Inside the Edinburgh exhibition that explores the legacy of gaming’s greatest designers
We trek to Edinburgh to take in the Game Masters exhibition
Currently residing at the National Museum Of Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh, the Game Masters exhibition brings together over 100 games to chart 40 years of gaming history. Except instead of retelling the tale of gaming’s past, this exhibit looks at gaming through the lens of the auteurs and pioneers who shaped it, such as Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Warren Spector and Hideo Kojima.
Game Masters was conceived by Conrad Bodman, formerly head of exhibitions at the Australian Centre For The Moving Image (ACMI) and now working at the British Film Institute, and follows on from a previous exhibition called Game On, which presented a more general history of games. “This show is intended to be a developer-led show as opposed to a straight history,” Bodman says. “It brings to the surface a lot of major names who have been involved with the industry for a long time, and really showcases their work over a number of decades.”
That means presenting the original Deus Ex design document (when it was simply titled Shooter) alongside production artwork from Day Of The Tentacle and The Sims, but the main attraction is undoubtedly the games themselves, playable here, the vast majority on their original platforms. This includes around 30 arcade machines, such as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Missile Command and Asteroids. Imagine a bustling, timetravelling arcade and you’ll have some idea of how Game Masters is arranged.
The older cabs are a particular pleasure, demonstrating how well games such as Donkey Kong stand up today when played on their original platforms. Tracking them down was a challenge for Bodman and the exhibit’s organisers at the ACMI, who had to source them from across the world. “We work with a couple of arcade game collectors, who had contacts in the States,” Bodman says, “and we acquired all the arcade through a network of collectors that we met online.”
While most arrived in good condition, a few required refurbishment before they could go on display, raising the question of play versus preservation. Letting attendees get hands-on is undoubtedly the best way for them to assess the works, but doesn’t that contradict a museum’s remit to preserve these items for future generations? Bodman doesn’t seem conflicted: “It’s important to have them playable in galleries. I think as time goes on, though, it will become more problematic as the hardware and software becomes very rare.” Indeed, Bodman estimates it may be as little as five years before some of the oldest arcade games are impossible to acquire.
The loss of these games isn’t an inevitability. In an otherwise extremely forward-looking industry, bringing these older games to the attention of younger players is part of that preservation. As such, Game Masters is designed to be family-friendly. Only a handful of games – including Deus Ex, System Shock and Diablo III – are adult-oriented, and these are monitored by NMS staff.
Working directly with game creators to preserve their code provides another solution. This is an idea that Bodman is particularly keen on. “The Museum Of Modern Art in New York recently acquired ten videogames for its permanent collection,” he points out. “They essentially acquired the code and worked with the original developers to understand how they want that code to be displayed in the future.”
Game Masters ended its run at the ACMI in mid-2012, and is now touring the globe, stopping over in Scotland until April 20. It was designed to adapt to its location, and its spell at the NMS in has seen it altered to illustrate Scotland’s gaming heritage. “Dundee’s DMA Design was the logical choice to include in the Game Changers section in order to reflect Scotland’s historical contribution to gaming,” says Sarah Rothwell, assistant curator for art and design. “Material on display in Game Masters includes the original poster for GTA, signed by those who worked on it, and pages from the handwritten script for the game.”
Also on display is the original artwork for DMA’s Lemmings, and the Game Masters indie section includes several Scottish titles, which means that sitting alongside the likes of Minecraft and Journey are Glitchspace and Lucky Frame’s Bad Hotel. “We opted for titles which perhaps show some different sides to gaming, and with a geographic spread across Scotland,” says Rothwell.
Museums and galleries are displaying a growing interest in exhibiting games as the artform becomes widely accepted, since their interactive nature makes them particularly attractive to attendees. As such, we’ll likely see more shows like Game Masters spring up. But Bodman is already considering ways to take the conceit further. “I think the next stage would be to do a whole show on one individual developer,” he says.
“This show is intended to be a developer-led show as opposed to a straight history”
Conrad Bodman (top), the mind behind Game Masters, and Sarah Rothwell, assistant curator for art and design at the NMS