Evolution of Gaming exhibition lets visitors play games of the past

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It isn’t easy letting others play with your favourite things, especially if they’re breakable. But that’s what makes Evolution of Gaming unique. Unlike other exhibitions of video games from the past, this one is entirely hands-on.

“I think it’s important that people touch these things,” Kimberly Voll told the Georgia Straight by phone from her office at the Centre for Digital Media. “I want them to feel this history, and have a visceral experience that helps connect the dots from what we have today back to how we started.”

One of Evolution’s three curators and a faculty member at the centre, Voll explained that the decision to make it “truly interactive” meant that the exhibit pieces needed to be acquired, not borrowed.

“There’s so many people that have dusty ColecoVisions buried in the basement somewhere, and they’re willing to pull them out and donate them to us,” Voll said. “I would rather these things see the light of day and be played and loved as they were intended than collecting dust in a basement.”

Evolution opens next Friday (August 1) at the centre, which is located on the Great Northern Way Campus. Admission is free, but visitors are advised to register for a time slot via the exhibition’s website.

According to Voll, the centre is putting up most of the funding for Evolution in order to give back to the community. “We want to live up to our name as the Centre for Digital Media,” Voll said.

During a Skype interview from her home in France, curator Isabelle Arvers said that she wants to show people just how they play. It’s a way, she explained, of showing that the concept of gamer is diverse.

“You could play lying down, you could play sitting,” she said. “Do you play in the living room?”

During the final days of setting up the exhibition, Malcolm Levy spoke with the Straight by cellphone. The multimedia curator has experience with fusing art and technology—he’s the director of the New Forms festival and curated CODE Live during the 2010 Olympics—and said he wanted to evoke “the experience of being a kid in a basement in the ’80s playing video games”.

“I want to replicate that through the exhibition,” Levy explained, “and give people a chance to see the trajectory of how gaming has changed through the years.”

The degree to which the medium has changed is another reason to let people get hands-on. There’s no other way for them to gain a true sense of what it was like to play games 20 years ago.

“You have to feel the controller, you have to know the responsiveness of the system,” Voll said. “You had paddle controllers, you had the original joysticks, and the variations as they evolved through time. And all of these affected the game experience.”

Voll added: “There’s a reason that Pac-Man on the Atari sucked.” A major constraint on developers was memory limitations: games for the Atari 2600 were limited to just four kilobytes, Voll noted.

“I love trying in my mind to imagine the time when people looked at this thing as cutting-edge technology. The stuff that we’re looking at today seems all phenomenal, but at some point, 30 or 40 years from now, people will look back at this and go, ‘Isn’t that quaint. I can’t believe people thought that was cutting-edge,’ ” she said.

Arvers said the exhibition starts in the early years of video-game development, much of which was for arcades, and covers events up to the “crash” of 1983, when the industry suffered a recession.

“Part of the problem is it’s such a big story to tell,” said Voll, who noted that she’s hoping to make this an annual exhibition. “In subsequent years, we can look through a different lens,” she added.

Evolution of Gaming runs August 1 to 10 at the Centre for Digital Media (577 Great Northern Way).

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