Video Gaming Celebrated In Game On At The Science Museum

By Dave Standen | 27 October 2006
a photograph of a woman in a white nightie next to a large yellow computer console

This was the future in the 1970s. Computer Space 1971. © Al Kossow

Dave Standen jumps, high-kicks and blasts his way through Game-On, currently showing at the Science Museum in London until February 26 2007.

Ever wanted to spend the day attempting to rescue your girlfriend from an angry, barrel wielding, over-sized monkey or skateboarding across the urban landscapes of America?

How about entering a go-kart race, competing against a toadstool, the world’s most famous plumber and the same livid, cask-hurling ape from earlier? If so, a new exhibition at London’s Science Museum, showcasing over 40 years of computer gaming, can cater for your needs.

While Game On, sponsored by corporate leviathan Nintendo and organised by the Barbican Art Gallery, offers a comprehensive overview of video game history, it also manages to create the world’s greatest arcade.

Some might wonder why an exhibition on gaming is relevant, but when you consider that there are 26.5 million gamers in the UK alone, fuelling an industry that generated £1.2 billion in revenue in 2005, it becomes apparent why this is a must-see.

a photograph of a computer console made of mustard coloured plastic

The Ingersoll Pong Console. © Barbican Art Galleries/Peter Noble

Split into 13 sections with more than 120 games on display, most of which are playable, the exhibition traces the timeline between Space War, a game created in 1962 by MIT researcher Steve Russell, played on the DEC PDP-1 computer, to the cutting edge games made for modern consoles like the Nintendo DS and the Xbox 360.

As Gaetan Lee, programmes developer at the Science Museum explains: “Nowhere else will people be able to see the entire history of the games industry laid out, explained and ready to play.”

Each section is completely interactive and one of the highlights is the segment devoted to the early arcade classics. Here, you can blast your way down memory lane, playing 80s classics like Donkey Kong, Space Invaders and Centipede.

There’s also a chance to play seminal 70s game Pong, and the archetypal 80s game Pac Man, as both are projected, cinema style, onto a wall.

a photograph of a computer console made of black plastic and formica

A classic - the Atari 1980s console that brought us Space Invaders. © Science Museum

The exhibition doesn’t just focus on gaming though. There are listening posts, where the discerning fan can endure the heavily synthesized music which featured in early games, most notably Tim Folin’s work on Agent X, Ghosts and Ghouls and Gauntlet 3, or Rob Hubbard’s soundscapes, as featured on Warhawk and Saxion Loader.

It is impossible not to compare this early computer music, simplified due to the limitations of the format it inhabited, to the soundtracks of contemporary games, where acts such as Coldcut (their song Atomic Moog 2000 featured on Driven/Extreme Sports) and The Chemical Brothers (Chemical Beats was on the incredibly popular Wipeout soundtrack) lend their work to a cross-genre marketing dream.

Nothing shows the progression of console games more than the handheld display. Manufacturers have always sought perfection when it comes to handheld consoles because, if they can persuade their audience to carry the product with them wherever they go, then they’ve won half the marketing battle.

The array starts with the bulky early tabletops such as Frogger and Ms Pac Man, through to the ungainly Atari Lynx and ending with the sleek and streamlined Nintendo DS Lite, a console that is threatening to challenge the all conquering PSP for the handheld crown.

a black and white photograph of a man and a woman playing an early computer game on a black and white TV

Video gaming - 70s style. © Science Museum

One game featured in the exhibition epitomises how the industry attempts to smash through as many boundaries as possible. Chillingham, developed by Bavisoft, is aimed at the blind and visually impaired and utilises sound in its attempt to take players through a quest to rescue a friend.

While it is easy to get caught up in the interactive side of the exhibition, organisers have been careful to use artwork, specially commissioned from artist Jon Burgerman, and displays, to ask relevant and important questions that often dog the gaming industry like: ‘is gaming to blame for our super-sized kids?’ and ‘do games make kids violent?’

Whereas the former query is highly debatable the couch potato factor is being countered by the use of games such as Dance Dance Revolution, which involves shaking your thing to vigorous routines on a specialised mat. The game has even been introduced into some schools, predominantly in West Virginia. The latter question is hard to take seriously when you’re elbowing small children out of the way, after an hour long wait, for a go on Atari’s legendary 1983 arcade game and film crossover, Star Wars.

It isn’t until witnessing this exhibition that you realise how entrenched the video game medium has become in contemporary society or how quickly it has evolved in the last 40 years.

The simplicity of games such as Donkey Kong compared to the complexity of later classics like Tomb Raider show how far the genre has progressed, despite the latter looking dated by today’s standards. In terms of playability, however, the two games can happily stand side by side both displaying a timeless appeal.

a colour photograph of a woman with reading spectacles playing a space invaders computer game

A visitor to Game On gets to grips with an old favourite. © Science Museum

Game On manages to highlight the ever deteriorating boundaries that exist between genres, as film, music, gaming and art all overlap to create a hybrid of unimaginable proportions and without limits.

It’s also great for sampling the world of video games and blasting, vaporising and high-kicking the hell out of anyone that crosses your virtual path.

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