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Collecting a Coin-Op Herritage: The National Videogame Museum

Pixel Dreams Arcade Room

The National Videogame Museum (NVM) finds a permanent home in Frisco, TX

There’s something unique about the way humans collect things. Birds may gather beetle wings and buttons, various mammals might collect favorite stones and twigs as crude tools, even octopuses scavenge husks and arrange rocks as camouflage. But humans collect for reasons beyond use; we acquire to admire, share, and preserve.

The act of collecting is a truly ancient part of us that’s become noble through age, much like the collected objects themselves. This makes the new National Videogame Museum (NVM) in Texas something of a surprise.

Video games are only slightly older than disco and wide bottom pants, so the idea of putting up screens on pedestals for hushed crowds to admire seems at odds with both the medium of gaming and popular conception of museum curation. These aren’t oil paintings by some dead French guy, or marbles from ancient times; these are machines and programs purposely made for cheap entertainment.

So when I heard about a dedicated museum for games, I struggled to imagine a plaque with a tasteful serif font reading Donkey Kong, Miyamoto, Shigeru. July 9, 1981. A generous donation from the Atari Foundation.

But that’s not exactly what NVM is doing here.

We often think of museums as only displaying old works we consider classics or masterpieces, and any newer works that manage to enter museums have a way of being venerated (and frequently antiquated) by this association. But any elevation of status for works old or new is largely a byproduct of curation’s real purpose; preserving the mankind’s efforts. Museums gather the successful and — hopefully — the less-so as a way of documenting and making sense of the sporadic advance of human ingenuity.

In other words, museums aren’t the final product; they’re the patch notes, commented code and archive of a never-ending process.

Games make a perfect subject of preservation because of how at risk they are from their ephemeral nature and low status. Talking with Sean Kelly, co-founder of the museum, he tells us of the struggle and frustration to rescue paper print outs of source code from being thrown away and the concerns of seeing rare hardware like the Atari Cosmos dwindle to only two known in existence (one of which is held safely in his building).

Ad for the Atari Cosmos

“At our GDC exhibit last year we got to talking to a couple of former early Atari employees about the Cosmos.  This was a cartridge-based holographic handheld game machine that was developed by Atari but never released.  We have one in our collection but it is incredibly rare – I only know of one other one in existence.  As we were talking, one of the Atari guys tells us how he had taken-home six boxed units and had them in his garage for years until about three years ago when his wife put them out on the curb with their trash.”

“This is one of the most frustrating of these stories we’ve heard but it’s not uncommon at all.  We’ve heard many of these same types of stories over the years and it kills us every time.  Our hope is that with the publicity generated by opening the museum, word will get out that there are people who care about this stuff and want to preserve it.”

The Cosmos is a fascinating case worth an article on its own, but purely as an object it’s easy to see why it should be admired. It has one foot in the 70s “the future will still have wood paneling” chic, but the experience is somehow more early 90s in its graphical aesthetics. It’s an anachronism, some weirdly ambitious mutant that was so obviously destined for failure… but that’s precisely why it needs to be saved. It’s exactly that kind of half-forgotten aspiration that might spark something in a new observer.

“I think documenting and archiving are even more important now than they were back in the 80s and 90s,” says Kelly.

“Back then, before emulators, digital artwork and such, there almost always was some sort of physical evidence of a game’s existence: an artist drew something on paper or a prototype cartridge was made for testing or something. Today an idea or even a game can come and go with every trace of its existence gone forever with the clearing of a trash bin on someone’s desktop. (…)Our goal with the museum is to host a permanent physical library and data archive.”

I think there’s something to that.

Losing things like the Cosmos or video game source code means more than losing an object to admire or creating a gap in history. Losing or destroying these items means removing chances to learn and to wonder. By not preserving our past it means the game designers of tomorrow will have a diminished landscape from which to seek out a more colorful future.

Institutions like the National Videogame Museum are critical because they give our memory form and remind us that progress is always being made. That even our missteps point us forward. And that our shared experience should be made as bright and as accessible as gaming itself, and should be a source of education rather than merely aspiration.

(The National Videogame Museum opens to the public April 2, 2016)

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John doesn't really know what he does for a living, but chances are you've played a video game he's worked, on own an article of clothing he had some hand in bringing to market, or heard his words come out of some creative director or chief executive's mouth. You've for sure read his writing, unless you got to this bio by accident. As a kid, John used to tell people he wanted to grow up to be a giant spider, and lately he's starting to consider that a viable career change. But he's afraid he doesn't have the right degree for it. John lives on the South Side of Chicago with one very wonderful wife, two horribly manipulative felines, and about a bajillion comic books, screen prints, and gaming accessories.
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