Even in an age when practically anything can be looked up instantaneously, there are some pieces of knowledge that defy second-hand learning. Such as: why the joystick for the arcade console version of “Ms. Pac-Man” feels so perfectly clicky, with just the right amount of resistance versus give for navigating brightly rendered mazes while electronic ghosts are chasing you.
You can play “Ms. Pac-Man” on a smartphone, you can emulate it on a computer, but to stand before its full glory and play it yourself as a noisy, beautiful arcade cabinet, is to learn by experience.
If that were the only thing to experience at “Pong to Pokémon: The Evolution of Electronic Gaming,” a new ongoing exhibit on the third floor of the Bullock Texas State History Museum, this would be the tiniest, but most well-appointed video arcade. But the exhibit is much more, showcasing half a century of video-game technology — from arcade cabinets, retro home consoles, controllers and portable systems to punch cards and teletype machines — without forgetting some of the pioneers of the industry and the role of Texas throughout.
There are artifacts, of course, from old games (”Pong,” “DOOM,” “Centipede”) to more current titles such as “Guitar Hero” and “Angry Birds,” many of them playable. But there’s also a lot of context as to why these particular games and moments in game history have been chosen.
Jenny Peterson, an associate curator of exhibitions at the museum, said the planning for “Pong to Pokemon” began about a year ago and was always intended to spotlight Texas as a hub for game development.
“Our in-house Bullock team believed it was important for us to tell this story and show how, for the last 50 years, gaming has influenced the way we work, play and learn every day,” Peterson said.
A wall display at the start of the exhibit explicitly states that Texas is second only to California in developing video games, a fact that Peterson said is not widely known.
Texas was also the state where game companies redefined the shooter genre (Dallas-based id Software), created the modern massively multiplayer online game genre (Origin Systems with “Ultima Online”) and where they continue to thrive with franchises such as “Borderlands 2” (Gearbox Software) and “Dishonored” (Arkane Studios).
David Munns, director of web and digital media at the Bullock, said indie developers turned experimentation into new avenues for the entire industry and continue to do so today.
“Whether it gets its due or not as a gaming powerhouse, players are congregating here with huge, international events such as Dreamhack, and industry and independent developers are coming to Texas, too, because it is recognized as a hub for innovation for gaming and emerging gaming technologies, including streaming video content, esports and virtual and augmented reality,” Munns said.
Texas creators including Richard Garriott, Warren Spector, Star Long and John Romero contributed items and advice to the exhibit with Garriott taking on a primary adviser role, Munns said.
The developers themselves, he said, have helped keep items of historical value that might have otherwise gone into the Bowser lava pit of video-game history.
“Believe it or not, a lot of objects related to video-game history were not seen as historical objects when they were first created,” he said. “It’s these creators that have preserved video-game history.”
Garriott said he considers himself lucky to have played a part in Texas gaming history and believes the exhibit will be a hit with gamers as well as non-gamers. "Video games are now far more powerful in social impact and economics than movies, TV and print media combined," he said. " To understand the future of this important art form, it is useful to know where it came from. This is especially true if we want this new medium to grow to the same levels of literary impact enjoyed by the more mature linear forms of media.”
Some of the physical items at the exhibit include a teletype machine that Garriott used to make fantasy games in the 1970s, hand-drawn maps for “DOOM” created by Romero and some of the amusingly extreme box and poster art that accompanied the marketing and merchandise.
It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate what’s triggering nostalgia (say a garish and silly poster for “Mortal Kombat” in which that characters pop out of the console to scare some children) and what is of true cultural significance (respect to “The Oregon Trail,” which is just as harrowing today).
Rachel Weil, who served as a historical consultant to the exhibit and who works with the Austin gaming collective Juegos Rancheros, said games present an unusual challenge to curators, particularly since the medium is typically meant to be played and to be fun.
“How can video game be showcased with meaningful historical context in a way that isn’t too detached or stilted, but also not purely borne of nostalgia-fueled enthusiasm?” she asked. And how do you choose what to display? Weil said the team has done a good job balancing ubiquitous crowd pleasers such as “Super Mario Bros.” with lesser-known artifacts such as Ralph Baer’s 1967 “Brown-box” which could play checkers and ping-pong, all while keeping the tone playful.
Weil said that part of the exhibit’s goal is to spotlight games, hardware or trends that might have fallen through the cracks, such as the sticker-printer-carrying Casio Loopy or titles that were part of the “Girl Games” movement in the 1990 that included “Rockett’s Secret Invitation,” “McKenzie & Co.” and “Barbie Fashion Designer,” a big hit in 1996.
She was able to help in particular with this area having already founded the Femicom Museum, which preserves games and software marketed to girls. Weil loaned items including “Hello Kitty Game Boy Advance” and “Zero Zero” to the Bullock. “Girly games tend to be excluded from video game history for a variety of reasons, including lack of historical research and concerns about the stereotypical marketing messages,” Weil said.
“However, many of these games have real historical significance, and they also broaden our cultural idea of what a video game is and does,” she said.
Walking through the exhibit, which even as a highly playable showing doesn’t overstay its welcome, it’s easy to get caught up and hooked on one thing. After all, arcade mainstays such as “Centipede” were built to suck down quarters and keep players coming back.
But like the heavy, but super-functional trackball of that game, many of the items in the exhibit simply can’t be re-created perfectly in any other form. It’s been tried, and often it’s just not the same.
And many times, a video game or system simply didn’t go mainstream enough or stick around long enough to still be accessible today. Take, for instance, the Magnavox Odyssey, one of Weil’s favorites at the exhibit, which had a special overlay.
“It’s an actual piece of plastic you’d stick to your television screen to make the game’s blocky graphics more closely resemble a hockey game,” Weil said. “Now there’s something you simply can’t emulate.”
“Pong to Pokémon” is expected to continue at the Bullock Museum through March. The regular Bullock Museum admission fee includes access to the “Pong to Pokémon” exhibit. The Bullock Museum as at 1800 Congress Ave.
Cover photo: A scene from the opening reception of the Bullock Texas State History Museum's new exhibit, "Pong to Pokémon: The Evolution of Electronic Gaming" on July 28, 2017. Contributed.