The Art Of The Arcade & The Values Of Video Game Preservation

Phil Day,

August 29, 2018 12:25 PM

Some effort has been spent on recognizing games as an art for preservation, but is it enough? We look at the efforts of MoMA and the Smithsonian and speak to arcade and classic gaming experts about their values in protecting history.

Phil Day is the former Galaga Tournament World Record holder (2009 - 2011). He was one of ten Galaga players in the world chosen compete in at the First International Galaga World Championship, Score Wars, Meow Wolf (2018). He is also the Co-Founder and Administrator of Galaga Forum. Day is currently ranked #4 on the Twin Galaxies leaderboard for Galaga Tournament. The following essay was written by and offered with his permission for publication in full on Twin Galaxies Editorial.

Video games, and much of what is celebrated about video games, are by many, easily forgotten due to the ever-increasing number of titles published annually. While other titles were dipped into regularly, becoming recognized favorites. Some did well enough to have been rewarded with sequels, ported to other systems, and rebooted. And then there are those titles that reached stardom. Such titles have immediately recognizable graphics and sounds - not to be mistaken for anything thing else.

All of this is why, in 2012, two significant cultural institutions embraced video games as art: The Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art, but six years later, we have to wonder: Is enough being done to highlight and preserve the historical and artistic value of this increasingly aging industry?

The Smithsonian & Museum of Modern Art

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In 2012, The Smithsonian launched an exhibition titled 'The Art of Video Games', The curator was Chris Melissinos. Melissinos sought advice from video game experts, developers, journalists, and the general public via vote. The public vote lasted three months, after which 3.7 million votes were counted from 175 countries. Eighty video game titles from various platforms were deemed worthy of cultural a preservation.

The platforms included: Atari VCS, Colecovison, Intellivison, Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Master Drive, Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, DOS/Windows, Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, Xbox, Xbox 360, Modern Windows, GameCube,Wii, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3. The earliest game dating from 1977, the latest dating from 2011.

Meanwhile that same year of 2012, the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) purchased fourteen video game titles to add to their permanent collection as works of art: Pac-Man, Tetris, Another World, Myst, SimCity 2000, Vib-ribbon, The Sims, Katamari Damacy, Eve Online, Dwarf Fortress, Portal, flOw, Passage, and Canabalt.

MoMA sought advice from scholars, digital conservationists, legal experts, historians, and critics in to construct a criteria to determine which video games would now be defined as as 'modern art'. The following is a glimpse at their rational as per the official MoMA webpage dedicated to the video game collection:  

"The games [were] selected as outstanding examples of interaction design [...] Our criteria, therefore, emphasise not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience, but also the many other aspects-from the elegance of the code to the design of the players behaviour-that pertain to interaction design."

Both the Smithsonian and MoMA's decision to identify video games as something profoundly interesting is exciting for video game culture. And as valid as their final decisions are, having sought popular and expert opinion suggests that neither the Smithsonian or MoMA were confidant in identifying which video games are culturally significant works, most likely due to both institutions having ignored video games as a legitimate medium of expression for the last four decades. It's also possible this is why no arcade game in the form of a cabinet found its way into the Smithsonian's 'The Art of Video Games'. Equally, it could explain why only two titles arcade titles were included into MoMA's permanent collection.

To have such a tiny representation of the arcade games, arguably makes for a poor collection due to the selection criteria. Had the Smithsonian and MoMA sought advice from as little as half-a-dozen classic arcade video game appreciators and/or experts, they may have found cause to alter the criteria to accommodate a wider visceral response: game rarity, game purity, social games, heritage value, authenticity, and aesthetic formalism and expression.

For this purpose, we observed various other collections and reached out to experts of the field to gather their views on the matter.

Doc Mack On The One-Of-A-Kind

As a child of the 80s, Doc Mack, spent his spent time in video game arcades. As a teenager, he did the same through the 90s. Mac became increasingly fascinated by video games - how they worked and how they played.

By 2010, Mac amassed enough video game cabinets to open his own video game arcade - Galloping Ghost. Today, Galloping Ghost is the largest and most comprehensive collection of arcade game titles ever to be assembled - 657 individual titles at this time of writing. Every game runs on original hardware (Mac doesn't allow any emulation in his arcade) and another 230 titles are gradually being added to arcade floor.

