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How two Texans are setting out to preserve videogaming’s heritage with America’s National Videogame Museum
The National Videogame Museum is preserving gaming’s heritage
For years now, attendees to America’s principal two annual videogame events, E3 and GDC, will have encountered Joe Santulli and Sean Kelley’s singular historical game collection. The exhibit contains not only rare and unreleased games, arcade cabinets signed by their creators, and swathes of fabulous merchandise (Nintendo badges, Atari patches and so on) but also extraordinarily rare artifacts such as a Sega Neptune prototype and an Atari Mindlink controller. Now the collection, which has taken 25 years to assemble, is being made public in the form of America’s first museum to codify and celebrate the ever-shifting medium. As the National Videogame Museum opens its doors, they tell us why they’re so committed to recording gaming’s rich history. How would you describe what you’re doing with the project? Joe Santulli It’s America’s first museum dedicated to videogames. It’s an 11,000-square-foot space that aims to tell a number of important stories about the industry’s past and present, while offering a glimpse to the future. The museum features countless pieces of hardware, software, accessories and memorabilia, a built-in 80s-themed arcade called ‘Pixel Dreams’, and halls lined with game systems waiting to be played. Visitors can play the world’s largest home Pong console on a 20-foot-tall retro television. What are the origins of the project? And how is it funded? Sean Kelley Our team, consisting of founders John Hardie, Joe Santulli and myself, met in the early 1990s through Digital Press, a fanzine dedicated to game collecting. By 1999 the team were working together on an annual event called Classic Gaming Expo, which among other things displayed the group’s collection. In 2002 the team was asked to exhibit a ‘history of videogames’ at E3, and in the years since, the museum has hit the road and appeared everywhere from PAX East in Boston to South By Southwest in Austin, to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. In 2013 the city of Frisco in Texas offered up the space in the Frisco Discovery Center that the National Videogame Museum now occupies. The museum is a non-profit, funded through donations and grants, ticket sales, membership and events. Is the plan to build a collection of every videogame that exists, or is there another goal beyond that? SK We’ve already built a collection of every game, but the museum’s collection continues to grow every day through new purchases, donations and acquisitions. The museum’s purpose is to share what we’ve gathered over the years – not just the physical components, but also the knowledge, history and stories we’ve learned pursuing such things. Who is the museum aimed at? JS It’s for anyone interested in understanding the history and components that have made the videogame industry what it is today. It’s fair to say that our demographic is the same as the demographic for a ‘gamer’, but the definition of ‘gamer’ has evolved over the years. Ten years ago, I would have never called my grandmother a gamer, but given the amount of time she spends crushing candy, I could make a strong argument for it today. There’s more than 30 years of history here at NVM, so we expect parents and grandparents to feel the nostalgia, but also the kids and grandkids will get the chance to discover how their favourite characters and games came to be – where they came from, what inspired them, and what they used to look like. A visit here is meant to be a rewarding and informative experience for people of any age.
“Keeping an important segment of our culture on display for the public is a primary goal”
Why do you think it’s so important to preserve gaming’s formative history in this way? SK Like any museum, keeping an important segment of our culture on display for the public is a primary goal. Preserving the physical history of videogames has a secondary goal, too. The industry has already gone down the path of digital distribution. The places to go to buy physical copies of videogames will dwindle over time. This is an important time to take a snapshot of an era by preserving its past. In ten years’ time, a child playing his or her first game system will probably not have the experience of inserting a cartridge,
“When we drafted our version of what our ultimate museum would be, it was over 40,000 square feet”
a disc, or a card. We want to make those tactile experiences available.
Videogames have the ability to mark important points or milestones in people’s lives. In much the same way as a person 25 years ago would remember the summer he or she learned how to ride a bike, [it’s about] remembering the point in their lives when they beat Uncharted 2, or the winter they found the ‘microscopic dot’ in Atari 2600 Adventure. The museum will offer the ability, even if just for a couple of hours, to relive those moments and remember simpler times in their lives. For the more hardcore collectors, the museum will provide access and information that isn’t available anywhere else.
In a medium that, unlike many others, is iterative in many of its releases, how important is it to preserve, say,
Madden NFL 98 when we have Madden NFL 16?
SK Looking at a long-running franchise from the eyes of a videogame player versus the historical significance of an older year are two very different things. It’s exactly this kind of franchise that documents so well how far we’ve come, what things really matter to a player, and the influence of both technology and the evolution of the sport through the series. Your example is perfect: why Madden
98? Did you know that Madden 98 was the very last 2D sprite-based game in the series? Its greatest competitor that year was GameDay 98, which had 3D models. Did you know it was the last version on the Super Nintendo, Genesis and Saturn? The Madden timeline highlights the industry’s advancements in a microcosm, making it exactly the sort of thing we want to preserve and display.
How do you go about sourcing materials for the archive? And where does the budget come from?
JS We’ve been sourcing materials for more than 30 years, and the budget came primarily out of our own pockets over that time, but we’ve also acquired some fascinating rare, sometimes one-ofa-kind items throughout the years from videogame industry pioneers who have supported our efforts.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve come up against?
JS We’d already built a significant archive, so our challenges are often finding things that no one else has ever seen before. We have a little bit of an advantage because we’re pretty well known in the videogame industry through all of our years exhibiting at industry trade shows. It means we have the opportunity to discuss our ventures with industry professionals who have ancient development hardware, conceptual designs, and, most importantly, stories and information that link us to even more leads on these items.
To answer your question retroactively, if we were trying to build a museum archive today from scratch, or by building on a modest collection, the primary challenge would be competition for items in the archive. Our acquisitions were primarily done in the pre-Internet days, when hustling, driving around and making cold calls yielded the greatest gains. Now that the entire world is not only informed but also connected, there is an infinite number of potential competitors who want the same piece you do.
Modern publishers increasingly revisit their back catalogues via re-releases – how does the archive fit into that landscape? How do you feel about publishers doing some of this work themselves?
JS We’re finding that publishers are getting better at preserving their own history, but it took a while for that to catch on, and it’s still spotty from our point of view. We’re often called upon to provide photos or physical items for reference or litigation, and we’re always happy to help. Since there’s no requirement, and certainly no accepted standard for developers to maintain a physical history of their past, we want to be around to fill in the gaps. Ideally, we’d like to become a neutral, central archive point for all developers so that we can ensure that no data is left behind. In an age where digital distribution is becoming more of the norm, we feel that it’s more important than ever.
How do you go about choosing games for inclusion in the museum?
SK We estimate that our archive consists of well over 100,000 individual pieces of hardware, software, accessories, memorabilia, publications and documentation. We have more than 15,000 pieces of unique videogame and PC software titles alone. When we drafted our version of what our ultimate museum would be, it was larger than 40,000 square feet; here, we have 10,000 square feet to work with. So we started to vote and make cuts and even combine concepts until we had roughly 20 ‘stories’, and these became the topics of our opening-day exhibits.
They were chosen because we felt they would have the greatest interest to the general public. We left a few of the exhibit spaces flexible so that we could rotate in new concepts or celebrate franchises, developers, characters and so on as their time rolls around. Even the more ‘hardcoded’ exhibits were built with flexibility in mind – our Head-To-Head Hall, for example, features a long row of game consoles that one day might be used for a Smash Bros tournament and on the next day represents a dozen game systems that you may have never had the chance to play before. We focused everything on being able to give our guests an opportunity to experience something new every time they visit.
FROM TOP Joe Santulli and Sean Kelley, two of NVM’s co-founders
Santulli and Kelley want visitors to experience the tactile nature of old hardware, so Pixel Dreams’ cabinets are operated using bespoke tokens