From Pong to Pokemon, Surrey Museum explores history of video games

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      Visitors to the Surrey Museum might not know what they’re looking at when they come across a large red cabinet. Made of moulded plastic, its rounded shape gives it the appearance of a missile or a space-bound drone.

      In fact, it’s a Computer Space unit. Created by Nutting Associates in 1971, it was one of the first coin-operated arcade-game machines. Ryan Cousineau calls the unit a “Holy Grail artifact”. Even though it doesn’t work anymore, it’s an example of what early video games looked like.

      Cousineau is the guest curator of From Pong to Pokemon: Video Game Entertainment, an exhibit at the Surrey Museum (17710 56A Avenue) that opens on July 6 and runs through December. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, he said this survey of the history of video games is aimed at a general audience.

      “Everybody plays video games,” Cousineau said, “and yet I don’t think that people have an understanding of where this stuff came from.”

      Even people who spend just a few minutes each day playing FarmVille on Facebook or other casual games are a part of the same history, according to Cousineau.

      “It’s neat to see what survives in terms of gameplay and performance,” he said. “Asteroids and Space Invaders are still purely and objectively brilliant. You just can’t not enjoy those games.”

      Many of those old ideas are being recycled. “If they’ve got a certain tight gameplay mechanic that was well conceived, they’re still a lot of fun,” Cousineau said. FarmVille, he suggests, is a revival of 1989’s SimCity, the simulation game created by Will Wright that allowed you to build a metropolis.

      By phone from her office, the manager of the Surrey Museum, Sophie Hayde, told the Straight that the exhibit is part of the museum’s efforts to engage new audiences. She expects From Pong to Pokemon to have a wide appeal.

      “It makes you realize how far we’ve come,” Hayde said. According to her, older generations will get a sense of what’s new, younger visitors will get a chance to see where it all came from, and everyone will be amazed at the pace of technological change.

      Cousineau, who is an audio-visual and computing specialist at Douglas College, calls himself an “interested amateur”, and a collector of video-game devices. The exhibit spans the entire history of video games, from the earliest ones, such as Pong, to more recent titles created for devices like the iPhone. While he admitted that he couldn’t definitively cover the whole history with the space allotted to him, he believes he’s been able to highlight the major titles and trends.

      The exhibit is organized into four hardware categories: arcade, home console, computer, and handheld. There is, Cousineau conceded, considerable cross-pollination between the categories, but his picks for iconic games in each—Street Fighter II (arcade), Super Mario Bros. (home console), World of Warcraft (computer), and Game & Watch (handheld)—tend to be markedly different from each other.

      Cousineau’s real fascination is with how video games have evolved, and it’s something he’s tried to shine a light on in From Pong to Pokemon.

      “The arcade is all but dead now,” he explained, “and computer games have evolved in two crazy ways. Most of what we used to think about as computer games have decided to up and leave for consoles. But you have people playing casual games on their computers whether they think of themselves as gamers or not.”