The unprecedented number of titles, complete with the publishers authentic hardware, attracts national and international visitors. This includes designers and programmers, such as Brian F. Colin (Rampage), Jeff Leigh and Warren Davis (Q*bert), Eugene Jarvis (Defender, Joust, Robotron), and Toru Iwatani (Pac-Man, Pole Position), just to name a few and many of which have bequeathed unique items to Galloping Ghost.

Brian F. Colin donated RC2 - a cancelled title from 1995. Prior to cancellation, the game was only two months away from being released. On Halloween, 2017, the prototype and only surviving version of RC2 was donated to Galloping Ghosts.

George Petro (programmer for N.A.R.C.) called Mac asking if he had a spare N.A.R.C. circuit board, Mac willingly obliged. Unknown to Mac, N.A.R.C. had had a level removed before its release in 1988. Petro replaced the missing level onto circuit board and gave it back to Mac. That means Galloping Ghosts has the only 'directors cut' of N.A.R.C. in existence.  

Upon attaining these items, Mac treats them as national treasures; cultural artifacts that don't belong to an individual. This was probably best demonstrated when Mac acquired a rare printed circuit board (PCB) for Primal Rage II (another cancelled title, its scheduled release was 1996) and a private buyer offered Mac $60,000 for the PCB. Mac declined. Believing it was more important to share it with the public to enjoy.

Mac's enthusiasm and sensibility for arcade video game culture, has resulted in some labelling Galloping Ghost Arcade as a museum as Mac himself puts it.

“If there is any truth to this claim,” explains Mac. “It's because [Galloping Ghost] is able to inform those who argue that [video] games are a waste of time. Some begin to realize why there is a fascination for video games. Even though the oldest games are a little over forty [years old], there's already so much history in them. They really do mean so much to so many people. And those who created them - and the players who have mastered them - these guys are legends. To gamers, they're the the equivalent of artists or sport stars. These games are proving to be timeless. And the industry doesn't really understand or realize the affect their games have on those who appreciate them.”

Ken House On The Pure Game

Towed by 2 (formally Kencade) is a famed arcade among the classic arcade community. Even if some within the community have never heard of it, they will know the names of those who train and compete at there.

Ken House, a classic arcade game competitor whose name is synonymous with Dig-Dug, founded Towed by 2 as private arcade with a specific purpose: competitive gameplay.

Towed by 2 offers competitors an environment to explore various strategies, tactics, and hone skills, without distraction (other than their car may be towed by 2am if is still are parked on the street, hence the name). Such luxuries allow players to pursue scores that require a special level of focus. As a result, Towed by 2 has attracted some of the great classic arcade gamers, including record holders and scorechasers Matt Hall and Jon McAllister. And with them, great scores. But great scores can arguably only be performed on great titles - titles free from extraneous and unnecessary elements that interfere with sheer skill-testing.

Towed by 2's line up of games is an intimidating catalogue to say the least. Few gamers could confidently play their way around the room, moving from one unique control panel to an equally different control panel, such as Asteroids (five buttons, no joy stick) to Defender (two way joystick for vertical direction, and five buttons - one of which controls the horizontal direction) to Missile Command (track ball, and three buttons) to Robotron 2084 (two eight way joysticks - one for movement, the other for direction of fire) to Tempest (a rotary dial 'spinner' and two buttons - it's worth noting the two buttons are on the left of the rotary dial, the reverse of most arcade games) to Hogan's Alley (a light gun).

The variation of the gameplay is just as wide from short games like Pole Postion to marathon games like Nibbler; or aggressive button mashing required for Galaga, to the much needed gentle finesse for Lunar Lander. And then there's Mappy, which Ken speaks to as one of the prized jewels of his collection.

“Generally speaking, people hate Mappy,” claims House. “They say they don't like the ragtime music. But I think that's an excuse. Truth is it’s a hard game. Don Hayes and my scores are at about 500k, Matt Hall's score is around 120k. Whereas McAllister is about 16k. I wouldn't swap Mappy out of my arcade  for anything. I like Mappy, I like games that engage in pure gameplay, which is why I like Robotron the most - the gameplay is so pure. It's the purest. I wouldn't trade any of my games for any other games. Not even my claw machine.”

