In 1989, the Museum of the Moving Image presented Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade, the first museum retrospective of the video arcade game. The Museum has regularly displayed video games in the years since, and currently has 14 classic arcade games on display, in playable form (with the old-fashioned price of four tokens for a dollar); Asteroids, Galaxian, Space Invaders, Super Breakout, Missile Command, Berzerk, Defender, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Centipede, Ms. Pac-Man, Battlezone, Gauntlet, and Tron. The Museum's founding director, Rochelle Slovin, wrote this essay, looking back on Hot Circuits, for the 2001 anthology The Medium of the Video Game (ed. Mark J.P. Wolf, University of Texas Press).
In 1989, I proposed that the Museum of the Moving Image, of which I am founding director, mount a retrospective exhibition of video games. This became Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade, which was presented by the Museum from June 6, 1989, through May 20, 1990. Reaction from peers and trustees was, in the beginning, mixed. Within or without the Museum, the idea was met with raised eyebrows. Our institution, after all, was founded in 1981 as the first museum in the United States devoted to the art, history, technique, and technology of motion pictures and television. To that end, it is both a screening and a collecting institution. When the Museum opened its doors in September 1988, it presented to the public the core exhibition Behind the Screen, the film series Glorious Technicolor, and the video series The Media and the Vietnam War. How then, would video games fit into this mandate? What was worth saying about them? And would anyone be interested in what we found?
As we set about answering those questions, we became the first museum to call for a reconsideration of the very notion of the moving image. Assessing video games was a crucial step in making the first links between old and new media—between television and film, and the video-computer mix that dominates current "new media." The establishment of these relationships led naturally to the creation of a valuable archive of video arcade games, the first genuinely mass-market digital entertainment. Looking back at it today—when new media is an everyday subject, and early video games are enjoying not only increased critical attention but are being repackaged for nostalgic use on home computers—the exhibition seems to have been a decade ahead of its time.
Nonetheless, my original question was apt: what exactly do video games tell us about the moving image?
On a general level, I knew that video games were not, as many dismissed them, a trend or fad, but on the contrary, the beginning of something significant. Exactly what, I wasn't sure. I sensed that digital media were not about to go away, and would in fact increase in importance. It seemed that the merging of the computer and the cathode ray tube was creating a genuine form of interactivity—a much-hyped concept even back then. Not least, I realized that video games were acclimating a whole generation of young Americans to computers.
What struck me most about early video games was that they enacted the mind-set, if you will, of computers. This is partly due to their genesis in ballistics and military simulation of movement. In their earliest forms, computers and chips were designed to deal exclusively with pure mathematics: force and vectors. When they were recruited into service as video games, there was still a strong trace of pure mathematics about them. It was a unique moment in visual entertainment: technology became both the enabling force and the content of the games. This was a useful orientation for the Museum, because we meant, as I saw it, to show how technology affected the content and technique of the entertainment industry. Video games innovated a way of visualizing and feeling, almost sensually, the laws of physics.
The game Asteroids is an elegant example of this. With its evocation of a weightless, almost frictionless environment, the game is a virtual enactment of Newton's laws of motion. For instance, Atari programmed the game to include the principle of conservation of motion, whereby small rocks breaking from exploded asteroids would move more quickly than the original, larger rock. And though the game operates in accordance with only a few of these very simple rules of movement, they are as intractable as the theory behind them. That rigidity—that sense of a super-rational, almost platonic ideal—is a defining feature of early video games. They are thus, as the poet Charles Bernstein wrote in his essay commissioned for the exhibition, something like a glimpse into the mind of a microchip. "Video games are the purest manifestation of computer consciousness," he wrote. "Liberated from the restricted economy of purpose or function, they express the inner, nonverbal world of the computer."1 Bernstein's essay has the uncanny sense of seeming prescient in spite of—and in some cases perhaps paradoxically because of—its being so dated.
