Alex Burr

Poke Alex in the Eye: The Game: The Story

Originally published Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Back in our early college days, around the year 1997, my friend Mike had a vision: give everyone on the internet a chance to poke me in the eye. Thus began an adventure from which my reputation has never recovered.

First, some background: Mike and I met in our first year at RIT (where we also coincidentally met our friend Ryan) and hit it off, so to speak. Both of us meandered our way into the Information Technology program and wound up sharing many classes, in addition to having adjoining dorm rooms.

Origins: 1997

One day, after returning from a break, we were joking and laughing as we often did, and I began punctuating a laugh by jabbing my finger into my eye (to elicit greater laughter from Mike). The idea had come to me while watching an episode of Rocko’s Modern Life; during the episode, the character of Sheldon was rolling on his back laughing, and for some reason I pictured him poking his finger into his eye while he laughed. It just seemed to make sense.

Anyway, my doing it sparked something in Mike’s imagination. Some time later we were goofing around as usual, coming up with silly ideas for 10-second skits or parody commercials (none of which were ever produced, thankfully) when I saw a lightbulb appear over Mike’s head.

“Alex”, he said, “we have to make a game where you get poked in the eye.”

Understand that this was during the dawning years of the internet meme. The Hampster Dance was not yet riding its wave of popularity. Dino Ignacio was still gathering intel to prove that Bert Is Evil, and David was likely not even born, let alone visiting the dentist. All we really had was the Dancing Baby (which wounded our souls), the Kevin Bacon game, and the “Spirit of Christmas“ South Park video short.

We didn’t have much to work with at the time. Mike had been experimenting with Java applets for some extra-curricular projects, and we had a friend who had been very excited about animated GIFs. Those were our platforms of choice in the beginning. Our only graphics hardware was Mike’s handheld (analog) video camera; he’d gotten his hands on a video capture card so that we could isolate some frame stills. We’d also managed to acquire Photoshop (probably version 4.0 or 5.0) through the school so that we could cut me out of the background.

AutoPoke and JavaPoke

The production was pretty quick and dirty: I plodded into Mike’s room on a random weekend, sat in front of a blank wall and posed for a few seconds while smiling, frowning, staring at my finger in alarm, and of course grimacing while shoving it into my eye. Five minutes of modeling from me, and I was done.

Mike did the rest. When he came out of seclusion at the end of the weekend, he had published (to his RIT student web page) two editions of our new “game”: One as an animated loop, one with clickable “interactivity”. We had all our friends in the dorm “play”, each click eliciting squeals of glee from most, and exasperated eye-rolls from others (mostly girls).

To drum up enthusiasm on campus, we did a bit of viral marketing, “casually” mentioning the game in (loud) conversations at the student convenience store, or on the way to class. We may have even hung fliers. Whatever we did worked because the hits started rolling in… eventually from off-campus as well.

Somehow a link to the page ended up on Netscape’s “What Cool” section. The early Netscape browsers had a button on the toolbar that would direct the user to a list of links compiled by Netscape to highlight currently “cool” destinations. Well someone at Netscape thought we were cool and added us, resulting in an unforeseen flood of traffic. At one point we got an inquiring email from RIT Information Services since they were seeing unusual traffic spikes on the servers housing student web accounts.

New Web Domain: 1998

Eventually we became so excited about the game’s success that we decided the time had come to level up. Mike started looking into pro web hosting and immediately registered the www.pokealexintheeye.com domain. We plopped over the non-design of Mike’s old RIT page onto the new server, and set about making a new version of the game worthy of $9.95 per month.

Thus was born Poke Pro, using Mike’s newly acquired skills in Director. Once again I posed against a wall and made funny faces, but this time it was for a first-person interactive version. Poke me in the eye yourself!

This time around, I took a more active role in the development, composing some (crappy) MIDI music and helping add some sound effects. It was double the fun… video and audio! Although Mike did the bulk of the assembly in Director himself, I did sit in on his work and offer feedback consistently. It was much more of a collaboration this time around, and much more of an exciting launch.

Our marketing became a little more aggressive. We had a friend design some banner ads that we offered for link exchange, and we began submitting the site to various search engines and “funny website” portals.