Steve Hyde On The Social Spirit Of Gaming

Video arcade game technician Steven Hyde has been fixing arcade machines for thirty-five years. He has fixed, restored, and sold thousands of arcade games, or, as he and his circle of collectors refer to them, arcade treasures. Hyde isn’t one to get too caught up in the affairs of competitive classic gaming, as laid out clearly when asked who has the top score in Donkey Kong.

“I don't know, and doesn't matter to me,” explains Hyde. “I mean, good luck to whoever it is, that's great that they've developed such high skills, but, for me, it's not about the measure of a score, it's about the measure of fun.”

Hyde's honesty bears a simple and clean attraction to video games - a ‘time-wasting’ indulgent pleasure, serving a specific function. Having spent his entire adult life fixing and/or restoring thousands of arcade machines (including pinballs), Hyde is more than familiar with the engineering, gameplay, cabinets and cabinet artwork of too many titles to measure. And of all those titles, many of which he has owned, restored, and sold on, Hyde has kept only a few titles. All predate the 80's, but only one is not for sale: Space Wars (Cimenatronics).

“I hope I never have to sell my Space Wars,” says Hyde. “I had a Space Wars cabinet thirty years ago. It wasn't complete, missing bits, and needed a lot of work. I sold it, and it was only by chance I came across this one a year ago - and it also needed a lot of work. I wouldn't sell it. They're just to rare here [in Australia]. And it's such a great example of the early beginnings of arcade [video] games; it predates Asteroids.”

Despite the rarity of Space Wars, its vintage, and historically significant influence on one of the most iconic arcade titles ever published, these are not the real cause for Hyde's attraction to Space Wars.  The real reason is much simpler.

“[Space Wars] is a great head-to-head game - it brings people together,” explains Hyde. “And of course there are games today, [MMOs such as World of Warcraft and Fortnite] that bring thousands of people together, but they do it through the Internet, they don't bring them together - side-by-side - in a room. That's important to me. That's what the old arcades were. They weren't just games, they were a social gathering.”

For Hyde, the video game cabinet is a meeting place to share in the joys and disappointments of victory and loss with friends. So why Space Wars, why not a title that allows more players, like Gauntlet, or Warlords? To Hyde, it’s the possibilities found in Space Wars that count the most.

“[Gauntlet and Warlords] are great social games too. But Space Wars has over seventy variations, effectively seventy games in the one cabinet.”

So why not a multi-board - or a couple of jamma multi boards: a sixty-in-one, a Williams JROK with optional vertical horizontal screen display? To that end, Hyde is unattracted by the copy and generalization of function and mechanics.

“For me, [video arcade games] have to be original,” Hyde claims. “I don't want to pretend to play it - I want the original control panel and look, to get the feeling of game play and look that the designer intended. For me, it has to be as original as possible: correct controller, buttons, the cabinet has to have the decal artwork. And it has to be a CRT [cathode ray tube monitor] - no way would I have a flat screen [TFT-LCD].”

Ben Nichols's Grundy Gyruss: A Historical Treasure

The Netherworld Arcade in Brisbane, Australia, founded by Ben Nichols & Jimmy Nails, has over forty machines on the floor (and more than another twenty in storage). A mixture of pinball and arcade games, Netherworld has fast become one of the most interesting video game arenas of Australia, embracing competitive gaming and attracting highly skilled competitors setting world records on the likes of Point Blank, Wonder Boy, and Space Invaders.

Netherworld also hosted the first Kong Off outside the US: OKO (Australian Kong Off). In November 2018, OKO2 will be upon us. Netherworld has also hosted masterclass players from local and international scenes such as Jon Tannahill (Australia) and Andrew Barrow (New Zealand). This year, Netherworld also held the largest pinball tournament ever in the Southern Hemisphere (Brisbane Pinball Master). Even with all of these events and accolades, the competitive hub Netherworld offers is only one half of what it truly is according to Ben Nichols.

“Jimmy [Nails] loves live competitive gaming,” claims Nichols. “He brings that perspective to Netherworld, but together, I feel we cover the broader appeal of video game culture. We want Netherworld to accommodate the hardcore gamer, the newcomer, and everyone in between. I think it is a good way to run a modern arcade. The entire venue is balanced across the floor. Like a mini museum. 75% of the games are not rotated, because those titles form a modern pop culture perspective and are most remembered. It's important we have those recognizable titles on the floor like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space invaders, Frogger, Galaga, and Neo-Geos games such as Metal Slug and Puzzle Bobble [aka Bust a Move]. In a room full of titles, these classics are always recognizable.”