That super-rational element is reflected in the early games' graphics, which have a spare, modernist feel. This again became another point of interest because, considered as moving images, the aesthetics of these pioneering games are unique in digital media. Their pixilation is so chunky and low-resolution that it seems at times mosaic. If you look closely at, say, a character like Pac-Man, you can see individual pixels, the atomic building blocks of visualized computer space. This effect, of course, came about less by design than by necessity. Video game programmers, fighting against the limitations of the chips' tiny memory, were forced to compress their ideas. But that compression had a creative edge—it functioned much in the way a sonnet necessitates a compression of language and an economy of metaphor. In contrast to today's intensely realistic three-dimensional computer environments, the early games bear a resemblance to post-Abstract Expressionist paintings by artists such as Larry Poons. The stripped-down feel of the early games also suggests early black-and-white films before sound. Here, too, the art is defined by its limitations. And while later innovations in film, as in computer games, produced arguably "better" graphics, color, and effects, there is a poetic spareness about the early moments in each technology.
My interest in early video games also stemmed from other parallels with the history of early cinema. Both video games and movies were presented to audiences in a coin-operated, arcade format. Although Auguste and Louis Lumière introduced Parisian audiences to projected moving images in 1895, Americans' first view of motion pictures was Edison's Kinetoscope, a peep-show-type viewer first marketed in 1894, which exhibitors lined up arcade-style in Kinetoscope parlors. The Mutoscope, a hand-cranked flipbook apparatus, was patented in 1894 and became a long-running arcade hit. Mutoscopes were still to be found in the beachfront boardwalk penny arcades of my childhood in the 1940s. From these inauspicious beginnings, the movie business grew at explosive rates, so that less than 20 years later major studios had emerged, individual actors were famous, and the film industry was becoming a financial powerhouse.
Video games have seen almost precisely the same evolution. In spite of almost continual public outcry about their onscreen violence, their importance is unwavering: they too have developed, in only two decades, into an industry whose annual revenues outstrip Hollywood's box office take. Meanwhile, individual video game companies have become the Hollywood "studios" of digital gaming; the best example of this is probably Id Software, maker of the phenomenally popular games Doom (1993) and Quake (1996). Similarly, creators of individual games have gained fame as "directors." Within the core gaming community, everyone follows the career of John Romero, famous for designing the original Quake.
In many ways, assembling the intellectual justification for the exhibition was the easy part. Assembling the games themselves was another thing altogether.
My goal was to present the games themselves—this was to be a museum exhibition, after all, and the museum's first responsibility is to offer the public a direct encounter with the objects of study. I wanted to select the games that had somehow stood apart from the mass—because they had broken new ground in graphic design, introduced a new type of gameplay, or perhaps been unpredictably popular. However, in 1989, there was little interest on the part of academics or consumers in the early video games. Although there were articles from time to time in the popular press on the effects of video games in general, there was no archival work being done, and thus virtually no recording of the details of any individual games.
In this void, word of mouth became extremely important. To generate a list of the "top" games of museological interest, I approached Roger Sharpe, author of a history of pinball games, longtime video game reviewer for Play Meter magazine, and marketing executive at Williams/Bally. On the basis of his own knowledge and experience in the field, Sharpe produced a list of games he considered milestones. It began with the "founding" games. The two key ones here were Nutting's 1971 Computer Space—which grew out of Spacewar!, a game developed by programmers at MIT in the early 1960s—and Atari's 1972 PONG, the first massively successful video game. The list continued with the second wave of "space invasion" games, such as Bally/Midway's 1978 Space Invaders and Gremlin's 1979 Galaxian. It carried on through the explosion of character-driven, right-brained games—such as Namco's 1980 Pac-Man and Gottlieb's 1982 Q*bert—touching on the increasingly realistic driving games (Sega's 1986 Out Run), and finishing at the then-present with NARC, a 1988 offering by Williams, and a rather surreal reflection of the war on drugs.
With that list in hand, Sharon Blume, then the deputy director of the Museum, and David Draigh, the publications editor, began the search. After six months, they had located 47 of the games on Sharpe's list. In many ways, the hunt was similar—and thus presented similar challenges—to work we had previously done in collecting licensed merchandise and tie-ins. A central part of the Museum's mandate is to collect the material culture of motion pictures and television. This includes dolls, games, coloring books, and other manifestations of the impact of the moving image on the objects of everyday life. Locating such materials often involved research in obscure locations; Blume and I collected much of this material from country flea markets.
