Today’s adventure for Alex and me was to visit the Game On exhibition at the Royal Museum. The exhibition first ran at the Barbican in London, but has only just now moved out to the provinces.
The exhibition bills itself as “the first major UK exhibition to explore the vibrant history and culture of video games. Focusing on key developments between 1962 and 2002, it’s an in-depth look at gaming’s fascinating past and limitless future.” (From gameonweb.co.uk). And it really is. Far from being just a random selection of games and consoles stuck in “hands-off” display cases , the exhibition space is genuinely beautiful. It is filled with bold primary colours, posters that explain the history and context of the games, and above all: dozens of monitors and console screens running original games on original hardware, from the 1970s right up to the present, with controllers so you can actually play them yourself!
The exhibition explores the cultural phenomenon of videogames. It doesn’t attempt to explain it–that’s left to other forums–but it shows you where it came from, and how it has evolved over the years.
The fact that it’s fully interactive is entirely appropriate to the subject matter. Films and books are passive media: you can display them, and you can observe them from a certain distance. But videogames are meant to be played. The very essence of a game is that you are involved with it, and that you have control over the story that is being told–even if the story is something as simple as “two opponents hit a ball back and forth between them.” Just as, if you want to understand the modern novel, you have to have read literature from other centuries, if you want to understand the modern videogame, you really ought to have played its ancestors. Game On allows you to do this.
But it’s not just a contextual, educational experience. If you played videogames as you were growing up, the exhibition is a blissful nostalgia trip. And if you’re too young to remember the eighties (and most of the people there this morning were children and teenagers), then it must be interesting to get your hands on all of predecessors to the PS2 and GameCube, and see what all of the grown-ups are on about when they talk about the “good old days” of gaming.
I had a blast. Even though I didn’t get to play many of the games (Alex wanted to be held for most of the time), I’m one of these strange folk who enjoy watching other people play videogames almost as much as playing them myself. If you enjoy games at all (and live near enough to Edinburgh), get yourself along there. (I’d recommend getting there early, though, and on a weekday if you can. Even by mid-morning today it was well busy, and some of the more popular games had queues.)