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According to my older son (and budding video game scholar) GeekTeen John, “The best way to learn about the history of games is to actually play them.” Which explains why my kids and their dad made a beeline for the change machine on our recent visit to the eGameRevolution exhibit at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. Tokens in hand, the three of them quickly disappeared into the exhibit’s black-lit arcade, where they spent quite a while happily slamming joysticks and banging buttons on such vintage games as Centipede and Tron.
Last summer, my family got a sneak preview of eGameRevolution, an exhibit created by the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong, an institution devoted to the study of play which includes the Museum of Play and the National Toy Hall of Fame. We also got a behind the scenes look at some of the 22,500 video game-related items in the ICHEG archives – including the collection of classic arcade games in the Center’s massive storerooms.
The eGameRevolution exhibit, which opened in November, gives the public a chance to see some of the historical material in ICHEG’s collection – and what’s more, to actually play with it in its original form. Next to a display of the so-called “brown box,” the first home video game console, is a screen where two players can try their hand at a game of Pong. Other cases contain popular home games from the ’80s and ’90s, and the handwritten notes of Sim City creator Will Wright.
Now, I’m not really a gamer. So when I asked the GeekTeen what I should say about the exhibit, he explained to me why it’s so important that visitors get to sample the games.
“It’s like seeing an exhibit about books where they’re talking about the history and how they developed,” he said, “but all you can do is see the cover behind the glass. Or a movie exhibit where all you get is a DVD box and a couple of video clips. It gives you an idea of what it’s about, it’s giving you enough information that you can go through it and enjoy it –” but it doesn’t really help you understand what the medium is all about.
While my guys spent most of their time playing the arcade games, other families were busy trying out the more modern incarnations like the Wii and Guitar Hero. I particularly enjoyed watching kids and adults trying out the Lightspace Play Floor, a touch-sensitive LED surface with active games like Dodgeball.
The exhibit’s displays also tries to put video games in a larger cultural context. One pointed out that critics have been accusing popular art forms like video games of corrupting young people since the early days of the novel. Visitors with smart phones can scan symbols in each case for more information.
But it’s the range of games, from the earliest prototypes to the newest innovations, that will really draw most visitors. There were even games that my teens and their dad – veterans of the palatial arcades along the boardwalks on the Jersey Shore, which still feature some vintage games themselves – had never played.
But as much fun as was for my family, the GeekTeen did have one complaint: Unlike a real arcade, in the museum hogging the machines for hours on end is not acceptable behavior.
“If you’re really serious about learning the history of games,” he told me, “you need to play through a game to the end. One game I heard a lot about was Oddworld, but I was only able to play the first level for ten minutes before I had to move on.”
He compared the experience to playing a demo in a store. You can get a taste of the game, but you’ll have to take it home to get the most out of it. Luckily, he pointed out, many classic games are now available as simlutions for modern devices. (Now that we’re back home, he plans to download Oddworld to his laptop through the website Steam.)
Still, the gamers in my family were happy to make a return trip to see eGameRevolution and get another chance to explore the rest of the offerings at the National Museum of Play. If you’re within reach of Western New York, it’s definitely worth a trip.