However, with this exhibition, the dynamics of game consumption made for some unexpected problems. Older did not always mean harder to find, although it was generally true that the older games were difficult to locate. In fact, our protracted hunt for PONG led, at one point, to a New York City game dealer who apparently had 21 games in his basement; upon arrival, we discovered that the building had been demolished three months earlier. In the end, we located a PONG machine only one and a half weeks before the exhibition opened. As the oldest game of the lot, Computer Space was even more challenging to locate; Draigh stumbled upon one only by accident, while searching for other games in a warehouse.
Surprisingly, many newer games were equally difficult to find. This was partly because anything produced more than a few years before 1989 was regarded by the dealers as "ancient," and was thus likely out of commission and out of repair. Moreover, because we were focusing on the games in their entirety, and because I intended them to become part of the permanent collection of the Museum, we required games with pristine cabinets, which were rare under the best of circumstances. Finding quality cabinets was further complicated by the fact that arcade owners would regularly put the board for a new game into an old cabinet whose decals had been removed or painted over.
This modular treatment of the chips is interesting. It mirrors the unfortunate "content focus" of most video game criticism, which too often concerns itself solely with what is happening on the screen. Just as jaded arcade owners would often regard the game cabinet as irrelevant (and the game program itself of prime importance), too many academics and psychologists had hitherto ignored the rich cultural value of the games' context—cabinets, arcades, and the like.
With Hot Circuits, I hoped to correct that mistake. I commissioned an exhibition design that would allow the games to be presented in our 6,200-square-foot third floor, elegantly but in classic arcade style, lined up against the wall. Museum visitors were given five free tokens to encourage them to play the games; they could also purchase more tokens. This strategy was even reflected in the naming of the exhibition: Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade. The title evoked two of the most important issues we were showcasing—the "circuit"-based computer origins of these moving images and the dynamics of the arcade, the social sphere in which the world first experienced them. The designer, Stephanie Tevonian, placed the games seven or eight feet apart and at a precise 45-degree angle from the wall, the better to allow visitors to appreciate the cabinet art. Between each game she placed a large rectangular text panel. Together, these elements produced an effect of both distance and intimacy, a mix between the raucous dynamics of the arcade and the objectifying nature of a museum. Video game critic J.C. Herz described the sensation as a visitor in her book Joystick Nation:
Yes, you get to play with all the old machines, and they're aligned almost the same way they were when you were a teenager. But not quite, because the consoles are much farther apart than an arcade owner would plant them. They are privileged with space, like statues or really expensive clothing, and thus become Design Objects.
And this is when you realize, for the first time, that these cabinets, apart from containing your favorite video games, are really just goddamn beautiful. . . . Playing a 1980s video game on an arcade machine is like viewing a 1930s Hollywood extravaganza on the silver screen rather than watching it at home on a VCR. It's a public rather than private experience.2
Herz's comparison here is particularly acute, insofar as it illustrated another point of contact between video games and film history. As industries, both have slowly moved away from a concern with the environmental issues of presentation. The lavishly appointed picture palaces, with their uniformed ushers, stage shows, and full orchestras, have given way to shabbily constructed small-screen multiplexes, and more importantly, home video. Video games, driven by major technological shifts, have similarly shifted from immersive, social experiences in arcades (where, according to some academic studies, more than half the time participants would watch, "hang out," and socialize rather than play3) to solitary, home-based entertainment. Herz's astonishment at reappreciating the context of the games was precisely the effect at which we aimed.
In this sense, observing the dynamics of our visitors became illuminating. What was particularly notable was that the exhibition attracted an unusually large number of older visitors—people who clearly would have had no previous contact with video games. Doubtless, it was partly due to the fact that our "arcade" was the first time they had felt socially sanctioned to enter a video game space; they would have felt none of the intimidation that keeps many adults (and social critics) from successfully exploring arcades.
