Not long after Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays, he granted his only interview about the matter to an American reporter. The reporter’s first question: “Is the invisible visible?”
A lot of kids around the world started asking a version of that question in 1998, when Nintendo released the “atomic purple” Game Boy Color. Behind its translucent, lilac-tinted, plastic shell, the console’s guts were all laid out to see—button actuators, conductive membranes, a metal-dotted green daughterboard, a haze of multicolored wires. Holding that Game Boy Color was like holding an X-ray: an assemblage of straight and curved lines, phalanges and vertebrae—not everything, but enough to make you consider the space between knowable and unknowable, touchable and forbidden. When the screen lit up with little surfing Pikachu, you could observe all the unfathomables powering him. The shell felt permeable, almost porous; it seemed like an invitation to interactivity. Unless you removed it, in which case you’d void the warranty.
To be a gamer is to own gaming things, and to identify with them particularly. Gamers are “naturally intrigued by the technology and space inside their consoles,” says Taihei Oomori, art director of Sony’s product design group. When you reveal that space through foggy plastic, he says, you “bring the distance between the player and the game world even closer.”
The atomic purple Game Boy Color was lucent, lit internally by the same light with which we saw it, superficially satisfying that desire for closeness. But the machine’s core was never within reach. The translucent shell is like a magician who calls the birthday girl up to the stage: He seems ready to let her in on the secret, but all she’ll get is another illusion.
Over the past 23 years, all the major gaming hardware manufacturers have released translucent designs. From the crystalline midnight-blue PlayStation 2 to the grasshopper-green Xbox, these objects’ outsides offer a curated window into the machinery—and what it means to be a modern gamer.
In 2001, Nintendo launched the Game Boy Advance with a $50 million marketing blitz. In one TV ad from the time, schoolkids stampede out of a classroom and parkour to the local video game store, where their heads all morph into Mario’s. The tagline: “Who are you?”
“That advertising campaign basically connected personal identity to brand identity,” says Alex Custodio, a PhD student at Concordia University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture. Her book Who Are You?, which came out in 2020, is about the Game Boy Advance and the subcultures that sprang up around it. “You were what you played,” Custodio says. You were the hardware you played on. You were the character you played with.”
The Advance came in a couple of translucent flavors, including “glacier” and pink. The see-through shell gave gamers a feeling of technical and aesthetic control over their systems, Custodio says, as though they could divine how all those little nodes and transistors rendered Golden Sun’s grassy-green towns or played the heart-filling theme to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past & Four Swords. But that feeling, she adds, was superficial. “It actually doesn’t give you anything that it promises,” Custodio says. “It gives you an illusion of mastery and transparency and technical knowledge without actually providing you any more insight than if it were the archetypal black box.” The schoolkids in the ad didn’t turn into Nintendo-ized versions of themselves. They turned into a monocrop of brand mascots.
Translucency was an aesthetic, not an invitation. But gamers invited themselves anyway. They became frustrated, Custodio says, that the Advance’s screen wasn’t backlit. If you wanted to play at night under the covers, you needed a separate LED module that hung over the console like a curlicue streetlight. So, in the mid-2000s, modders began transplanting backlights from later Game Boys into the Advance.
“When you’re doing it all yourself—ordering all the parts and taking all that time—it makes logical sense that you’ll want to have that transparent shell,” Custodio says. “You want people to see that this has been changed. You put your personal mark on it.” Over the years, the mods grew more complex. Modders would add in colored lights, more robust speaker systems, and even 3D-printed objects as personal stamps on the console.
For the Nintendo Switch, the sort of translucency made popular by the Game Boy is only available as a mod. A company called ExtremeRate makes nine different translucent shell colors and sells about 800 sets a month. Its owner, Ray Zhu, says they’d sell more, but installation is tough. It’s not as easy as taking a small screwdriver to the hardware. The console’s innards are finicky and delicate, and one misstep can destroy them. (A lot of people, myself included, just drop their Switches off for a face-lift at a local tinkerer’s shop.)
Fully translucent tech is no longer in vogue. Now translucency is a design flourish, a way to direct or misdirect the eye. Two words that Monique Chatterjee, Microsoft’s design director, likes to use together are “translucency” and “story.” Not long ago, over video chat, she showed me some of her recent work.
Chatterjee picked up a Phantom series Xbox One controller in magenta. (It also comes in white.) The bottom half of the controller, where the player’s hands would be, was opaque, and it faded to translucent toward the top. The effect was like pouring milk into purple tea. Chatterjee removed the plastic face to show a metal plate beneath, which concealed the controller’s actual innards. “Everything is behind it,” Chatterjee said, including the printed circuit board. “We used that to our advantage. The aesthetic looks a little more put together. It’s more of a story than a direct transparent product.” (To me, the insides looked like C-3PO’s face without his golden carapace—gory without the gore, uncanny valleyish.)
Chatterjee took me through a few more stories. For Xbox’s Sea of Thieves controller, a green-speckled purple translucent shell evokes looking down from a pirate ship into murky water. (“You don't see all the way through the product. You just get this kind of eerie feeling of depth that’s sort of shimmering like the water would be shimmering.”) For the Gears of War 5 limited-edition console, cracked, thick white ice gives way to a frozen, translucent center. A skull peers through from under.
These stories aren’t about the player. They aren’t about the time you Googled a Game Boy Advance user’s manual to taxonomize a circuit board, or about the time you tried to pry open the back shell with a Phillips head. They are about the product, told through the product, to bring us closer to the product—beautiful but sacrosanct.
For the most part, though, the future seems to be another black box. In slick keynote presentations and product demos, manufacturers talk about their consoles like Lovecraftian monsters, so unfathomably powerful that users are probably incapable of fathoming them at all. We have the PlayStation 5, which looks like a high-concept taco—two curved, white sheets encasing (even hiding) a black rectangle. The Xbox Series X is a Kubrickian black monolith with a weird grate and an alien green light on top. Both consoles seem impenetrable—like architecture that boldly points toward some more streamlined future but isn’t actually a space you’d want to live in. (One encouraging development: Transparent cases are huge in PC gaming right now. Players want to show off their personalized component circuses—Rainbow Road tubes, highlighter-green LEDs, little anime figurines trapped inside the tower.)
The video game industry has spent years lobbying against console owners’ right to repair their own devices. According to the Entertainment Software Association, it’s a security threat. Console manufacturers must “safeguard their platforms from infringement” by pirates, hackers, and their own customers. They made the console; they’ll fix the console; and when the console is dead, if you’re a good citizen, you’ll send it back to them for recycling.
Set design by Brett Thomson. Retouching by Black Magic Studio.
Updated, April 29, 2020, at 1:40 pm ET: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the interview with Monique Chatterjee took place over Zoom.
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