Cre­ate New Save?

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

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