Going video game crazy in Bradford!
By Martin Coldrick
From Pong to Grand Theft Auto and beyond, video games have been with us for a long time - so much so that the National Media Museum in Bradford is now collecting nearly 40 years' worth of computer games-related stuff to keep for generations to come!
Another addition to the Archive?
It might be hard to believe but the first ever commercial video game console that you could use in the home - the Odyssey 1 - was launched way back in 1972. Since then, we've all come a long, long way! It's hard to even compare those ancient computer games with their simple graphics and even simpler sounds with the cinematic mega-adventures we can can play on our X-Boxes and super-powerful PCs these days, but they're all part of the same story. It's that history which Tom Woolley, curator of New Media at the National Media Museum in Bradford is in the process of discovering. He's the man who has the (some may say enviable) task of collecting all those bits of computer hardware and software which are currently languishing in people's attics across West Yorkshire and elsewhere. You might never have thought you'd see the day when a Sega Megadrive - so familiar in front rooms and bedrooms across West Yorkshire just a few years ago - being stored in a glass case, but that day has already arrived! Tom took me into the bowels of the Media Museum to show me what's known as the National Video Games Archive.
Tom and the Rock Band prototype drums
"That's the first prototype of the Rock Band drumkit ever made," says Tom pointing in the direction of a set of strange-looking drums in one corner of the Museum's Small Objects Store. "Obviously it was tested before it went into mass production. We've also got the first ever Eye Toy camera as well which was donated by Sony. Again, that's a first. They look like regular Eye Toy cameras and regular Rock Band drumkits but that one does actually have the factory reference number on it. It says ' No. 1' on it and it's the first one ever made." These are just some of the surprising things to be found among row after row of glass cases containing the sort of items you might think are more 'appropriate' for the National Media Museum's collection. However, as Tom points out, one person's outdated computer game is another person's historical artefact: "That's one of the reasons for forming the Archive - giving them that cultural recognition they deserve. We've reached that tipping-point where they're old enough for museums to start collecting them."
The National Video Game Archive only began in late 2008, but it's already a most intriguing collection and there's certainly something in there for everyone, from a Commodore PET to a BBC Micro, from the Rock Band drumkit to Sonic The Hedgehog for the Megadrive. And that's just a start, says Tom: "As well as the hardware and the software, we also want to collect developmental materials like sketchbooks, level designs, character designs...Urbis in Manchester has recently done the Video Game Nation exhibition which got a lot of credit for giving computer games a lot more cultural standing. The amount of creative activity that goes into video games, the amount of thought and intelligence is just unbelievable. Through putting the sketches and the level designs in front of the public, it'll hopefully make them realise all the effort and all the LOVE that goes into these games."
While these days it might seem that it's teenage boys and twenty- and thirtysomething men with too much time on their hands who are the main fans of video games, Tom's discovered that the original target audience was quite different: "Originally the Odyssey 1 and the Atari 2600, the earliest consoles, were geared towards the family and to the housewife, almost like a board game. It was a family experience to share in. So, you can see the Odyssey console and controller, but you also have Monopoly-style money and card games. There are also overlays which you actually hold up to the TV, things like American Football and roulette wheels, and Pong of course...They were trying to make them more accessible to the wider family - it wasn't just geared to teenage boys!"
Sketch for game by Jakub Dvorsky
The National Video Game Archive is a collaboration between the National Media Museum and Nottingham Trent University, but it's the big climate-controlled store room in Bradford where it's taking shape. Tom admits that it might seem odd to see such modern items being kept for posterity, but he says collecting video game-related stuff now is important because it's such a fast-moving area: "You do get a lot of people saying, 'That makes me feel old' when they see things in the Museum but, of course, the Megadrive's nearly 20 years old. Really, as soon as something is released it's showing a progression with the technology and within the culture and media that we're consuming. It's another notch on the timeline. We could get a Megadrive in 50 years' time and it'd be a lot harder to find, or we could get one now when they're in people's attics and they don't want to get rid of them or they don't want to just throw them away or get involved in the fuss of selling them. So what you can do is put them in a museum and they become part of our cultural heritage."
Odyssey 1: The first games console
Though the items in the National Game Archive aren't yet on show to the public except on special behind-the-scenes tours of the Media Museum, Tom says that he hopes that many of the items currently in storage will eventually see the light of day once again: "I love TV Heaven [where people can choose and watch old TV programmes] so it'd be great to have a Game Heaven where people can just turn up and play games from yesteryear. Obviously, there are lots of challenges with that, but it'd be great to have a sofa where you and your friends could play [classic Nintendo game] GoldenEye, recreating the same environment you'll have played it the first time."
While Tom's proud of the star attractions of the National Video Game Archive so far - things like the Rock Band drum prototype and designs by Czech game legend Jakub Dvorsky, creator of the Samorost games - he's also looking for people in West Yorkshire to have a dig around in their attics too. He says he will soon be looking for more donations - even if they're already featured in the Archive: "One of the interesting things is the need for duplication. Powering these things up, turning them on and actually playing on them is the best way to interpret them. Being behind a glass case doesn't do them justice - you need to interact with them. So it'd be great to have one for display only to keep that intact, and other copies of the same computer for people to have a play with and to test. If it breaks, it breaks!"
Remember this? Sonic and the Megadrive
And Tom says there are still plenty of video game-related items out there just gathering dust that he'd eventually be happy to take off people's hands: "Original hardware's always good and we do have games in the collection. So if you do have original hardware in good condition that'd be great. Things in original boxes are always fantastic as well - it's always great to have that on display. In terms of games, we don't want to be collecting every single game out there as that's unmanageable, but iconic titles like Chuckie Egg and Pac-Man in their original cases and with supporting marketing materials are good."
Usefully, Tom is also a bit of a video game addict himself so he's clearly enjoying the task of building up the National Video Game Archive from scratch. And, while he enjoys the all-singing, all-dancing, all-shooting extravaganzas on offer today, he admits that he does have a soft spot for the games of his youth: "Games today are fantastic. I like the complexity and the depth you get. But I also like the simple games too...But then, like anything in your childhood, you do have fond memories of things. I remember being addicted to Rainbow Island, Dizzy, Skool Daze, Chuckie Egg 2. I played Chuckie Egg 2 on an emulator [which recreates old video games on modern computers] recently and I quite enjoyed it. I guess that games today have pushed our expectations...Those old games do stand the test of time!"
Free guided tours of Insight, which includes the National Video Games Archive, take place every day at the National Media Museum in Bradford: on weekdays at 1pm and weekends at 2pm. If you are interested in a particular aspect of the National Media Museum's collection, separate visits can be arranged. For more details take a look at the National Media Museum's website (link on the right of this page).
last updated: 30/06/2009 at 16:28
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
West Yorkshire people's lives and stories revealed!