MAYBE A DECADE AGO, most people could get away with scoffing at the concept of videogames as an artistic medium. Times have changed—but for the stubborn holdouts who still haven’t embraced all that gaming can offer, OMSI and the British arts organization the Barbican (along with Barry Hitchings, one of the biggest nerds in Great Britain) offer GameOn 2.0, a rolling roadshow with joysticks. Currently residing at OMSI, the expansive but focused GameOn exhibit is a comprehensive—and more importantly, playable—history of videogames. It sounds a little exclusive until you realize that, after 30-plus years of gaming evolution, from pachinko to the Wii to Farmville, the “gamer” classification includes damn near everybody. GameOn 2.0 wants gamers of all types to walk through a living history that shows how the industry has transformed not only itself, but also the people who play its games. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Quick, let’s go back to the ’70s for a second.
NERD DO WELL
During the final days of the 1970s, all four-year-old Barry Hitchings wanted was an Atari 2600. He didn't get one. Instead, his parents brought home a "close-enough" copycat console; fortunately for his parents, Barry was a little British boy closer in temperament to Charlie Bucket than Veruca Salt. "It looked quite nice!" Hitchings remembers. "It had all the versions of the games I wanted. It had cool-looking cartridges. I was happy."
That early fascination—not just with the games, but everything about that knock-off console—pushed Hitchings through an eight-bit adolescence and into an adulthood of managing videogame stores in London and fact-checking Guinness Book gaming records. By 2002, Hitchings had grown up to be an amiable, shaggy-headed quiet success, complete with the sort of slouch professional nerds get after years of hunching over a handheld in deep concentration.
Meanwhile, arts organization the Barbican had just harnessed geek fervor to great results with their "The Art of Star Wars" exhibit. For their next venture into geekdom, they sent a representative into Barry's store to audition him without his knowledge. After a single question about vi- deogames spawned a two-hour discussion, Hitchings was offered a dream job he didn't even know existed: Exhibition Consultant to the Barbican's videogame exhibit, GameOn.
Nine years later, GameOn is in its second iteration, GameOn 2.0, and Barry finally has an Atari 2600—along with every other console, handheld, and stand-up cabinet that's ever mattered in the short history of street fighting, shooting aliens, and eating shrooms. Luckily for us, he's good at sharing his toys.
WELCOME TO THE HOLODECK
Kristi Falkowski, a senior educator at OMSI, peppered her first run-through of GameOn 2.0 with halting, excited nervousness, occasionally checking with Hitchings to see if she'd gotten details just right. "The staff are so excited about this exhibit," Falkowski says. "It's the most they've been able to geek out since Star Wars was here." In fact, OMSI reached out to the Barbican to host GameOn 2.0, not the other way around.
Which begs an important question: Just a few minutes away from OMSI, Ground Kontrol is open daily, doesn't cost 12 bucks to enter, and they let you drink beer and eat nachos while you hop barrels and chomp pellets. And the Retro Gaming Expo has been invading area ballrooms every year for the past five years, detonating megaton bombs of pixilated and wood-paneled nostalgia. What's going to convince Portlanders to give GameOn 2.0 a look when there's so much retro gaming already available?
Right up front, there are a lot of classics in this exhibit that most people have never seen outside of pictures on the internet: From Space War, to an almost-pristine Pong cabinet, to 10-player Bomberman, almost every influential step in gaming's progression is on display and playable.
In fact, the exhibit is sort of laid out according to the level progression present in most videogames, complete with an end boss—a $70,000 walk-in Death Star called "The Virtusphere" that's been hyperbolically declared by Discovery Channel "the closest thing we have to a working Holodeck."
Like most good gaming experiences, GameOn 2.0 is littered with Easter eggs and unlockables. Sure, you could just speed-run the damn thing, only stopping to play games you already know, but that's like getting your hands on a Zelda game and never even looking for a secret dungeon. Protip: You're doing it wrong. Slow down and look around for a second, keeping an eye out for things like concept art and paintings of a variety of gaming A-listers: Sonic, Lara Croft, the many monsters of Pokemon.
PaRappa the Rapper, an early PlayStation game in which a paper-cutout dog learns to rap—and one of the forerunners of the rhythm-action genre that'd go on to spawn Guitar Hero and Rock Band—occupies what I thought was a strangely large amount of space, but Hitchings calls it a perfect example of his intent. "PaRappa is very underrated," he says, "but [it] shows how games have always progressively updated themselves through a combination of music and art."
That art is what elevates the exhibit beyond just a live-action Xbox Live Game Room. There are cels from the Don Bluth-animated game Dragon's Lair, original paintings by Ubisoft artist Pascal Blanche, and the coup de grace: Sketches by Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, in which the godfather of videogames uses pencil and graph paper to turn a cartoony drawing of someone called "Jumpman" into the now-iconic Mario.
THE SCIENCE OF ANGRY BIRDS
It's still OMSI, so that means there's science to be taught—via a real-life version of Angry Birds. "We're going to be using a catapult to launch plush birds at pigs," says Falkowski. "Using blocks and platforms, kids—and adult kids, too—will be able to build their own levels, record the launch, and study the angles and trajectories they'll need to win."
What won't you see? A celebration of gamers themselves. Developers, designers, and artists get their share of informative plaques and decorative sconces, but there isn't a section for people like King of Kong's Donkey Kong record-setters Billy Mitchell or Steve Wiebe.
"That'd be sort of like the Oscars having an award for best key grip," says Hitchings. "Professional gamers come and go, and are forgotten almost as soon as they're known. It's the games that are important, and it's the games we want to focus on."
But competition still flares up on the floor. Says Hitchings, "Sometimes, parents will show their kids games from their era, and the kid will pick it up, and the kid will play it—simply because he wants to win, he wants to beat his father. And then the father will try to even the score by going over to the Wii or something like that—and he'll lose there, too. It's pretty fun to watch."
As I left the exhibition, high-score competitions were already breaking out amongst OMSI employees. Fifty-year-old men and 20-something women were tear-assing around the show floor, snatching up controllers, jostling each other, and trash talking. I walked past a girl openly gawping at a display containing every single handheld console ever, a couple guys having a derisive laugh at the expense of the movie poster for Super Mario Bros. (starring Dennis Hopper as King Koopa!), and an older woman striking the pose of a seasoned art critic whilst beholding a painting of Nathan Drake from Uncharted.
In other words? It's an experience that's almost as fun and thought-provoking as the games contained within.