Indeed, the number of older visitors provided us with a chance to observe the interaction of the non-digital generation with the digital world. Devoid of contact with video games for most of their lives, the older visitors had never acquired fluency in the basic disconnect of computer space. By "disconnect," I mean the ability of a video game player to intuit the link between the physical movement of a joystick and the corresponding movement of the onscreen "player." For most people under the age of 40, this is an almost embarrassingly easy feat, of course. Nevertheless, it was—and still is—a profound feature of our relation to computers, as Hot Circuits re-illustrated. Steven Johnson discusses the importance of this disconnect with regards to windows-style computer interfaces in his recent book Interface Culture. As he argues it, the concept of a visual computer interface is the pivotal moment in modern human-computer relations.
The original creation of the windows interface was the translation of computer logic and thought into a form—a representative metaphor—that everyday humans could find livable. "There are few creative acts in modern life more significant than this one, and few with such broad social consequences," he writes. He goes on to describe the historic impact of the first windows-style graphical user interface, demonstrated in 1968:
The pointer darting across the screen was the user's virtual doppelganger. The visual feedback gave the experience its immediacy, its directness: move the mouse an inch or two to the right and the onscreen pointer would do the same....The mouse allowed the user to enter that world and truly manipulate things inside it, and for that reason it was much more than just a pointing device.4
Though he does not discuss the early video games, his argument can easily extend. Far in advance of windows computers, in fact, video games functioned as the first and most popular interface. The games gave us mass training in how to "live" inside the pure, weightless, scientific space of the computer.
The older players, who had missed out on this training, would normally interact only with certain games. For examples, they would almost entirely avoid Robotron: 2084—a game that requires a relatively complex, simultaneous manipulation of two joysticks (one for movement, one for firing). In contrast, they would stick to "driving simulations," where the disconnect was more familiar, because real-life driving demands its own type of disconnect: the wheel and the accelerator are extensions of our body, allowing us to interact with the "virtual" world that, outside the car, scrolls by us.
Younger visitors to the exhibition, in contrast, were instantly fluent in the language of the games. But their reactions were also revealing, though for completely different reasons. With them, it had more to do with illustrating the extreme speed at which digital entertainment had developed.
As Blume—an extraordinarily gifted museum educator—noted, Hot Circuits was one of the first museum exhibitions that gave children and adolescents a sense of history passing. This was an important, if unexpected, aspect of the success of the exhibition, as it is often difficult for museums to communicate a sense of history to young people. Time, for them, is peculiarly compressed; the events of the present seem infinitely more real than those of even the very recent past. When children visited the exhibition then, even the games that were only a few years old—such as Time Pilot (1982) or Karate Champ (1984)—seemed "ancient" and "old-fashioned" to them. Their reactions closely paralleled those of the dealers from whom we had bought the machines. For them, too, any machine more than a year or two old had been hopelessly backdated by newer technology. Yet these same younger visitors were old enough to have played those games back when they were new. They could thus viscerally recall the excitement that the games had generated at the time. They experienced this as a sort of imploded nostalgia—a remembrance of things past, even though that past was barely three or four years ago.
On the one hand, of course, this reaction seems amusingly naive. But on the other, it is perfectly understandable—the young attendees were reacting to the exponential pace at which digital media had evolved in such a very short time. Which is to say, the older games could be considered both new and old: "new," by strict measures of human history, yet, in terms of digital media, stunningly antiquated. This is a conundrum that the Museum of the Moving Image has experienced many times; we develop new exhibitions featuring the newest of the new media, knowing that technology put on display as cutting-edge quickly becomes anything but. Indeed, it is a problem faced by everyday consumers of technology, who, caught on the treadmill of digital planned obsolescence, buy new computers every two years.
