Finding the ancient rig was like discovering a long buried treasure. At the bottom of my friend Dan’s closet, under the box of Transformers and silly putty, was a small package marked with his mother’s simple block lettering. “No way,” he said out loud. He reached in slowly, making sure not to disturb the heap of worthless cardboard and linens. Once both hands were securely around the prized box, he tugged mercilessly. It didn’t budge at first, only slightly moving under the weight of all the crap above it. He grunted, cursed, tensed even more until finally, he yanked free the arcane brown box. A brisk motion of his hand swept the last of the crypt dust away, and the magic word scribed on its side seemed to glow: Atari.

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Inside was the family’s Atari 2600, reverently packed with its joysticks and paddle controllers. The joysticks, which featured the revolutionary design of a single button and directional input, were lovingly worn, with some of the painted plastic nubs around the soft rubber base scratched off. The homey charm of the console’s wood paneling, faded and peeling in one corner, concealed a wonder of 1977 engineering: a hardware microprocessor that ran games from individual software cartridges. Perhaps it wouldn’t have had such a huge impact on the consoles to follow if its Good Housekeeping aesthetic hadn’t persuaded women like Dan’s mother to let the device reside in their living rooms.

Dan remembered when his family brought the Atari home from Sears. It immediately held a place of honor beneath the television. This was during the pre-VCR era, and the Atari was arguably the first add-on appliance that the TV had. He and his brothers played the crap out of that Atari, first with standbys like Pac-Man and then branching out into lesser known but equally fun titles like Parachute and Adventure.

But time wore on, technology increased sevenfold and Nintendo released its 8-bit NES in 1985. The Atari 2600, once the focal point of his gaming world, was put in a box and placed in a closet, where it remained undisturbed until that afternoon in August 2009. The console probably hadn’t been exposed to light since the ’80s, and he wanted to see if it still had life. He brought it to his Brooklyn apartment and hooked it into his state-of-the-art HDTV. The screen jumped to life with bits and bleeps. It had a pulse.

The picture, however, was horribly distorted. He had forgotten an important fact: Atari 2600s were made long before the concepts of “high definition” or “widescreen” existed. Dan’s new TV did what it could to accurately show a portly Mario jumping over barrels, but the sprite looked more like a potato pancake than an Italian plumber. Even without conversion problems, the graphics of the Atari wrought large on a 46-inch screen betrayed just how primitive they were.

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.

The administrators of the NCHEG are gamers themselves, so they understand why having access to all of these games is inherently cool. But as historians, their collection sheds light on a more profound cultural shift than simply going from one console generation to the next. “The history of electronic games, written from a long-term perspective, will invariably be tied to the larger story of the transition from an analog to a digital society,” said Wheeler when I asked him what the collection was all about. “Electronic games are a combination of technological advances and the cultural context in which they were created; they are a confluence of technology and play. The artifacts have stories to tell and lessons to teach us, if we allow them.”

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Dan still displays his family’s Atari by his TV, a reminder of his ill-fated experiment. But instead of being ashamed of its old-timey-ness, he shows it off as a sign of his geek credibility. Any nerd would be impressed by such a relic, one that helped shape the hobby that defines so many gamers’ lives. To him, the Atari 2600 is not just a worthless paperweight – it’s an important artifact that deserves a place of honor in his home.

Seeing it so proudly displayed reminded me of the treasures of an Egyptian pharaoh or a medieval scholar. My recent foray into ancient gaming pieces made me wonder what videogame hardware will be important enough to be sought after 100 or even 500 years from now. I realized that I had accumulated quite a collection of old game systems myself – nowhere near the size of the NCHEG’s, of course, but more than those of most of today’s gamers. In my cramped apartment, I’ve managed to save room for my first NES (with the lightgun and its original gamepads), a Super Nintendo and an aging Xbox. Mind you, none of these systems are hooked up to my TV – they’re just collecting dust, waiting to be freed from their cardboard prisons and exhibited once again.

But perhaps that’s about to change. It was always my dream to have a game room with a dedicated nook for each console and an A/V switch that would allow me to keep them all hooked up and ready to play. And since I’ve just relocated to a much larger apartment, that dream could become a reality. I’ve begun to look at my friends’ old consoles with a collector’s monocle and greedy hands. Dan’s Atari 2600 was a prime target.

“Hey, how much do you want for that Atari? Twenty bucks? Sold!”

That’s a cheap price for a piece of gaming history.

Despite working in New York City for 10 years as a freelance games journalist, playwright and theater producer, Greg Tito has a hard time convincing people that playing Grand Theft Auto 4 makes him feel nostalgic.

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