Gaming museum warps players through time

Dec 10, 2014

Lots of people talk about how addicted we are to our screens. We spend our days staring at smartphones, tablets, and computers. But the first digital addiction came before most of us even imagined a home computer: video games. 

If you think about it, the history of video games is not that old. The first home video game was released in 1972, and now, the video games that many of us grew up playing are relics on their way to be enshrined in a video game museum. That’s the idea of The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment in downtown Oakland.  A small group of video enthusiasts have created a gaming playground where you can grab an Atari joystick for a game of Frogger,  put on a face mask to attack Zombie whales, or join in on a virtual fight night with friends.

Losing the big mushroom

On a Saturday morning, there are barely any cars on the road in downtown Oakland. A couple of kids ride skateboards in the middle of the street past a brick building with a sign that reads: “Video Game Museum.”

I’m going in. I’m dying to play Pitfall. I used to play it on Atari when I was a kid.

In Pitfall, you use your joystick to direct a little stickman to hop over alligators and swing on vines over quicksand. I haven’t owned an Atari in years. It was a ritual to be in my living room, legs folded, eyes glued to the screen, with my brother over my shoulder shouting out unwanted directions on how to win.

Today is my lucky day, there’s one here, somewhere, just waiting for someone like me to try her hand at it.

Inside the museum, it’s like a storage room unit with wire mesh shelving against the walls, plastic bins full of adapters, and control panels. Computer monitors are everywhere. Some of them are sleek with flat screens – others are the old bulky beige boxes looking like fossils, sticking their floppy disks out like blue tongues.

There’s one player hunched over the screen. His name is Sean, he’s in his late 30s and he’s playing Streets of Rage from 1981.

The characters are blurry and boxy looking. Their faces have no definition, and I can’t tell the difference between a gun and a knife, all of the weapons look like colored sticks when they jab at each other. Everything seems to move in slow motion. I ask Sean, the lone player, about how his game’s going and he says, “I just found out something in the game. He asks you to join him and if you say yes it takes you back a few levels.”

I’m not sure what Sean means by any of that, but his face is only a few inches from the screen and I get the hint that this may not be the time to ask questions. Back to my search for Pitfall, the game I’m itching to play.

Looking around at some of the older games on display, I don’t recognize any of them. No Super Mario Brothers, Frogger, or PacMan. They were all a bit too mainstream back in the day to be a part of this exhibit. 

Alex Handy, the pink-haired founder of The Made, walks into the museum.

"We have playable exhibits, and artistic contributions we have classes for kids lectures, game jams to educate the public about how games are made," says Handy.

Handy is a videogame journalist and self described technological archeologist based in Oakland. For him, the idea to start a video game museum came to him when he found what he considered digital gold.

"In 2008, at the Laney College flea market in Oakland, I discovered a parcel of unreleased Atari games. I had to find someone dump the info off of them, and we made the games available on the Internet,” explains Handy.

Transferring the old technology from these older games into a form that everyone can access is a tricky process. It means dissecting the game and making it compatible with today’s technology – and it’s risky.

Tinkering with the inner workings of old technology can destroy the game entirely. Handy’s games survived the dump, but he wanted them to survive longer.

“I looked at these games and thought, 'What will I do with them?' and I looked for places to donate and there was nothing in the bay area and I found that shocking because here is where video games come from,” says Handy.

Technology changes so quickly that reviving the old stuff can be like unlocking a secret treasure. Some people do this and put the games online for all to play. Others just hold onto older games, and like a prized comic book, their value increases over time. For someone like Handy who is a human video game encyclopedia, the discovery of a new video game is like finding a new planet. Handy’s been following the discovery of a game that sold for over $10 thousand at an auction.

“Red Sea Crossing is a boxed game about Moses crossing the red sea,” he explains. “There were people saying, 'You are lying you are making this up!'"

Handy says that once the game was sold, “nobody could play it because he didn’t open it up. You wouldn’t want to pry open a Gutenburg Bible and rip a page out.”

For Handy, the games many of us played as kids are now considered sacred artifacts. Handy shows me a few games that sit on a mesh shelf display. They are his prized collection, some of the oldest games around, like The Odyssey – released in 1974, one of the oldest games in the Museum, and the world's first commercial video game.

“It has a bunch of games controlled by spinners. If you don’t have a 12-inch screen, you can’t play,” Handy explains.

It could be easy for all of this to be uninteresting to people outside of the video game world, but Handy also has a social mission: to reveal the parts of game history that are more complex than people think.

Soon after the development of the Odyssey came something called The Fairchild Channel F. It was the first home video game system with interchangeable game cartridges and was developed by an African American, Jared Lawson.

“Women and African Americans are rare in this industry, but Jared Lawson designed the chip for that thing,” Handy says pointing to the worn box. “He actually passed away and people said, ‘Why haven’t we been singing his praises?’ This man was amazing.”

Handy plans to work with  Oakland’s African-American Museum to curate an exhibit about African-American gamers, where, according to Handy, Jared Lawson “will be centerpiece number one.”

Handy moves around the room showing me some of the other historic games that are loaded up and ready to play.

“These are the games that get me excited, like a novel, or a great short story,” he says.

Handy has a love for simple ideas that become games. “One game I love,” he says, “is Dinner Date, where you play a guy making dinner and he’s sitting at the table waiting for his date to show up. You pour the wine you make the second course but she never shows.”

I’m confused. I ask Handy, “How do you win a game where you are making dinner for someone who never shows up?”

“That’s what the Indies are all about,” he replies. “There are games with no goals – or you make up your goal.”

Games with no real goals? It could be the next big thing, but I can’t imagine playing the hundreds of hours of Pitfall as a kid without having the goal to be the highest score. There was something so satisfying about seeing my brother’s face twist into combat mode when turned on the tube and realized I’d beat his score the day before. 

That’s one big difference about the generations of kids today: our video games were really hard. One hit and you die. It’s just pure thumb skill, and nothing but. 

Handy’s spent most of his life watching games evolve, and he says there’s one thing missing from modern game design: fun.

“People get locked in and you see these events – ‘Jimmy come away from the computer, no mom I can’t pause it for 6 hours’ – but whereas in Mario if you die, what’s the worse thing that can happen? You lose your big mushroom, that’s it.”

I left there feeling a bit like I lost my big mushroom. I never played Pitfall, but I didn’t leave without touching a joystick.

Handy introduced me to another game, Vibribbon. There were no alligators to swing over and no quicksand for my Pitfall man to suffocate in. It was even more simple than that: a black and white screen with a stick figure rabbit that I controlled to the sound of the music that was playing. The object? Just to make the rabbit move to the rhythm, jumping over ditches that looked hand drawn, and somersaulting over squiggly lines on the screen. 

It was no Pitfall, but maybe it is about time for me to love a new game, even though it may be older than me. 

This story originally aired on December 3, 2012.