I am not a gamer. But I try to be a good GeekMom and wife. So last summer, when I learned that the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, housed at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY was launching a permanent exhibit called eGameRevolution on the history of computer games – opening this Saturday, November 20 — I arranged for my family to get a behind-the-scenes preview with ICHEG Director Jon-Paul C. Dyson.
And because the college-bound GeekTeen wants to major in computer game design, I asked that Steve Jacobs, who teaches interactive games and media at Rochester Institute of Technology and is a visiting scholar at ICHEG, join us. Jacobs teaches courses at RIT in computer game history and design, interactive narrative, and humanitarian free and open software. (Among other projects, he works with students to develop educational games and software for One Laptop per Child.)
Sitting in the ICHEG archives surrounded by thousands upon thousands of computer game software boxes on shelves, and walking through the warren of secret recesses where the center houses its collection of vintage arcade games, we were treated to a wide-ranging and in-depth chat about the place of electronic games in human development. And I learned that – despite what it looks like to us outsiders – there’s a lot more to computer games than killing time.
I also learned that in today’s society, saying that you’re not a gamer is a stretch.
“Everybody’s a gamer, especially as devices multiply,” said Dyson, a former computer programmer, who is also the Strong’s vice president for exhibit research and development. As examples, he pointed to computer newbies who first learned to use a mouse when Microsoft bundled Solitaire with Windows — not to mention moms who might never sit down at an X-box but who happily work out on the Wii, play Angry Birds on their iPhones, and keep up with Farmville on Facebook.
Dyson said ICHEG was created about five years ago when The Strong, an educational institution focused on studying and encouraging play, realized that electronic games were an area that needed examination.
“We’re interested in the history of play and how it affects people’s lives,” he explained. “We looked at how video games are having a huge impact on people’s lives — the way you play, live, learn and relate to others. We began to collect them to understand their impact. Last March, we realized we had a collection that was the largest in the world of games and related artifacts. We also realized that video games were global, so it had to be an ‘international center.’ So we expanded in scope and also expanded in size. There are now 22,000 pieces, and it continues to grow very rapidly.”
Part of that expansion was the acquisition in 2009 of The Videotopia Collection, 114 vintage arcade video machines that had been on loan from an organization called the Electronics Conservancy.
“Videotopia was amazing,” Dyson said. “You’d see people walk in and say, ‘Oh, I remember this.’ Most are evergreen: they still work, and they’re still fun to play. My kids loved it.”
Dyson himself got a big jolt of nostalgia from the exhibit. He was playing computer games long before the rise of the home console — in fact, before he even had access to a computer himself.
“My introduction to computer games was my brother playing Dungeon on a teletype printer,” Dyson remembered. “He’d bring home stacks of accordion-folded printed sheets with holes down each side. He probably spent the high school’s whole printing budget. We’d have these discussions – I wasn’t actually playing, but I learned how the games operated through these discussions.” Dyson found that there’s a strong “place association” with games. He found himself saying, “I remember where I was when I first saw this.”
“The memories come back very strongly. I didn’t have 50 cents, so I would stand back and watch the older kids play first so I didn’t die in the first minute.”
RIT professor Jacobs brought his son Noah, then 12, to Videotopia, and got to enjoy games he missed the first time around.
“I found games I hadn’t played before,” he said. “A lot of the games we most enjoyed were two-player games I wasn’t interested in at a younger age.”
But making early games accessible to the public is only part of ICHEG’s mission. It has quickly won a lot of friends in gaming circles who are happy that the history of the industry is being preserved. Wil Wright, who created the innovative game Spore, Trip Hawkins of Electronic Arts, and home console pioneer Ralph L. Baer, inventor of the “brown box,” have all gotten involved, donating notes, designs, and business records.
“The industry realized they needed to preserve their legacy,” Dyson said. “We feel it’s vitally important to do this now. We’re at this moment when we can still meet Baer, who’s 88. The challenge is that the material has unique conservation problems. It’s a problem to find systems to run the games on. There’s also ‘bit rot.’ The material itself deteriorates.”
Jacobs added that preserving a game is not just a matter of copying a floppy disk to a DVD.
“Unlike the government, we don’t just want to preserve the information, but to recreate the experience. Like that Atari Flashbook 2,” he said gesturing to one of the systems ICHEG owns. “Just because I can run Pong on an iPad, doesn’t mean it’s the same play experience.”
But for all their differences and challenges, from a historian’s point of view Dyson feels that electronic games fit in well with the Strong’s mission of looking at how toys and play affect our world.
“Take the example of baseball games. What does it mean to make a video game that’s a version of baseball? This is not unique to computers. It’s that same game challenge. It resides within a broader context of the history of games. Book to pen and paper: you can’t understand where World of Warcraft came from without understanding Dungeons and Dragons.”
For the ICHEG team the hardest part was integrating all of this background into an exhibit that kids and adults will both enjoy and learn from.
“How are you going to present this in a museum setting?” Jacobs asked.
The answer is by interlacing the interactive games with displays of cultural artifacts like stuffed Pac Man dolls, old advertisements, comic book spin-offs and more.
“Because this is a Museum of Play overall, we can take a broader approach,” he said.
The opening of the 5,000-square-foot eGameRevolution exhibit this Saturday, November 20, will feature a dance party on the LED Lightspace dance floor and a chance to talk to the ICHEG crew. Along with artifacts including notes and drawings from game inventors like Ralph Baer, whose “brown box” was the first home video game system, and The Sims creator Will Wright, visitors will get to play a rotating sample of 25 games out of the museum’s collection of 125. (All are in working order, although some are too fragile for public use). Eight tokens for a $1 will help ICHEG continue to preserve its artifacts for future generations.
Emulator stations will also let you try out classic console and PC games like Pong, Super Mario 64, SimCity, and Oregon Trail. And there’s a giant wall-mounted game of Tetris and a giant pixel wall where little gamers can play. Visitors can also see displays tying electronic games into the history of toys and examining some of the controversies that surround them, like the question of violent themes, and the different way games are perceived by males and females.
Sounds like even I would enjoy this exhibit. We’ll have to get back to Rochester soon!