Saturday, May 25, 2002

Well it seems my dastardly plan to get the URL of this weblog on the front page of slashdot has succeeded . If you have come from there and want to e-mail me, the address is .

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Here is a review of the Game On exhibition that is on at the Barbican centre in London, and which will tour Japan and the US in 2003. I wrote this to submit to slashdot , and they may or may not publish it, but I may as well post it on my own site as well.

On Friday I attended the Game On exhibition about the history of computer games, at the Barbican Centre gallery. (Admission charge, 11 pounds ($16)). This is on in London from 16 May to 15 September, before moving to The Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh from October 2002 to February 2003 and touring to be announced venues is Europe, America and Japan in 2003.

The exhibition starts off well as you walk into it. The first thing you see is a PDP-1, with a description of the development of SpaceWar in 1962. Sadly, the PDP-1 is not actually operating, but there is a later (1977) coin operated version of Space War that you can play. From there, we jump straight to the 1970s, where we have a couple of instances of "Computer Space", the very first coin operated game, from 1971, which had a truly cool cabinet and was produced by Nolan Bushnell, who had then not yet founded Atari, but was otherwise unmemorable, (although this photo does seem to indicate that the sixties were not yet over). We then have working versions (of both cocktail and upgright versions) of many coin operated games from the 1970s.

Most of the classics are there, from a 1972 version of Pong (or Ping, as it was known in the UK due to the world "Pong" denoting a bad smell in British English). Space Invaders, Mr and Ms Pacman, Asteroids, Tempest, Defender, Missile Command, Galaxian, Donkey Kong, Centipede etc. There is a very brief description of the Mame project, and a projection TV system running Mame with a choice of about 20 classic games. Unfortunately, the significance of the project from a preservation point of view is not adequately described, nor are the various issues that go with it. (I asked an attendant whether they legally owned copies of the 20 individual ROMs, and he had no idea what I was talking about). As we go on, a lack of explanation of the things on show turns out to be the major weakness of the exhibition. There are quite a few very significant things in the history of gaming in the exhibition, but in a lot of instances it isn't adequately explained just why they are significant, or even in some cases what they are.

From there, we go to a room containing "Ten playable consoles", showing a few of the things we might have had in our homes: working axamples of both dedicated game consoles and early microcomputers: the Magnavox Odyssey, Atari 2600, Sinclair Spectum, Nintendo Famicon, Spectravision, Commodore 64 (why not the Vic-20?) up to an early Amiga. This room also contains brief potted histories of the gaming activities of Atari, Commodore, Sega, Nintendo, Sony, with one or two pieces of classic hardware to look. Plus there is a little potted history of the IBM-PC (with an AT in a display case to look at). There is no mention of the Apple 2, somewhat curiously. No, it wasn't perhaps principally a gaming machine, but it was the first machine providing high resolution colour graphics that people could have in their homes. It was the first non-arcade machine I personally played games on, and I think this is true of a lot of people. (I cite the results of the "most nostalgic item" poll on Slashdot last week).

Up to this point, the exhibition has been largely chronological. From this point on, it drops the chronological aspects and becomes more theme based. This works with variable success. (Some themes work better than others). Some things that are historically quite closely related to each other are not close to one another in the exhibition due to the way they are categorised. A strictly chonological exhibition may have worked better.

Firstly we have a couple of rooms full of about 50 (mostly console) games that you can play. These are supposedly divided up into "Games of Action", "Games of Simulation", and "Games of Reflection and Thought", supposedly, but the distinctions are not very clear. Largely though it's just a room with lots of games in it. In one corner I found the Infocom game of "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy", which was the only text based game in the whole exhibition. (No Star Trek, no ADVENT, no ZORK). This was a shame, as the culture of text games would have amongst other things helped bridge the gap between Space War and the 1970s arcade games and would have fit in well in the early history of games section).

After this, we had a section devoted to the making and marketing of 5 famous games (or families of games), Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider, and Pokemon. This section is good. We have original character concept drawings, storyboards and design diagrams from Yoshitaka Amano, James Kenny and other original designers of a number of these games, plus both artwork (both for marketing designs and simply for the sake of art) from many of the game designers. Most notably, we have a series of paintings from Ocean Quigley of Sims fame, showing his visions of various Sim Cities and Sim Worlds. This is really cool.

