Tyne & Wear

Video Game On: The man who spent 13 years travelling with Pong and Pac-Man

Barry Hitchings
Image caption Barry Hitchings, 40, was working in a retro computer game shop in Hammersmith, London when he was headhunted

The world's largest touring collection of computer games is about to move from Newcastle to Oslo. Going too is a man who has travelled with it for more than a decade.

Senior exhibition consultant Barry Hitchings has not been home for 13 years.

He cannot immediately recall how many places he has lived in during that time but it turns out it is 32 cities, in 23 countries.

Five continents. London and Chicago twice.

Headhunted to run the Barbican art centre's touring computer game exhibitions, with more than 150 working consoles each, he goes wherever they go. Looking after them, fixing them when they go wrong.

Game On and Game On 2.0 explore the history of video games from their first real beginnings in 1962. From Pong to Halo, via Pac-Man and Space Invaders.

"It is actually quite a challenge to keep everything working," Barry says.

"Things do break down - the pinball machine currently has an issue."

His evening's entertainment will be taking it apart.

Image caption Pong was one of the first computer games to get public attention

Although older kit is simpler to mend, the components are not so readily available.

Replicas can be 3D printed and, occasionally, people offer old games Barry can plunder for parts.

His title, which conjures up an image of suits and boardrooms, belies his hands-on approach.

He teaches staff in each venue how to restart consoles and cure minor glitches but deals with anything more complicated himself.

Early video game history


Nimrod and Nim are shown off at the Festival of Britain

  • 1952-67 Development is confined to labs and universities. Spacewar is created

  • 1972 Pong is released and the industry comes to public attention

  • 1980 Pac-Man sells more than 100,000 games in its first year

  • 1984 In the USSR Tetris is named after the Greek for four and its creator's favourite sport, tennis

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Soon he will swap Newcastle, where he has lived since March, for Oslo, adding to a list of destinations that features Canada, Hungary, Australia, Greece, Japan, Chile, Portugal, Israel, France and the USA.

The Barbican provides the 40-year-old former Londoner with accommodation in each city - anything from student digs, to hotel apartment or flat.

He has no house to go back to in the small gap between one show closing and the next opening.

Instead he goes on holiday. Japan and America are favourites, visiting friends or a girlfriend he sees "every so often".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In 1951 the Nimrod digital computer was displayed at the Science Museum Festival of Britain Exhibition. The game played on it - Nim - demonstrated basic computing principles

Taiwan was friendly and cheap to live in, he says. Newcastle was "quite nice" because it was his first visit to the UK - where his family are - for "any length of time" for about nine years.

"I travel with a suitcase with most of my clothes," he says.

The rest of his life is shipped by crate, like the PCs and consoles that are his travelling companions.

He learnt his lesson in the early days of Game On and now everything is modular and easily slotted into containers, ready for transporting to the next city.

What he calls a "de-install" now "only" takes about five days.

The exhibition evolves a little with time and location. Games written in the host country are temporarily added, new versions of modern games replace old.

The latest releases in 2002, when the exhibition started, are themselves edging towards retro.

Image copyright Centre for Life
Image caption Barry owns some of the exhibition, shown here in Newcastle's Centre for Life, and it comes with its original hardware and display units

"When we first started off Game On things like the Xbox and the Game Cube were just about coming out," Barry says.

"We just keep adding stuff and taking stuff away over the years to try and make it as fresh as possible."

Barry is modest about the "chunk of money" he was given to set up Game 2.0 and the carte blanche he has to buy games and upgrade the show as he "sees fit".

Not that he adds much. He already has what he - and the paying public - wants. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders.

He is similarly modest about the exhibition's longevity.

"When I first started with Game On I was originally told that, yeah, maybe we'll do three or four venues.

"I think they've been surprised at how successful the show has been."

He will only admit to being paid a "reasonable" wage for his job, but not so much he could stop working and retire early.

The job, rather than the salary, is clearly what gets him up in the morning.

Image caption Computer games have been around for more than half a century

Sylvia Samuels - who has come from Devon to visit grandchildren - is playing Gates of Thunder on the NEC PC Engine at Newcastle's Centre for Life.

In a collection of exhibits dating back decades, the kit matters almost as much as the game. Barry prides himself on using original hardware and cathode ray tube televisions, not flat-screen LCDs.

Mrs Samuels is absorbed and doing "amazingly well" for someone whose computer use is normally limited to an iPad.

Christopher Fewell is here because of a "hankering for a bit of time travel" and a "unique" opportunity he could not resist.

"It's like a really fun history lesson," he says.

Born in 1983 he cut his gaming teeth on Nintendo, Sega Mega Drive and the arcades on holiday.

"These nice simple games, with simple graphics, can be just as entertaining as these complex things.

Image caption Christopher Fewell, 32, grew up on arcade games with simple graphics

"The communal aspect is just amazing - it's one of the reasons I always stuck with certain consoles that allowed more people to play in the same room rather than forcing them to play just over the internet.

"It's where everybody can come together."

Barry's favourites are driving games like Daytona USA and Gran Turismo and puzzle games like Tetris, but that information is hard won.

He hates being asked. How can the man with hundreds to choose from pick just one?

Unexpectedly, he also does not play "that often".

"When I go home I don't play video games at all, which surprises a lot of people," he says.

He plays enough at work, and reads, to keep up to date.

And after that? Well, he has a new city to explore and new friends to meet.

Image copyright Centre for Life
Image caption Barry wants the exhibition to be as hands-on and playable as possible

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