GameCity is building the UK’s first permanent dedicated cultural space for videogames
The story of GameCity’s National Videogame Arcade, as told by one of the project’s creators
It’s been over 30 years since Thorin first sang to me about gold. The characters of Beam Software’s The Hobbit pulled me through the screen into a world of flood-filled imagination, where part of me still lives today, looking for keys and going NORTH. And it’s 20 years since I last wrote for
Edge, reviewing the now-almost-forgotten ellipsoid DOS game Ecstatica (“A stunning creative vision made possible by remarkable technical innovation; 8/10”). Ten years later, I came back into the
Edge office as head of production at Giant Interactive Entertainment, to show the first preview build of Lego Star Wars on PS2. Time passes… Now I’m part of GameCity, building the National Videogame Arcade. We open in two weeks. By the time you read this, we’ll have launched the UK’s first permanent dedicated cultural space for videogames, a five-storey building in the centre of Nottingham. A videogame cathedral. The. National. Videogame. Arcade. I know, right? The NVA exists to connect as many people as possible with the full breadth and richness of games and game culture. It showcases and makes accessible the widest imaginable array of interactive experiences, from vintage arcade machines and home computers to experimental new works and unique location-specific installations.
As Edge readers, we’ve all got an attic hoard of dusty old hardware, never-played cartridges and slowly degrading discs. More importantly, we all have memories and stories of games that made an impact on us. And we all have a stake in the endlessly unfolding creative potential of the medium.
The NVA is a place where you can have a go on an original Asteroids or Track &
Field machine, play Samurai Shodown on Neo-Geo, or Power Stone 2 on a big screen – of course it is. But it’s also a space where the meaning of those things can be shared, celebrated and explored. And it’s a place that builds new ways for people to play together, a laboratory for innovation in social play and the development of novel interfaces between the digital and physical worlds.
Bringing all these things together in one location immediately creates interesting connections and contrasts. Space Invaders (the original arcade game) stands alongside
Pong Invaders Reality (in which players hit table tennis balls at a screen to destroy incoming aliens). The Xbox One gamemaking toolkit of Project Spark finds its place in the creative tradition of Mario Paint and The Quill. The twin 40-button controllers of a twoplayer Steel Battalion setup are
right next to the Arduino-powered MaKey- MaKey workbench, where you can make your own (almost certainly less intimidating) input systems from everyday objects.
We honour the past, and look to the future. We’re an arcade, not a museum – more a zoo than a gallery – because our treasures are alive. They live on, not just to be played and to give joy, as they were originally designed to, but to inspire continued innovation. The unceasing energy and diversity of videogame development across the decades reminds us of hardlearned lessons, and neglected paths ripe with still-unexplored opportunities.
The NVA is a place for everyone else, too. Games are for everybody, and we’re working hard to present them in ways that are accessible and relevant to people who don’t yet share our passions. We’re welcoming and safe. We build bridges for new players. We’re evangelists.
This approach is the natural culmination of ten years of work by GameCity to take games into the public spaces of Nottingham, and to put game-makers in direct contact with players. The annual GameCity Festival has achieved world renown for its innovative programming and democratic culture, putting games on giant screens in the city centre and hosting events as diverse as Eric Chahi’s Playable Meal, where the creator of
Another World served up coloured dishes viewable in 3D through anaglyphic glasses, or Live Text Adventures in Nottingham Central Library, where audience members played parallel realtime adventures improvised by a group of writers, including Depression Quest’s Zoe Quinn and Planescape: Torment’s Chris Avellone.
After having Parappa creator Masaya Matsuura conduct a room full of kazoo-playing fans in the Council House Ballroom, or giving Thomas Was Alone’s Mike Bithell the gilded setting of the old Masonic Hall to introduce Andy Serkis in the role of Guy Gisbourne, it’s clear GameCity has always been concerned with the dramatic potential of a physical location, and taking games into places where they’re not normally found. The glee with which developers have embraced these opportunities is best embodied in Keita Takahashi’s month-long residency, where the Katamari director worked with local children to design a new playground.
The NVA is a permanent embodiment of this spirit. I joined GameCity founder and director Iain Simons in the search for a building after collaborating on the Two Big Screens project, which installed two 40-foot screens on the Market Square; invited developers, including GoldenEye’s Martin Hollis and Tango Fiesta’s Andrew Smith, to create new public games for them; and –
We’re an arcade, not a museum – more a zoo than a gallery
in a move as ridiculous as it was daring – physically moved the screens each day from one end of the square to the other, placing the two displays in different configurations to afford totally different kinds of gameplay. The whole process was so incredibly fun and interesting that the need to give GameCity an extended and expanded life in a yearround home was nothing short of irresistible.