Upstairs, we find a display comparing games culture between "Europe and the USA" and "Japan". The "Europe and the USA" section is unimpressive, containing a few sports based games and a few military based games, without really explaining what these have to do with Europe and the USA. (A discussion of how military simulators and games have influenced each other is the best). The "Japan" half is much better, talking about the influence of manga and anime, the inluence of the Pachinko culture, the Japanese love of simulations games ("Go by Train", and "Bass Fishing"), plus a really good demonstration of how the game "Renegade" was modified from its Japanese version (which was set in a violent schoolyard) to its US version (which dealt with violence in a perhaps politically less sensitive gang dominated urban jungle).

The section devoted to "Character Design" gives us a brief overview of the development of Mario and Sonic, and we then get to a section on "Childrens Games". The most interesting part of this is a display of handheld games, in particular early single game handheld versions of Donkey Kong, and Scramble and a few others like this. (These were quite important to me, as I remember playing many of these in the early 1980s), as well as the usual Game Boys and the like. (I am not sure what makes these "Childrens Games" any more than a lot of the other games in the exhibition, however).

We then have brief sections on game sound and movie related games. Nothing too exciting here, although lots of movie posters for masterpieces like "Super Mario Brothers" plus a couple of non-working arcade machines with movie related themes. (Tron, most notably. A bit shame this one isn't working. Also a shame they didn't devote more time to the movie, given the movie was about game culture. At least the are showing the film as part of the film season associated with the exhibition).

A section on multi-player games is much too small, unfortunately. There are a small number of networked PCs playing a small number of games. (Red Ace Squadron and Worms Word Party when I was there), plus a sign saying that a changing program of games will be shown over the course of the exhibition. This was a little disappointing, as quite frankly this is a small part of a bigger story: the development and evolution of Doom and Quake into things like Counter-Strike is an interesting story, and one that is not covered in this exhibition. (Perhaps they thought that if they had lots of people playing death matches, this would make the exhibition less family friendly). One of the following sections of the exhibition is devoted to the use of gaming technologies for urban planning, and demonstrates the produce V/Spacelab, which is a planning tool used in real urban design, that was developed from the Quake 3 engine. This is really interesting, and one of the best things in the exhibition, but it the obvious connection with the multiplayer game section is missed.

Finally, we have a section on "Future Technology" which talks about where we are going from here. A little bit on games with evolving characters, and voice and body based user interfaces. I would have liked to have seen something on cell phone based games (Japanese i-mode perhaps) as I think this is going to be a big deal.

On the way out, there is a theatrette showing documentaries on the history of games. I sat an watched the documentary "Thumb Candy" from Britain's Channel 4 hosted by Iain Lee, which gave a much clearer history of games than did the exhibition, but this is at the very end of the exhibition when most people are tired, so I was the only person in the theatrette.

As well as all this, the exhibition includes a number of generally small, "contemporary commissions" , mostly concept art on games based subjects. None of this tells you very much about computer games, but I did have the opportunity to place a game of Space Invaders where I got to shoot down the words from quotations from Focault while listening to the sounds of short wave numbers stations. If nothing else, this reminds me that I am in in Europe.

I was accosted by a reporter for the Russian language programs of the BBC World Service, who saw me taking notes for this review in front of the PDP-1, and after I told him a little about the history of Space War and the like, he recorded an audio interview with about my impressions of the exhibition. Thus, the people of Moscow may be hearing my thoughts translated into Russian.

The exhibition bookshop has a book devoted to the exhibition for sale for 20 pounds, plus copies of virtually every book devoted to computer games that the organisers could lay their hands on, a bit of manga and books devoted to manga, one or two tangentially related board games (Harry Potter, anyone?) a little bit of cyberpunkish sf (The Difference Engine, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), and, perplexingly, a large number of copies of Naomi Klein's "No Logo".

There is also a program of films and lectures/discussions taking place to go with the exhibition. The films are "Tron", "The Driver",
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (huh?) , "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within", "Resident Evil", "Existenz", "Ghost in the Shell", and "The Matrix", some of which are clearly worth seeing.

What's good? There is some very cool stuff on display. They have a PDP-1. They have lots of old arcade machines. You can play most of the games. Most of the stories in the histories of gaming are here if you look carefully. The final section on the use of the Quake 3 engine in urban design was great. There haven't really been any major museum exhibits on computer games before, and this is a good effort.

What's bad? There is a lack of coverage of text based games, and anything PC like prior to Windows 95. There is a lack of coverage of PC gaming. Many of the items on display aren't adequately explained. The organisation into categories doesn't really work.

Is it worth spending my money on? Yes.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

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