Review: Game On

On Saturday, I went to see Game On: The History, Culture and Future of Video Games.

Game On is a temporary exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and as the name indicates, it is all about video games. The exhibit consists of 16 “levels”, each of which explores a different area of the topic, starting with Level 1: Early Games, which covers the history of the invention of video games. Each level is “hands on“, with games that can be played and experienced, in addition to various placards that give more static information.

The approach of Game On is interesting, in that a ticket to this exhibit gets one in at a specific time, but then one can stay as long as desired. I went early to be sure to have enough time to see and read everything and to still be able to play games that were interesting. As it turns out, most of the patrons were there for the latter aspect only. Despite a courtesy request to limit time on any game to five minutes, it was probably worth it for access to such a variety of games (and systems) for less than the cost of renting a single game for a week.

As an experienced game developer, I found that there was very little to Game On that was actually new information for me. The most relevant area was Level 4: Making Of, which had some interesting behind the scenes information such as concept sketches and storyboards. There was a video showing the progression of golfer animations in Golden Tee, from hand drawn through video rotoscoping to fully rendered 3D and motion capture. Also, the original concept/design document for Tomb Raider showed that our own documents for new projects are of very similar scope and level of detail.

On the other hand, as a player who literally grew up with video games, this exhibit was an excellent nostalgia trip. I remember playing Pong when it was brand new, and I proved that I still had the skills, beating my son (age 16) by a score of 11-2 in a shortened game. However, I could not recall the earlier, and less successful, Computer Space; alas, the two cabinets were for display only, and were not turned on. Unfortunately, there were some gaps in the history, skipping directly from Pong (1972) to Space Invaders (1978), and then to Pac Man (1981). It seems that Breakout and the other early digital games were a significant omission.

In the end, I actually played very few of the games, but I was there for a couple of hours just reading and perusing. The only portion of the exhibit to which I had a direct connection was at the very end, where some different technology was shown. Neither of the VR headsets that I worked on were there (only the one from the Atari Jaguar), but there was an old Nintendo PowerGlove on display. I had written drivers for the PC PowerGlove, as well as some that worked with the PC conversion box for the original glove. How that project turned out (or not) is the subject of a future posting.

After leaving Game On, I visited some of the other exhibits around the museum. Of the newer exhibits that I had never seen before, ToyMaker 3000 was particularly noteworthy. Although I did not take enough time to fully explore this exhibit, it was actually very relevant to game development. The automated manufacturing area was interesting, but the other (less traveled) portion dealt with planning the entire development of a product (using toy balls as a model), from initial idea through market research, sales and marketing, accounting, and even quality assurance. The complete project flow chart on one wall was magnificent, and if it were available in poster form, I would have purchased a copy on the spot.

Ultimately, the journey to Game On and the Museum of Science and Industry was worthwhile. Chicago is only a 3.5 hour drive from here, and admission prices were very reasonable. On the other hand, if I were to have flown in from elsewhere just for the exhibit, I would probably have been somewhat disappointed. However, a trip downtown to the original Pizzeria Uno for real Chicago deep-dish pizza is a recommended treat (even though parking costs nearly as much as the food).

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