It is worth noting the central role of video games in creating this culture of ever-expanding computer needs. Many computer-industry critics have argued that it was the demand for graphically rich video games that fueled the development of faster computers and CD-ROM drives. After faster computers came out, the gaming industry took full advantage of them, producing ever-faster games that pushed the cycle further, requiring ever-faster computers; that cycle continues to this day. In fact, some observers have explained the success of Cyan's 1993 game Myst—the best-selling computer game of all time—by noting that it was released at the exact moment that CD-ROMs became standard peripherals for computers. Consumers would buy Myst, an acoustically and visually rich adventure game, not so much to play as to showcase the capabilities of their high-end computers. "Everybody buys Myst," one video game reviewer once commented. "Nobody plays Myst."5
While the re-enactment of the social sphere of the games was illuminating, we also aimed, with Hot Circuits, to present technological and cultural analysis. We commissioned texts on each game from John Berton, who was then a computer expert with the Ohio Supercomputer Graphics Project. The texts noted which features had made each game unique, as both digital medium and cultural artifact. In the case of Atari's 1980 Missile Command, for example, Berton pointed out that it was the only game ever to use a separate sighting device for aiming—a large trackball. At the same time, Missile Command was important for its powerful evocation of nuclear dread, with the final words "THE END" closing each lost game: "The Atomic Age lesson is apparent: the only way to win is not to play." Though the goal was not to "overintellectualize" the games, the texts often succeeded in exposing the elements of each game that, while central to its appeal, had remained previously unnoted. Unique features of Pole Position (1982) included its realistic mapping of an actual racetrack in Japan, a fact that would have been lost on even the most avid player. The singularity of Tron (1982) came from its rather postmodern origins: "Tron is a great self-referential icon: a video game based on a movie based on a computer based on a video game," Berton wrote. "The game has probably been played by more people than ever saw the movie."
In the end, Hot Circuits was a huge success for the Museum. It received an extraordinary amount of press, partly because reporters had the same reactions as the children: how strangely "old" these games seemed. From June 1990 to September 1993, the show traveled to 10 science centers across the country, with similarly warm receptions. In the process of traveling, though, the show conflated even further the nature of arcade and exhibition, and not always in desirable ways. A number of the venues unwittingly placed the games in increasingly arcade-like settings—a consequence of galleries too small for the volume of games in the show—which resulted in many cabinets and text panels being significantly harmed. When the balance of "museum" and "arcade" was disturbed, and the sense of "museum" lost, visitors clearly felt greater freedom to behave with the games as they would in an arcade: sticking gum on the underside of the cabinets or causing damage to decals.
By the time Hot Circuits closed at the Museum in May 1990, there was no longer any question as to whether video games "fit" at the Museum of the Moving Image. And we have in the years since almost always had video games on view (Hot Circuits II in 1993, Computer Space in 1995, Expanded Entertainment in 1996, and Computer Space 98 in 1998). In retrospect, it was astonishing how groundbreaking the exhibition was in recognizing the importance of digital media. It even precipitated a shift in the Museum's focus. When we opened in 1988, our stated mission was to educate the public about "the art, history, technique, and technology of motion pictures, television, and video." Four years later, the board of trustees approved the addition of "digital media," recognizing the importance of the computer to the production, delivery, and content of the moving image. In 1991, I appointed Carl Goodman as Curator of Digital Media—the first such curatorship, I believe, in any museum.
Rapidly advancing digital technologies, as well as the growing number of people who devise and apply them, are changing the way existing media are made, distributed, and experienced. Through collections, exhibitions, seminars, and software developments, Goodman and the Museum play crucial roles in the public dialogue about the use, value, and promise of these new technologies. Goodman believes it is likely that the term "curator of digital media" itself may soon become anachronistic: all media will be digital, with differences based more on the type of delivery.
Today, Hot Circuits seems even more apposite, since the early arcade games are enjoying a consumer resurgence. The young people who grew up with the games are now adults, and, like generations before them, they are having their childhood obsessions duly marketed back to them. Williams, Midway, Bally, Atari, and other game companies are repackaging the early arcade hits for consoles, computers, and even Nintendo's Game Boy. Critics have particularly hailed the Game Boy versions, because the format's low-resolution pixilation and relatively low-power hardware approximates the limitations of the early arcade cabinets. It is pleasing to consider that, since the main target consumers for Game Boys are children, these releases may be the youngest players' initial encounter with the aesthetics and mind-space of early computer gaming.
