To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Spacewar, widely viewed as the world's first true videogame, the Barbican Gallery is holding a massive exhibition on the past, present and future of gaming. We headed down to London the day before the show opened to get a sneak peek...
Titled Game On, the exhibition is a far cry from the traditionally stuffy atmosphere of all too many art galleries. Most of the dozens of games on show are free for punters to play, and although many of them were sadly muted, it's certainly a lot louder and more boisterous than your average museum.
The first thing you see as you walk in through the door is a giant projection screen showing a game of Pong, and as you wander through an archway festooned with space invaders and rocket ship sprites you find yourself in a kind of designer arcade. Everything from Space Invaders tables to Donkey Kong and Tempest machines are standing on the little podiums to either side of the walkway, and there's no velvet rope here - visitors are encouraged to step up and have a play for themselves.
The men responsible for gathering most of these classic arcade machines are Andrew Wellburn and Barry Hitchings, retro gaming specialists who make a living refurbishing, repairing and reselling antique games which can be worth upwards of £1000. Many of the machines in this first room are over twenty years old now, and the manufacturers only intended them to last a couple of years. Keeping them all running reliably has been a struggle, and the day before we got there Crystal Castles' monitor had gone up in a cloud of noxious smoke, forcing some quick silicon surgery and cannibalisation of spare parts from an unused machine upstairs. Most of the games were running as smoothly as if they were fresh from the factory though, and journalists were stopping to relive their wasted youths playing Defender and Centipede.
Moving on to the next room brings you to my own childhood - the chunky home computers and early consoles of the 1980s. Everything from the Famicom and Atari 2600 to C64 and PC Engine were on show, along with more recent consoles such as the Jaguar, PlayStation and even an Xbox. And again, all of the exhibits were hands-on, the machines' joypads sticking out from behind the protective glass covers.
The whole downstairs area of the exhibition is decked out in a gaudy retro-futuristic style. Giant neon lights and glowing columns wash the rooms in blue, green and red, while balconies allow you to watch the action from above, with long rows of monitors and joypads along each wall. The back hall on the lower floor sports an incredible range of consoles and games, from classics like Secret of Monkey Island, Populous and Double Dragon to recent hits such as Metal Gear Solid 2, Super Monkey Ball and Parappa The Rapper II.
It's not all just a giant free play zone though. Leading you inexorably back to the shop at the entrance is a series of small rooms looking at the development process behind popular games. There's a design board covered in PostIt notes for Grand Theft Auto 3, gorgeous concept art from the Final Fantasy series, quotes from developers, Pokemon cards and Tomb Raider posters. And that's just the first floor. On to level two...
Yes, But Is It Art?
Upstairs is a slightly more sedentary experience as you wander around the balconies overlooking the lower level, but there's still plenty of games to get your hands dirty with. The classic Battlezone is on show here, complete with twin joysticks to control the tracks of your tank and viewing port to squint through at the green wireframe graphics.
The room that houses Battlezone also has more recent games, featuring everything from a (rather brief) look at the controversy over videogame violence to design sketches from Jak & Daxter. The labels next to the machines are fairly short and superficial, but it puts the games into some kind of context, with the likes of Tony Hawk and Max Payne rubbing shoulders with Mortal Kombat and Wolfenstein 3D. The whole area was also decked out in impressive grafitti, with fanciful figures spraypainted across the walls behind the exhibits. This is one of the specially commissioned artworks on show at Game On, and for my money the best of the lot. Another highlight was a series of paintings by Ocean Quigley, a designer at Maxis who has worked on the likes of SimCity 3000.
Sadly many of the other pieces came across as shallow or overly pretentious, such as a supposedly soul-searching examination of xenophobia which looked more like a cheap Shockwave Flash game, and a video installation called Insert Coin, which was a nice idea but poorly implemented. Real life war footage shot from gun cameras was displayed in the style of a scrolling arcade shooter, with loops of Nico singing "I'll Be Your Mirror" playing over the top. I'm not entirely sure why that piece of distinctly unvideogame-ish music was chosen - maybe it was an ironic statement on the mirroring of video game violence in real-life, or maybe the artist just likes the Velvet Underground. Either way, the overall effect was somewhat lacking.
On Your Knees
There's no doubt that the real stars of the show are the games themselves, and the more relaxed themed areas of the upper level gave a nice coherency to the collection, as opposed to the all-out assault on the senses approach taken downstairs.
There was a look at Japanese culture, with dating simulators and game adaptations of popular anime series rubbing shoulders with fishing sim Get Bass and Go By Train, Japan's oddball answer to Microsoft Train Simulator, complete with its own tacky looking plastic controller. An area on kids' games also houses a variety of hand-helds, from the all-conquering GameBoy Advance to antiques like the Donkey Kong game-watch and Tomy's Alien Attack, both of which I distinctly remember playing as a kid in the early 80's. Sadly all of these were firmly bolted to the table for obvious security reasons, forcing gamers to get down on their knees to play them. It's worth the genuflection though.
Further round the balcony there's a zone looking at the role of music in games, giving visitors a chance to play Rez and Space Channel 5 as well as listening posts where you can hear classic game soundtracks. There's a corner dedicated to the cross-over between films and games, and even a large multiplayer area with Bomberman, Super Smash Brothers Melee and a World War I flight sim on offer.
Rounding out the upper floor is a look at future technology and mobile gaming, as well as some of the dead-ends of the past, with a cabinet of shame featuring the Virtual Boy, VR gloves and headsets. Here you'll find another of the commissioned works, an adaptation of the Quake III engine used by b consultants to show off architectural plans in real-time 3D. In this case, a fanciful glass-walled building in a London street market. The company started off playing deathmatch in the evenings to unwind after a hard day in the office, but since then they've used the game and its editor to show clients what buildings will look like within the context of their surroundings, saving the time and expense of carefully pre-rendering everything in a traditional CAD or 3D modelling package.
Game On is a vast and varied exhibition, with an impressive array of arcade classics and popular console games on show alongside static display and a few more thought-provoking sections. At £11 for adults, entry isn't exactly cheap, but given that this includes unlimited free play on everything from Spacewar and Pong through Donkey Kong and Defender to Metal Gear Solid 2 and Rogue Leader, it's not bad value. Game On is now open at the Barbican in London, where it will remain until September 15th. More details at gameonweb.co.uk.