero kids in the 80s and 90s used that term. We just called it "the demo," or less commonly "the intro." The demos were either very simple AIs or small scripts to move the game characters punctuated with title screens, some other information about the game, etc. The Street Fighter II one looked like this.
"Playing" the demo
When we were real young and ran out of quarters, we all at one point had the idea that maybe somehow we could keep playing for free. What if we could influence the demo and still kind of play the game? We wouldn't have used the terms "backdoor" or "Easter egg" but what we were thinking was conceptually like that. Maybe you would think a kid-friendly programmer made it so if you pushed backwards in the demo the character would go forward, or if you mashed buttons the right way you could... make something do something. That probably wouldn't be as fun as the real game, but it would be better than doing your homework.
This may sound strange to younger people, but I swear that everyone I frequently played arcade games with tried this several times, on several different arcade games.
You might also see occasions with very young kids—young enough not to fully grasp the concept of a coin-operated arcade game—where they would just "play" along to the demo with less of a plausible theory of how they might actually influence the demo in mind.
Eventually you would realize this never worked. But for relatively short moments of time you would sometimes believe that you were exerting some kind of influence over the demo, or in other words, that you were "playing the demo."
When would people use this as a metaphor?
We would say this to describe situations where someone believed they were exerting control over something, but it was only an illusion—they really had no agency in the situation. Sort of like dust in the wind as a metaphor or maybe superstitious pigeons. I suppose you could generally categorize it as a form of pareidolia.
None of us had blogs or anything that would be discoverable digitally now, so I'm not to surprised that searching now it's hard to find people referring to this concept (hence, this post). It could also have been regional. More recently, there’s an additional semantic problem that, since 1999 most gaming is done outside of arcades, "playing the demo" nearly always refers to playing a scaled back version of a particular game on a PC or console.
If similar concepts exist, and this one is ambiguous, why is this concept important?
Parsimony of language and ease of expression. You can easily use it like a verb. "Hey, David, you're playing the demo." As opposed to adding more words, "Hey, David, you're acting like a superstitious pigeon." Or "Hey, David, your life is like dust in the wind in this situation because you have much less agency than you believe here." Or pretending that it's easy to use pareidolia as a verb. "Hey, David, you're pareido..li..a..ing."
There's still arcades around, even if they're mostly enjoyed with alcohol. So there's still a cultural reference point.
There's also something about it that I don't think would be interchangeable with similar concepts, at least with the one place I've see it used in scholarly literature. This is from Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious (2002) by Timothy Wilson where he uses the general metaphor (though not specifically the term) to describe "consciousness inessentialism."
Update: You actually could play the demo on a few games!
9/4: When I said this never worked, I was wrong. It never worked for me, but...
After writing this I went searching on Usenet, which would be the mostly likely place to find searchable digital archives of people discussing this topic, just to see how much of a shared generational experience this was. I found two relevant threads, one from 1993 in alt.games.video.classic and the other from 1995 in rec.games.video.arcade, both featuring a stressed undergrad named Fred.
There is a 2009 YouTube video showing The Legend of Kage in attract mode where a few commenters enthusiastically discuss playing the demo. The video author has a Spanish blog (Google Translate link) were he's listed a few other arcade games that were demo playable. These include Side Arms and Super Real Darwin. So altogether Quantum, Legend of Kage, Side Arms and Super Real Darwin—at least four.
Wikipedia has articles on 3692 arcade games, if we use that as a denominator and assume all games were equally popular and evenly distributed (geographically and temporally), you would have like a ~1/1000 chance of being able to play a demo on a random machine.
With the market demand for Twitch and YouTube gamer content, I'm surprised this topic has went unnoticed so far. If you're a gaming content creator facing writer's block, you're welcome to use all of this.