Geek Pride

Exploring the intersection of pop culture, mass media and the geek/gamer mind

Pixels of the past

As gamers get older, nostalgia kicks in for arcade days of yore

Pong, Space Invaders, Galaga, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, Joust, Centipede, Tron, Dragon's Lair, and my personal favorite, Robotron 2084.

If you're a 30- or 40-something geek like me, you probably played video games as a kid. Not on the personal computer, which in the 70s and 80s was only in its infancy. I mean the big, hulking, stand-up video arcade machines. The ones that ate your allowance (or cafeteria milk money).

As I write about in the my recent article for the Christian Science Monitor "Video game museum gives arcade classics extra lives" (pasted below; or see print edition archived here), these games have had a powerful effect on an entire generation. And now that generation is all grown up, like with a lot of childhood or adolescent hobbies looked back on with the 20-20 hindsight of adulthood, these old school arcade games create nostalgia. We have money, we have desire, and we want our childhoods back. If you have kids of your own, that's another reason to dip into the days of 8-bit pixels and dim, humming, cave-like video arcades. The ones near my hometown were called The Space Center and The Dream Machine. Cool.

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When generations reach middle age, there's a curious phenomenon: a nostalgia for the way things were kicks in. For me, the "way" was that pre-Mac, pre-iPhone, pre-iPod, pre-Internet world where people called each other on payphones and left notes in each other's lockers to communicate, made plans ahead of time, and had to meet in public, in person (gasp!) in order to play a video game. None of this hunkering down for hours at a time to immerse oneself in online games; these games of yore, like say Missile Command or cost a quarter or fifty cents, and for me anyway, they lasted about 10 minutes tops. The little Pac-Man or Space Invader was iconic, symbolic, crude. It was like a metaphor for a little you.

The draw of old video games, like old anything, is a desire feel closer to a unspoiled experience. As Henry Lowood says in my article, video game game nostalgia is about "stripping away the surface layers associated with modern games gives them the feeling of being closer to something we might call core game-play." Modern games are inordinately complex and require the mastery of bunches of buttons. The arcade game had maybe two or three buttons and a joystick. Sometimes just a joystick ---- a cave man bone tool compared to games like Gears of War or World of Warcraft. 

We want to be connected to that time when things were, yep, simpler. When we didn't have all these fancy 3D computer animation technologies that produced photorealistic environments. When you could register your initials on the top score list of your favorite game, and enjoy a moment of fame ... until the next person came along to knock you off the leader board.

 

Video game museum gives arcade classics extra lives

Nerd nirvana? It's a video game museum that doubles as an arcade.

Gary Vincent presides over the American Classic Arcade Museum (photo: Weidman)
By Ethan Gilsdorf, / Contributor 

posted August 5, 2010 at 1:54 pm EDT

Laconia, N.H. —

Downstairs at Funspot, the venerable amusement center here near the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, tourists arrive in waves to play air hockey, ride the bumper cars, and pump tokens into modern video games such as Dance Dance Revolution and Terminator Salvation.

But upstairs, the dim, cavelike American Classic Arcade Museum (ACAM) creates another reality. Period music – Toto, Men at Work, Duran Duran – trickles in, mixing with the electronic beeps, zaps, and chirps of machines arranged in long rows like a robotic army. Among this array of classic arcade games, the largest in the world, you'll see classics such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders, but also rare finds such as Quantum and even Pong, the only one still on public display and playable.

Here, time has screeched to a halt. Neither the games nor the music is younger than the final year of the Reagan administration.

Double Dragon came out in 1987, "around the time that things began to change," says Gary Vincent, the museum's president, who opened it in 1998 and grew the arcade's collection to some 280 video games. As the first nonprofit dedicated to preserving coin-op amusements, ACAM is a sort of living history museum of gaming culture.

"The games don't make much money," Mr. Vincent says. But money is hardly the point. Unlike at other museums, here you can touch. Every game on the floor is there to be played. And for 25 cents, the museum lets folks try to revive their old-school gaming mojo.

As gamers get older, there's been a resurging interest in arcade classics. This nostalgia trip hit the public consciousness with the 2007 documentary film "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," which offered a peek into the world of retro video game competitions. Since then, the subculture that exults these games has broadened beyond a dedicated few. Gradually, a movement to collect relics from the medium's history has gained traction. Academic institutions and individuals have begun archiving them. But preservation isn't simply a sentimental effort to relive people's digital childhoods. These games offer a unique window into the cultural and social impact of video games.