This nostalgia for the recent past has had the positive effect of preserving original copies of the early games. For example, recent years have seen the rise of arcade game auctions. In dozens of major cities across North America, dealers and collectors now gather monthly to trade, buy, and sell early arcade games. As supply has increased to match demand, prices have remained surprisingly low: at a recent Philadelphia-area auction, a copy of Nintendo's 1983 Mario Bros., with a mint-condition cabinet, was sold for only $100, about the same price we would have paid in 1989. Collectors are particularly eager to obtain unblemished cabinets, indicating that a concern for the context of the games is also resurgent. The auctions themselves function partly as ad hoc exhibitions. At each auction, a significant minority of attendees will come as observers, solely to examine and play games (and indeed, crammed into small and dirty auction warehouses, with the games lined up closely together, the events often unintentionally mimic the intimidating dynamic of early arcades).
Most significant, though, is the sense of custodianship that is coming from the field of digital media itself. In 1997, a collection of computer programmers worldwide launched a collaborative project to preserve early-arcade computer code on the Internet. It began with two programmers in Italy, Mirko Buffoni and Nicola Salmoria. They decided, as an engineering exercise, to write a program that would emulate the chip architecture of the most common arcade cabinets. They were fascinated by the same thing that originally intrigued me about early arcade games: the way that programs, so constrained by the old chips, acted out the "consciousness" of physics and science. Yet the emulator also had a practical element to it: it would allow anyone to play the original early-arcade games on his or her own computer. After Buffoni and Salmoria finished their emulator, they placed it on their website for anyone to download for free. Other coders who personally owned original arcade cabinets began posting online, free, of course, the original code they electronically removed from the machines. The program—called the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME)—has become wildly popular. Over 1 million Internet users have downloaded the emulator program and are using it to play up to three hundred available games. (There are, of course, legal issues here. It is a violation of copyright for anyone to download the emulator and play pirated game code on it.)
Museologically, the MAME project is important in its own way. In fact, both Buffoni and Salmoria explicitly describe their emulator as a type of archival work. "Our goal was to document the inner workings of the arcade machines. Most of them are left abandoned in big storages. We're preserving the treasure for future generations," Buffoni told the Canadian magazine Shift.6 In fact, he notes that the Internet is, by virtue of its highly networked architecture, a foolproof storage mechanism for the early arcade code. Once the code has been released, playable, into cyberspace, it becomes a cultural meme, replicating itself through people's desire to play the games. And, unlike the physical chips and cabinets of the original games, the code will not decay or vanish—particularly since thousands of programmers worldwide are now debugging and maintaining the program.
It is a singularly self-referential moment in the evolution of digital media. Arcade games were among the first completely digital media; their widespread use gave rise to the very computer literacy—and digital-media literacy—that encouraged the Internet. Now the Web is being used to archive and preserve those very games. There is a pleasing symmetry in this evolution. When creators of digital media seek their roots, it seems, they are inevitably drawn to the early arcade games. It points again to the fact that these games were important not just for their technological novelty. It was their cultural import, their value as entertainment—as moving images, if you will—that created the idea that computers could be more than just industrial machines. Technology critic Sherry Turkle has described this moment in technology history as "the movement from a culture of calculation to a culture of simulation"—the beginnings of the computer as an imaginative space.7 As Hot Circuits ultimately showed, it is the moment when we stopped using computers as tools, and started using them as culture.
1. Charles Bernstein, Play it Again, Pac-Man, written as the catalog essay for the Museum of the Moving Image exhibition Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade (1989). Published in Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 128-141. Also published in Postmodern Culture (1991).
2. J. C. [Jessie Cameron] Herz, Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997), pp.61-62.
3. For an early, untitled, study showing this result, see, e.g., B. D. Brooks, in Video Games and Human Development: A Research Agenda for the 80's, ed. S. S. Baughman and P. D. Clagett (Cambridge, Mass.: Monroe C. Gutman Library, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1983). See also E.A. Eli and L.S. Meyers, "The Role of Video Game Playing in Adolescent Life: Is There Reason to Be Concerned?" Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 22.4 (1984).
4. Steven Johnson, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997), p. 22.
5. "Riding the Tail of the Myst Meteor," Globe and Mail (Oct. 4, 1997), p. C27.
6. "Black Market Arcade," Shift online (Jan. 1998)
7. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), p. 20.
FURTHER RESEARCHMoving Image website Computer Space
Halcyon Days: Interviews with Game Designers
Rochelle Slovin is the founding Director of the Museum of the Moving Image.More articles by Rochelle Slovin