Nothing that’s happened since then could have taken place had we not discovered the perfect building. Nottingham is an incredible city, full of secrets, with medieval pubs and Victorian factories sitting on Europe’s largest array of man-made caves and a vibrant modern civic life nourished by tens of thousands of students. In the heart of the newly regenerated Creative Quarter, we found a building whose former lives and character were instantly lovable. Built as a lace factory, 24–32 Carlton Street had all the open space and functional drive we were looking for, but it was its use by The Midland Group that made it unique.
Establishing itself in the ’60s as “a forum for progressive and experimental visual arts in Nottingham”, The Midland Group hosted exhibitions by major international artists such as David Hockney and Robert Mapplethorpe, and operated a radical programme of performance art, cinema, educational outreach and live events. Its development of the Carlton Street building, in progress for many years and never quite completed, has created the ideal physical setting for a new generation of interactive work designed to reach out to the public.
Inspired by its scale and constantly delighted by its configuration of interesting spaces, we’re trying to make the entire building into nothing less than a game platform. Openness has been a central value of GameCity from the start, with the Open GameCity programme bringing creative people of all backgrounds and interests to contribute to the festival, and the Open Arcade giving developers the opportunity to get their games played by public and press with the most minimal prerequisites. So we’ve been fitting out the building with systems that actively encourage creative contributions from other people. Arduinos are everywhere. We have DMX-addressable lighting and a networked audio matrix – all supported by workshops, game jams, school visits, social events and commissioned work to focus attention on the ways in which
Ten people press buttons, turn switches and move sliders, affecting the gameplay
games can come out of the screen, shaping our human spaces and behaviours.
The NVA embodies our belief not just that games are for everyone, but that gamemaking is for everyone. We want to inspire and empower new generations of gamemakers, and create a development community that everyone can be a part of. Our first-floor gallery explores the deep relationship between play and creativity with a survey of in-game creative tools. It also features the first UK installation of Lieven Van Velthoven’s Room Racers, where computer-projected cars are driven around constantly reconfigured real-world tracks. The gallery’s centrepiece, though, is Mission Control. I need to get over there in a moment – the pedestals have just come back from the spray shop, and we’re about to get the control panels hooked up –- but let me just take a final moment to describe it, because it represents a lot of the concepts we’ve been building into the whole place.
Mission Control fills an entire room. A giant central screen is flanked by smaller monitors and feeds, connected to an array of control stations, like a cross between the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and the TARDIS control console. Two people stand in front of the screen playing a game of swooping shimmering action, while ten other people around them press buttons, turn switches and move sliders, which dynamically affect the game’s assets and gameplay. Matrices of light-up buttons give you pixel-by-pixel control over the player characters’ sprites and animations. Toggle switches, dials and patch plugs control enemy behaviours and spawn rates, pickup graphics, HUD fonts, special-effect settings, music and more.
Off to one side, a chalkboard is photographed and incorporated into the game as its background. At a low table, new enemy designs are drawn and scanned in to appear immediately in the game as new adversaries for the players. Everyone becomes a game-maker; everyone gets to access the thrill of seeing their creative choices affect other people’s experiences on the big screen.
Construction of this paean to player power has required the talents of a diverse team of programmers, carpenters, painters and musicians, including Mucky Foot co-founder, Startopia and Syndicate coder Guy Simmons, Fable artist Dominic Clubb, 3D designer and fabricator Gareth Hustwaite, and GameCity engineer Alex Roberts, developer of new games for old console systems, including SNES title Robin Hood. Their collaboration has already achieved, even before we open, our greatest ambition for the NVA: for it to be a place where people are drawn together to make new things, to build something never seen before and share it with the world.
The men behind the National Videogame Arcade: GameCity’s Jonathan Smith (left) and Iain Simons
GameCity’s Alex Roberts investigates the new Zone Dome, a treadmill and screen setup that has been designed to provide the feeling of running in exotic locales
01 The main stairwell, the building’s spine, is clad with screens around an axonic cascade of exposed network and audio cables. 02 Schoolkids on a preview visit to the NVA get a look into gaming’s past as well as its potential future. 03 Staff from GameCity’s engineering department build the tech that will power the NVA when it opens
The exterior of the NVA provides little hint of the entire building having become a platform for creative play, but its cultural heritage is rich
A collection of highlights from GameCity’s colourful history: 01 David Braben and Ian Bell come together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of
Elite beneath a display of origami models of its ships. With a choir.
02 Crisis! Panic!Team! on Two Big Screens on the Market Square.
03 Eric Chahi presents his playable meal. Here, ex-Naughty Dog man Richard Lemarchand is fishing for pea balls