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Digital Legacy


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.

Much like the original Game On, every game selected for 2.0 is based on objective importance to the medium, claimed Hitchings.


“It has to be a game that people will know, or a game that’s unique,” Hitchings said of the criteria selection process. As an example, Hitchings cited the Xbox 360’s Deathsmiles as important because it’s a rarity for bullet-hell shooters to be released on a modern console in North America.

“Games are in the show on merit,” Hitchings said. “Not because I think they’re the bees knees in videogaming.”

The selection process, grouping games into various categories by theme or genre, was Hitching’s job from the start. “I was given more or less free reign over what to choose for game content,” he said. “So I basically put it in a very objective way. I looked at all the sections and said why these games would best represent [them].”

Though there are explanatory labels giving information about each of the games shown, much of that merit will be apparent to many gamers. Gaming icons like Lara Croft, Sonic and Mario are on display (there are even a couple of Miyamoto concept sketches showing what Mario’s movements would look like translated into 8-bit sprites), an international section features games from around the world, and sensory games like Rez highlight important titles utilizing sound or visuals. Directly across from the display are a handful of indie games, including one made with the Net Yaroze development kit for the original PlayStation. Uncharted 2 is playable at a kiosk next to several character renders from Naughty Dog and a few original cels from Dragon’s Lair. Multiplayer games, handhelds, arcade games and movie tie-ins are just some of the other categories represented.

Then there are the games that have unusual peripherals, among them Taito’s train sim Densha de Go! Final, complete with train operator controller, and Steel Battalion, Capcom’s original Xbox mech game that’s so meticulous it requires a three-paneled, 40-button controller to play it. Alongside the Kinect and Move, the final future-themed room is home to a goliath called the Virtusphere -a life-sized proprietary apparatus that tracks in-game movement through a player’s own physical movements, which are communicated through a VR headset worn when inside the sphere.

“We wanted something that would be a draw to the show, but also something that was feasible, as in, this could happen, you may be able to get this many years in the future in your own home,” Hitchings said. “But also something that wasn’t just a fixed experience. The Virtuspehere is one of the few things I saw that really offered an immersive experience.”

The technology is impressive. You move by actually walking forward or backward, the weight of your body propelling the sphere like a giant hamster wheel, while the headgear tracks head-based motion. Hitchings said he’s become an expert with it, and has been essentially using it as a life-sized controller.

“I’ve actually been playing it with Quake III,” he said. “It’s fun trying to play it with that.”

With over 100 playable games across a variety of consoles and platforms, 2.0 is quite extensive, but as a family friendly show, many Mature-rated games (otherwise given a PEGI 18 rating in the UK) are left out of the equation, something Hitchings said isn’t a problem most of the time. “You don’t have to rip people’s heads off to make a fun game,” he said, citing Alan Wake, Halo and Half-Life as having PEGI 15 ratings. The show’s self-imposed guidelines means one of the industry’s most influential games, Grand Theft Auto III, has to be left out.


“It was such a groundbreaking game when it came out,” Hitchings said of GTA. “But it’s really hard to show with any content that isn’t going to offend someone.”

When asked about Doom, which is noticeably absent from the OMSI exhibition, Hitchings said that was simply a planning hiccup, noting that id Software’s groundbreaking FPS, which has a PEGI 15 rating, is usually among 2.0’s regular roster.

“I think Doom nowadays is seen [as] … not as bad,” he said.

Underrepresented genres like horror and RPGs are also somewhat missing from 2.0 – the former for violence and the latter because role-playing games don’t lend themselves well to the pick-up-and-play format Game On uses.

With such a wide variety of games, it may be hard to believe that Game On’s origins were far less ambitious. Originally planned as just an art show with a handful of actual games on display, Hitchings, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of videogames, was still working in a specialty game shop in London when that changed in 2001.

“Lucien King [of Rockstar Games London] came in and talked to me, he was very impressed by my knowledge of videogames,” Hitchings said. “He was impressed with the fact that I could talk to him about games, give him a basic history of a number of games and consoles and so forth – he basically said, ‘I want you for Game On.'”

King had previously planned on doing a show similar to Game On with the National Museum of Scotland, and because museums keep tabs on each other, King and the then-curator of the Barbican, Conrad Bodman, decided to pool their resources. Once King found Hitchings, everything else fell into place.

“We persuaded the Barbican to actually do the show, and have maybe over 100 playable games, because they probably could do it,” Hitchings said. “We basically went from there, and Game On was born.”

With as successful as the show has been, Hitchings doesn’t see Game On stopping anytime soon.

“When we started [this], we thought, ‘We’ll tour a few venues and that’ll be it. 2002 to maybe 2004, finish,'” he said. “We’re now in 2011. We have two shows running concurrently, we have other venues interested in the show. So I think we’ll probably be touring for at least another ten years.”

Photos courtesy of Suji Allen.

Steve Haske is a Portland, OR-based gun-for-hire journalist whose work can be found in Gamepro, EGM, Eurogamer and Paste magazine, among other places you’ve probably heard of. When not actively writing he also regularly co-hosts the A Jumps B Shoots podcast and can be tweeted @afraidtomerge.

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