Tue 8 Apr 2008
I was in Melbourne last weekend and found that Mario had invaded the city! Fortunately, there was no goomba outbreak for the heroic plumber to investigate, just a huge video games exhibition at the Australian Centere for the Moving Image (aka ACMI). We didn’t know this was going to be happening, but we were intrigued enough to work it into our schedule.
The idea that video games can be art and are worthy of their own major exhibition is hardly revolutionary. After all, the one song that will bind my generation together until we are old and grey is the theme to the original Super Mario Bros. I kid you not! Hum a few bars of it to someone in their 20s, and dare them to not join in.
The exhibition was called Game On, and I’ve never seen more video games in one place before. There were legendary early arcade games, early attempts at home game consoles, a whole slew of handheld gaming systems, plus modern and cutting-edge video games. There were a decent amount of museum-style annotations to provide history and context, a handful of rare game production documents, and some of the well-curated exhibits, like a section of old arcade cabinets grouped together under dim lighting that mimicked an actual late ’80s arcade, but it was the real point of the whole exhibition was that nearly game on display was available to play!
Or I should say, were available to play if you could find a machine that someone else wasn’t crouched over, madly mashing buttons. It was Sunday afternoon when we visited Game On, and the exhibition was hopping busy, probably near its comfortable capacity. Most people seemed to be heading the informal five-minute limit per game, but there were also some machine hogs who were treating the place as their own personal arcade.
Still, I got to play Dig Dug, Bubble Bobble, Donkey Kong, the original Street Fighter, Puck Man (not a typo!) and other classic arcade games that I’d never seen in person before.
The highlight for me, though, was playing the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game system, which was released in 1972. The system was supposed to play a tennis game, sort of like a home version of Pong. You were supposed to turn knobs on a bulky controller to get a little white rectangle to move around the black screen. It hardly worked, probably thanks to 35 years of wear and tear, but that little box moved in a rather charming, imprecise way, clearly the result of an old analog signal rather than a digital one. To get it to move properly meant not just eye-hand coordination, but eye-hand-joystick-wire-circuitry coordination. Everything had to move in tandem, or the game (which did not even keep score for the players) would break down entirely. It worked … but just barely.
Playing the Magnavox Odyssey, you could really sense that the designers were struggling against the current limit of what electronics could do, and through the rest of the exhibition you could sort of trace the path of video game designers pushing that boundary farther and farther.
Today, games will let you do nearly anything you can do in the real world (and plenty that you can’t). There are actually people who make their financial ends meet playing Second Life, and people who meet their lovers playing World of Warcraft. That makes me a bit nervous, but I don’t know if that really indicates a downward spiral for humanity. I’m not even sure if that impulse is something all that new — the documentary King of Kong shows how even the oldest of arcade games can consume lives, and how a high score is sometimes an analogy for a titanic struggle.
For some reason or another, we are inclined to reach out to each other electronically, to see our thoughts and impulses, our tiniest of actions, writ large across a glowing screen. But it all started with a finicky little knob that moved a shaky box across a television screen. From such humble beginnings tremendous things are born, and it must have been a site to marvel at when that original white box began its tenuous journey across the blurry black static of a television monitor.