Once we set up an email address on the new domain, we started getting a flood of feedback. The new version of the game was popular beyond our wildest dreams! Over the next several months we the site several times, incorporating some of our favorite comments and flexing our development skills. I admit, at first we were very vigilant with the email, responding personally to our favorite submissions, but within a couple of months we were getting about two dozen per day and it became unmanageable.

I still feel guilty for not responding to most of you. Sorry.

Notoriety: 1998–1999

Obviously the game was a novelty and not destined to remain popular for long. We accepted that, but had an interesting turn of fortune.

Towards the end of 1998 Mike and I both had gotten involved in swing dancing (and specifically Lindy Hop), and our effort on the Poke site began to quickly wane. At that point, our only other marketing move had been that I was registering myself as “Poke Alex” (or a variation) on numerous internet resources, and putting Mike’s web address in my signatures. (I’ve kept that up to this day as a tradition.)

This did, however, provide us with a new audience. As I continued to promote the site online via my usernames, the national swing community caught wind of the site. Most wanted to know why I was “Poke Alex“ and what that meant, and many would follow my signature links to the site for a laugh.

Over time, I became known to most in the swing community simply by my online handle (this happens to a lot of people), regardless of whether they’d seen the game. Many that did know the game insisted on greeting me over the next few years with an actual finger to my actual eye (thankfully few still do that today. However, many friends still refer to me as “Poke Alex”. The “Poke” moniker has stuck mostly for out-of-town [non-Rochester] friends as a more unique identifier, locally and in person I am simply Alex.)

Interesting aside: Two of my dance friends from the Ithaca scene, Alex Fajkowski and Andy Reid, had played the game long before meeting me. Andy once recounted a story of his and Alex’s conversation during my first visit to a dance in Ithaca:

Swan Song: 2001

By this time both Mike and I had become professionals in web development, and amid many “serious” projects we were itching to get back to something frivolous and goofy.

When we did Poke Pro, we’d come up with several ideas for a future edition that we never incorporated: the ability to poke me with items, for example. Over the years we’d updated the website design, but left the games untouched. So after a long period of time ignoring our game (and our email) we said, “what the heck, let’s do another one.”

Thus was born the Poke Plus. We followed the same basic development pattern as we had before, but by this time Mike had acquired a digital camera and better hardware. We knew we were taking a risk using Director instead of the increasingly more popular Flash, but we were both finding Flash to be infuriatingly obtuse and wanted results.

So the music got an overhaul, the art got an upgrade, the game got another layer of “complexity”. Best of all, we built a high-score system in a database that allowed users to brag about how much longer they’d mindlessly clicked their mouse than others (since there is no way to lose). To give the game its proper ado, we updated our guest comment features and gave the other content on the site a spit-shine.

The Decline: 2004–2007

Traffic remained steady and the site enjoyed mild popularity for the next few years. We monitored the mail, occasionally responding, but overall we were content to just let things lie. Eventually we lost our hosting login information and couldn’t have made any updates anyway. At some point Mike stopped paying the bills for the hosting and the site went offline. We weren’t really willing to put any more effort (or money) into the website anyway so we figured we’d had a good run.

(We did manage to be included in a book, somehow: 505 Unbelievably Stupid Webpages by Dan Crowley. I guess Dan must have been doing his research before our host pulled the plug on the account.)

Relaunching: 2009

Of course that decision didn’t last. I don’t know why, but it took us several years to realize that since Mike does his own hosting, we should migrate the site to his server. Luckily Mike had continued to maintain ownership of the domain name, so that’s what we did.

Starting in mid May of 2009 I dug out our old backups and pulled the content into a much simpler layout. I opted to ditch all the interactive content (guestbook, high scores, etc) and just put up the actual games and original text for pure posterity.

The site has continued to enjoy mild traffic, attracting about 20 visits per day, and now we’re able to use Google Analytics to get a much clearer picture of the traffic. Many of the referrers are the same old “funny website” directories that we used to rely on back in the day, although most people do a direct Google search for “poke alex in the eye” for some reason. We are also popular for “poking games”. Nothing from Netscape these days, though.

The Future

So do we have plans to continue development? This is a new era for online development, with various platforms, devices and tools. And novelties never really go out of style. I’ll say that we do have some ideas but nothing concrete. Stay tuned…