Since 16 May the Barbican Gallery in London has been staging Game On, an exhibition celebrating 40 years of the computer game. Hordes of dedicated gamers have been arriving daily, eyes agog, drooling in anticipation of playing their old favourites.
Some people have simply been coming along to reacquaint themselves with a favourite game they thought they would never see again. One game addict from Reading had to return the following day when he found that his beloved Asteroids was temporarily out of action. But when he finally got his hands on the machine he spent a solid five hours at the controls.
The history of computer games began in 1962 with Spacewar, designed by Steve Russell at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a DEC PDP-1. This features in the first section of the show, which is dedicated to arcade games.
For the exhibition organisers, the arcade section proved to be the most difficult to put together. "Many of the enormous mainframes had been disposed of, so we were really lucky to get hold of the PDP-1. The arcade games have been the most difficult to track down. There are hardly any Pac-Mans left, and we have had to borrow some machines from private collectors," says Conrad Bodman, the Barbican's curator.
Getting hold of the boards for the arcade games has been a mammoth task, and finding the original repair equipment even more so. "We try to keep all of them running 100% of the time, but people have to realise that they are really old and respect the fragile nature of the circuitry," says Bodman. "This exhibition is probably the last time people will get the chance to play all of these games in public."
The first arcade game, Computer Space, appeared in 1971, but it proved to be a flop because it was so hard to play. In contrast, Pong, which was developed by Atari in 1972, soon became a victim of its own success. When the prototype was tested at Andy Capp's Tavern in California it broke down because the cash box became overloaded with quarters.
If you can tear yourself away from Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man, you can pass into the domain of the games console. The show has 10 playable consoles, ranging from the Magnavox Odyssey from 1972 right through to the present day and the Xbox. For those wanting to take a break from the screen, here you can read up on the life stories of the key manufacturers, Atari, Commodore, Nintendo, Sega, Sinclair, Microsoft and Sony.
"The sequence of the exhibition is to show the rise of video games from research labs to pubs and restaurants right through to the home," says Bodman. "We made the judgements on what to include by choosing the most innovative and best designed games. We were not looking at numbers sold, although if it sold huge numbers it is culturally important. For example, Space Invaders, in concept, is not so interesting, but it has influenced many other games."
Moving through the exhibition, you find another 35 playable games, divided into "thought games" that have their origins in board games; "action games" such as Fifa Soccer and Virtua Fighter 2; and "simulation games" based on the military and sport. This section attracts most of the visitors, and the gallery becomes noticeably less crowded from here on in.
This is a shame, because only in the subsequent galleries do you begin to understand why an exhibition like this is staged in the normally high-brow Barbican. The area dedicated to the making and marketing of games shows the lengthy processes involved in putting a game together. It focuses on five games, including Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider, and shows original character sketches. A lot of the design work is done by well-known comic and graphic novel artists.
"This is about celebrating the creative types in the industry," says Bodman. "The creative programmers don't get any credit, but some have sold more games than some really famous pop stars have sold records."
People in the UK are now spending more money on computer games than going to the cinema or renting videos, but computer games get nowhere near the same level of publicity as a newly released film. "We want to acknowledge that it is a serious field and endorse the creativity of these games," says Bodman.
Even the music behind the games is venerated. A dedicated section covers the bleeping sounds of the early games through to the current day where games developers are showcasing new bands and commissioning film composers. Orbital, Gorillaz and Prodigy have all made music for games, and their tracks can be heard here.
Close by you can see how gaming has got a foothold in the film industry. Original film posters from Super Mario Brothers, Tomb Raider and Resident Evil are featured along with film clips.
Moving along, a kids' area is full of handheld games and portable gaming systems such as Gameboy and MB Microvision. The low tables and chairs didn't seem to deter the over-18s from having a go.
The cultural aspect of gaming is extensively covered in the exhibition, a particular focus is the differences between the US, Europe and Japan.
The Japanese style of gaming is influenced by manga (comic book art) and anime (cartoons). Unique to Japan are the real-life simulation games. Although the games Go By Train and Fishing are unlikely to cause an adrenaline rush, they are surprisingly addictive. According to Bodman, these games help give the Japanese people real-time experiences that they cannot otherwise have. Even odder are the Japanese dating games - the show features a working demonstration of Tokimeki Memorial.
European and US gaming is more influenced by sport and the military. The only real way to tell the difference between the two is if a game is based on a typically national game, such as American football. Playable games at the Barbican include Mortal Kombat II, Castle Wolfenstein 3D and WWF Wrestling.
As one of the most important trends of recent times, multiplayer games get a section all to themselves at the Barbican. Online communities as well as the games themselves are covered, and the opportunity to have four players fighting for air supremacy in Red Ace Squadron is not to be missed.
Of course, the logical place to end is the future of gaming. The exhibition showcases a new game interface from Sony that allows players to interact with the characters and the environment without a joy pad.
Although the Clearasil brigade won't be disappointed, this is more than just an exhibition for geeky male teenagers. An intelligent drawing together of computer heritage shows how the gaming industry has grown to become a pillar of modern culture. "Computer games now appeal to a broader spectrum of the population, people are more aware and it is no longer seen as a male preserve," says Bodman.
This was first published in June 2002