WHOEVER WANTS to know the heart and mind of America had better learn Space Invaders. A traveling exhibition makes it easy.
Touring an exhibit of historic video games can inspire many different reactions in those who remember when they first came out. Wistful types may reflect on the days when wasting a few Martians was all it took to make them happy, while folks of a more practical bent will wish they had saved up all those quarters and bought stock in the company instead. But someone who grew up spending his spare change on baseball cards, who was so ignorant that he had to be told who Mario was, will end up feeling like George Bush at the supermarket checkout counter. In every direction, as far as the eye can see, spaceships explode in a hail of fireworks, libidinous blinking dots chase gyrating asterisks like satyrs pursuing nymphs, and abstract geometric shapes permute and change color in a riotous opium dream. And on the rare occasions when voices become audible above the cacophonous sound effects, all that anyone talks about is how primitive it all is.
The exhibit, regrettably titled “Cyber Playground,” has been assembled by an Atlanta museum called SciTrek and will be touring the country over the next two and a half years, with its first stop at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey. The purpose of the exhibition is “to convey the history of the microprocessor using video games as a platform,” says I. J. Rosenblum, the exhibit manager, shouting to be heard over the buzzes, beeps, and bangs. Yet chip design does not seem to be the visitors’ main interest. The exhibit has thirty working games, and they are surrounded by what seems like a hundred times as many screaming children, all of whom want a turn at crashing the virtual cars and eviscerating the virtual bad guys. This raises what the museum staff calls “sharing issues.” It’s a warm, friendly phrase, and if Karl Marx had thought of it, his ideas would probably have gone over a lot more smoothly. As it happens, though, the exhibit’s sharing issues cause surprisingly little trouble.
Visitors play for free, but the more complicated a game is, the more likely they are to press the start button, poke idly at the controls for a few moments, and then walk away. As anyone who’s been a teenager understands, when you put your own money in the slot, you’ll do anything to keep the action going. When it’s free, by contrast, you have no incentive to waste time learning the subtleties of the more complicated games. There’s a lesson in all this, and it suggests that Marx might have had second thoughts about his whole program if he had dropped by his local arcade.
Because of this preference for simplicity, one of the most popular games is that paleolithic classic, Pong. Its original instructions read, in their entirety, “Avoid missing ball for high score,” and the game really is that simple. All you need to master it is to get a feel for the hypersensitive dials that control the paddles. Schoolchildren pick up Pong instantly and love it, since they’re too young to know that they’re supposed to be bored. It just goes to show the timeless appeal of video tennis, stretching back even beyond Pong’s midsixties origins to 1958, when William Higinbotham of the Brookhaven National Laboratory devised an oscilloscope-based tennis game that enjoyed a brief local popularity.
Early video games—after the era of Pong, inverted Pong, retrograde inverted Pong, et cetera—were mostly basic shoot-’em-ups. Then in the early 1980s different types of games appeared, ones in which the player had to navigate passageways, build structures, or solve puzzles. These were the industry’s attempt to attract more business from girls and women, who (with typical feminine capriciousness) showed little inclination to spend money for the privilege of being attacked by aliens. The marketing tactic worked to a degree, though today’s arcade crowds are still heavily slanted toward fifteen-year-old males, with only the names of the heavy-metal bands on their T-shirts having changed. If playing girl games has brought out their nurturing side, the change is not apparent, and the feature that lets high scorers record their initials shows that video machismo remains strong.
A comparison of flight simulators from 1982 and 1996 demonstrates how much games have progressed through the years. The earlier one shows a slowly shifting landscape with a chunky mass that vaguely suggests a building in the middle of a flat expanse. The 1996 game is much faster to respond and enormously more detailed, allowing would-be pilots to crash their planes on an accurately rendered Empire State Building or any neighboring skyscraper they choose. Yet to jaded 1990s eyes it seems no more realistic, just a better-detailed fake.
Besides all the games, the SciTrek installation includes displays on early computer history, the nuts and bolts of computer graphics, and the evolution of interactivity. These can be examined at leisure, with no crowds to fight. The exhibit is at the Liberty Science Center through September 7; future stops are to be announced. For further information on the exhibit, call SciTrek at 404-522-5500.