March 18, 2005
I was just home in Chicago for a couple of days, and had a chance to visit the Museum of Science and Industry, which is currently host to Game On, an exhibition on the history, culture, and future of video games. We visited the Museum of Science and Industry quite often when I was a child, both as a family and on class field trips, so it was both gratifying and strange to see the games I played as an adolescent historicized in a museum context. This exhibition, which was previously shown in a slightly different arrangement at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, is the most extensive exhibition of its kind, certainly more comprehensive than the respectable Digital Play exhibit at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
This exhbition was arranged, for the most part, very intelligently. For one thing, the majority of the exhibit is playable. More than 100 historically important video games are available for play, most in their original platforms, or in the best available emulator. This made me wonder about the curatorial problem of keeping multiple copies of the hardware available and running. I’d imagine that over the six month run of a popular exhibition, they will go through a lot of controllers, for instance, many of which might now be difficult to find. But an exhibition of video games that you could not play would be about as useful as exhibition of video art that you could not watch.
Rather than sticking to a pure chronolgy, the exhibit is arranged in 16 levels, each containing games and material relevant to the subtopic:
- Level 1: Early Games
Including the PDP-1 on which Spacewar, the first video game, was played, as well as early arcade classics from Pong to Dig Dug.
- Level 2: Top 10 Most Wanted
Including the 10 best-selling home consoles, loaded with their most popular titles.
- Level 3: Game Genres
This level did an excellent job of demonstrating the continuity of different genres of games from the early days of the industry to the present, with examples of Puzzle, RPG, Adventure, Racing, Action, Shoot ‘em up, Sport, Platform, Fighting, Complex Simulation, and Strategy genres
- Level 4: Making Of
This section offers a look at the development process involved in the creation of four different popular games: Golden Tee LIVE (Arcade), The Sims (PlayStation 2), Tomb Raider (PlayStation), and Pokémon Stadium 2 (Nintendo 64). The Sims section, including original sketches and art, was particularly interesting.
- Level 5: USA and Europe
Focused on sports and competition games popular in Western cultures, this section mainly serves as an interesting contrast to the following section
- Level 6: Japan
This section was fascinating, demonstrating the Japanese focus on more narrative-based, comic book-style games, dancing games, etc.
- Level 7: Child’s Play
Bob the Builder, Pichaku, the Gameboy, etc. My favorite game here was Junkbot, a PC-based game centered on the idea of taking out the trash.
- Level 8: Multiplayer Mayhem
An introduction to multiplayer gaming. This section seemed fairly weak in its selections, not including any of the RPGs that have driven the recent MMORPG phenomena. It didn’t help that most of the games weren’t being played by multiple players
- Level 9: Sound
This section included listening stations with the soundtracks of popular early games, in addition to games in which sound is particularly important. One highlight here was Chillingham, a game that included no video beyond the splash screen. Designed with the visually impaired in mind, all the cues are delivered aurally.
- Level 10: Chicago Style
A look at games which have come out of the Chicago region, which is home to Midway. Unfortuanately, neither Robotron nor Defender were present.
- Level 11: In the Movies
Games derived from movies. Highlight: Tron Discs.
- Level 12: The Rating Game
I can see why this level explaining the rating system was included, but I didn’t see a single person even stop to look at it.
- Level 13: Character Design
A look at the character design process.
- Level 14: Future Games
One of the weaker sections, it included eyetoy and a karaoke-style game. The future is a bit unclear.
- Level 15: Magazines
Important, sure. Worthy of a a museum display case? No.
- Level 16: New Releases
I guess this is going to be a rotating selection of new releases. None were loaded at the time I was there.
Although the exhibition had its flaws, it did do a nice job of a few things:
- The vast majority of the exhibits were hands-on.
- They provided a useful educational apparatus — and the exhibit frequently encouraged the museum’s audience, which includes a lot of kids on field trips, to think about games not only as things that are played, but that are made. One of the missions of the Museum of Science and Industry has always been to encourage young people to think about potential careers in technology. This exhbition does an excellent job of that.
- The organizers did an excellent job of collecting and archiving early games and platforms.
It was fascinating watching fathers, my age, showing their sons and daughters the games of their youth, just as my father used to revel in showing us the museum’s giant model train setup. It was also fascinating to see much older people, in their late 70s and early 80s, playing video games. When I was a child, I enjoyed both going to this museum, and sneaking off to the arcade with a pocket full of quarters. I would have never thought I’d be able to experience both these activities in the same context. It also occurred to me that as places like ITU in Copenhagen and USC and Georgia Tech develop programs in Games Studies, their university libraries should invest not only in books, but in playable spaces like this one.
I’ve posted a slideshow of photos from the exhibition up at Flickr.