"Quite simply, digital games are a part of contemporary culture," says Henry Lowood, curator of Stanford University's History of Science and Technology Collections and Film and Media Collections, in an e-mail interview. "If we care about understanding our culture, we have to care about preserving its history, and games are a part of that history." Similar institutional efforts to gather video games and memorabilia are housed at the University of Texas at Austin and the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.

Mr. Lowood also spearheads the "game canon" project, a list of video games slated to be preserved by the Library of Congress. A committee of game developers and experts chose the first 10 games: from 1962's Spacewar! (considered to be the first computer game) to Tetris and Super Mario Bros. 3.

Conservation is also paramount for practical reasons: Arcade hardware is fragile. The games themselves were programmed into the circuit boards, and if those fail, the games die.

The preservation movement shows not only how far the technology has progressed, but also how much public perception of video games has changed. "This game generated its own 20-minute segment on '60 Minutes,' " says Vincent, standing in front of Death Race, one of the museum's crown jewels. The driving game involves cars running over "gremlins," which in their pixelated form looked like pedestrians. In its day it was vilified as much as heavy metal music and Dungeons & Dragons. With its blocky, stick-figure, white-on-black graphics, it now seems laughably primitive, and as tame as a hayride. "These days on PlayStation, it would be rated 'E for everyone,' " he jokes.

Many classic gamers are now in their 40s, and some still prefer playing in arcades over playing in their living rooms. Donald Hayes – whom Vincent calls "probably the best classic game player ever" – finds new Xbox games uninteresting. He is drawn to the "simplicity" of classics. "They don't depend on the graphics," says the software engineer from Salem, N.H. "The Xbox controller has, like, 20 buttons. The old games, it's a joystick and a couple of buttons."

Mr. Hayes holds several high-score world records, including being one of only six people to get a perfect score in arcade Pac-Man. He also holds records in Joust, Centipede, Millipede, Super Zaxxon, and several others. At Funspot's Annual International Classic Video Game Tournament, which draws between 150 and 175 competitors, Hayes defends his good name. Currently, he's training to reclaim his old Dig Dug and Frogger records. "There's a lot of work involved," Hayes says. For example, setting the Centipede record took him nine hours of continuous play; Dig Dug takes 12 to 15 hours. Hayes goes to Funspot once a month to practice. He also owns 12 arcade machines.

Another option for those interested in upping their old Ms. Pac-Man scores: Wii Virtual Console and Xbox Live Game Room, online services that let players enjoy classics such as Asteroids, Tron, and Missile Command at home. There's also a site called mamedev.org, whose "Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator" reproduces games as faithfully as possible for the modern computer.

But what's lost in playing arcade games at home is the social experience. "You could go to the arcade and see your older brother's score from the night before," says Christopher Grant, editor in chief of the video game blog Joystiq and a member of the game canon committee. "When we're talking about game preservation, we're not just talking about the game. We need to preserve the player." Some home console games now have online leader boards, so that social experience is coming back.

There's also the camp that argues that a crucial game-playing experience disappeared when game designers began creating realistic, immersive game environments such as World of Warcraft. To Chris Kohler, video games editor at Wired.com and a devoted games collector, 8-bit-style games are easier to understand, more accessible, and don't require the dedication of a 3-D, first-person shooter game.

Mr. Kohler's Game|Life blog regularly lists the various Commodore 64 or Amiga cartridges he's unearthed at tag sales and thrift stores. "2-D wasn't archaic. It was in fact a superior way to design games. Or if not superior, a unique style that needs to be preserved." A new generation of programmers is answering this call and designing retro games that mimic the look and feel of these arcade games of yore.

"I am sure that for some retro-gamers, stripping away the surface layers associated with modern games gives them the feeling of being closer to something we might call core game-play," says Lowood.

So if these arcade games aren't necessarily about over-the-hill gamers trying to recapture their past arcade glory, perhaps they succeed in returning players to simpler purity. They even evoke a misplaced nostalgia for a time that a gamer may not have personally experienced: Mark Hazelton, age 24, of Sandwich, Mass., visited Funspot with his sister and niece for the third time in four days. "There are a lot of games here I grew up on," he says. "It's like nostalgia. All the new games are crazy-good-looking. But I like coming here. They even have Pong here from 1972. It's cool they have that."

© The Christian Science Monitor. All Rights Reserved. 

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, teacher, poet, geek, and the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

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