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Editor's Choice
Eight-Bit Antiquities

Greg Tito | 24 Nov 2009 12:25
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Dan was crestfallen. After all the trouble of excavating the console, it was disappointing to realize that it was nothing more than a wood-paneled brick. Technology had finally progressed beyond the point where the Atari was enjoyable. The Atari 2600 had become a gaming artifact.

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It's easy to forget that gaming is a young art form. The Atari 2600 was the first console to popularize the pastime, and it's just over 32 years old. And even though Moore's Law insured that increasing processing power would quickly render the 2600 obsolete, we're just now reaching the point where America's first console will be played more often in museums than anywhere else. The number of working 2600s in private possession is decreasing rapidly.

Fortunately, museum curators have already begun the process of securing, restoring and preserving these machines for posterity. The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, is dedicated to exploring the experience of play and how it illuminates American culture. Ensconced within the Museum of Play, the National Center for the History of Electronic Games (NCHEG) has been collecting all forms of videogames, including those created for the personal computer, consoles, handhelds, arcades and even devices which combine traditional play with an electronic component. Yes, they have Simon.

"I think it's important we preserve a wide variety of material artifacts to allow future generations a window through which they may view our world," says Eric Wheeler, Associate Curator of the collection. It may seem odd to think of the hardware you played with as a kid as "culturally significant," but Wheeler points out why it's important to adopt this approach: "Studying history and collecting artifacts from a near-term perspective has distinct advantages. We can still find examples of key artifacts, arcade games such as Computer Space or copies of the Magnavox Odyssey, and speak to the individuals responsible for creating them." In other words, if we waited too long to recognize the historical value of these seemingly commonplace items, there might not be anything left to preserve.

The collection that the NCHEG has accumulated is impressive. As Wheeler mentioned, they have a Magnavox Odyssey, the first home videogame console ever created, as well as Odyssey-inventor Ralph Baer's prototypes and design documents. Cabinet arcade games are also well represented at the museum, with classic titles like Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. The collection includes every home console ever manufactured up to and including the current generation, along with a library of over 10,000 cartridges and discs.

Unfortunately, the full collection is not yet open to the public, but plans are in place to launch an exhibit called The Revolutionary World of Electronic Play in 2012 and make some of its materials available online. But if you want to get your gaming artifact fix right now, the Strong National Museum of Play is currently running an exhibit called Videotopia which showcases over a hundred new and restored arcade cabinets recently acquired from the Electronics conservancy.

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