Videogames have become a significant and recognizable component of the cultural mainstream. The multi-billion dollar industry was recently recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a legitimate medium eligible for federal funding through grants; the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that games are protected by the First Amendment; and exhibits and gallery showings on the artistic credibility of videogames are starting to pop up in major cities around the world.
The importance and cultural impact of videogames isn't anything new to London's Barbican Centre for the Arts. Having already cut their teeth on contemporary art shows showcasing iconic pop-cultural artwork from Star Wars to Harley Davidson, the idea for Game On, a hands-on exhibit dedicated to the rich history and culture surrounding videogames, was an easy fit back in 2002. Now in its 9th year, the globetrotting show has become such a success that a second exhibition, Game On 2.0, was conceived in 2010 to help satiate demand.
"We've added a lot more content," said Barry Hitchings, Game On's resident exhibition consultant, historian and technical support who has been traveling with the show since its introduction. "We've tried to add more contemporary stuff, and just make it appealing to museums and galleries."
Making the show more mobile and travel-ready, something kept in mind as 2.0 was being designed, is key to selling it to a wide variety of venues, Hitchings said. July 2011 marks 2.0's first visit to North America, where it will debut at the Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, Oregon.
Stepping into the exhibition layout at OMSI is like walking into a hybrid between a history textbook and gaming encyclopedia. The entrance is adorned with early pinball and pachinko machines, as well as relics like Steve Russell's Spacewar!, built on MIT's gargantuan PDP-1 computer in 1961, and Computer Space, introduced in 1971 as the first commercially available coin-op arcade machine. (Pong is also playable on a nearby wall projection.) On display one room over are significant gaming consoles such as the first home system, the Magnavox Odyssey, as well as more recent fare like the PS2, Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast.
"The console section isn't all the top selling consoles or the best consoles ever made," Hitchings said. "But all the consoles have something about them that made them important to gaming."
After the machines that play the games, 2.0 opens up to game genres, with representative selections from the earliest to most contemporary era of gaming. Here, videogame fans can see the evolutions of genres ranging from fighting games and adventure games to first-person shooters and racers. Notable entries - Super Mario 64, Pitfall!, or Half-Life, for example - are present, but there are some unexpected choices core gamers will appreciate, as well. PaRappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura's quirky import-only Vib Ribbon is housed in the "Games of Reflection" section, and there's a whole section dedicated to shmups, including the Famicom's Star Soldier and 2007's Triggerheart Excelica, the last Japanese game to be released for the Dreamcast.