Netherworld's tightly curated collection is the result of Nichols's appreciation for video game culture, and it runs deeper than competitive gaming and favorite titles. Nichols's has a deep respect for the local social history of video gaming. Evident in one odd looking cabinet permanently on the floor at Netherworld. It's not a prototype, nor rare or unpopular title, but it is a cabinet that has a heritage value any Australian arcade enthusiast would appreciate.

“We have a Gyruss cabinet that has big bubble round screen. It's a really unique set up. I can't find any answer as to why it's set up like this. All I know is it came from the Grundy’s.

The Grundy's Entertainment Centre - or 'Grundy's' as it was affectionately known - opened in 1981, and quickly became a famed arcade and waterslide venue in Australia, and further made more popular by Australian rock band, Australian Crawl, when they featured Grundy's waterslides in their 1981 music video 'Errol': biography about the Australian-born US movie star, Errol Flynn.

In the 80s, an Australian family holiday to the Gold Coast and not going to Grundy's, could be likened to a US family holiday to the LA, California area and not going to Disneyland. It wasn't a side attraction, it was the attraction. Even so, like many arcades and water slides parks of the 80s, popularity began to dwindle. The water slides were closed in 1987, later removed, and Grundy's closed altogether in 1993.

With the Possible exception of Grundy tokens, Netherworld's bubble-screen Gyruss could well be the only remaining unique video game related artifact from what was the greatest video game arcade in Australia. And it now sits prominently at Netherworld's place of pride, right at the front bar.

“It was originally at Grundy's,” explains Nichols. “It's an important part of Australian arcade history.”

John Salter On Preservation Vs Restoration

John Salter (champion Tron player - currently ranked third in the world), is the owner-operator of Full Blast Arcade in Ohio, USA. Full Blast houses over fifty titles, many of which look like they've seen plenty of play. None of the machines have faulty monitors, poor speakers, or unreliable controls. All work and play as in as intend by the manufacturers, but the cabinets have seen better days. John claims this is purposeful.

“I don't restore [the cabinets] like other collectors or arcades do,” explains Salter. “Of course, we repair them where really needed; they need to be structurally sound. But surface damage, wear and tear, harmless bits of vandalism, I try to keep them like that.”

Salter's reasoning for not restoring the cabinets comes from a restoration principle that some historians and heritage trusts would find agreeable:

“Restoring them often means all you're left with is the wood beneath a set of newly printed vinyl decals. Not mine. I want my cabinets to look like survivors of their era.”

The cabinets at Full Blast may have lost their fresh colors and smooth, unblemished surface. What they do have is the original decals, art from the 70s and 80s, and through those decades to today, they each carry a patina - the accumulation of use by many thousands of games played and evidence of the atmosphere of an arcade era now gone. Much like the accumulation of mold on a cheese adding to its flavour. But, it's an acquired taste. And when it's suggested a cabinet is worth more when fully 'restored', Salter speaks to his own priorities when it comes to keeping these unwashed gems as they are.

“I'm player who has a collection, not a collector who likes to play.”

Michael Fallon On Pure Machine Art & Aesthetic

Michael Fallon runs the Arcade Classics store which buys, sells, repairs, and restores arcade and pinball machines from its location in Melbourne. Fallon built the business from the ground up and a love of the machines. It was a journey that taught him appreciation for the mechanics and functionality of the games over a long period of time.

“I started in 1993 with an NBA Jam arcade machine,” Fallon recalls. “I bought it as an investment. I first learned how to fix a joystick, and as the business grew I had to teach myself how to repair them to keep them going. Within a couple of years, I had thirty cabinets across Melbourne, but now my focus is on restoration and sale of arcade machines and pinballs. I now have about one hundred machines for sale.”

Over the years, Fallon has had thousands of different machines pass through his hands. He has only kept three for himself, none of which he plays regularly.

“When I opened Arcade Classic store 2013, I wanted some original tiles and cabinets,” Fallon explained. “And there were three I really wanted: Space Invaders, Space Invaders 2, and a Space Invaders 2 variant with a color monitor. When I was looking, they were pretty obsolete. Few people thought of keeping them as collectables, but I got lucky. I managed to get all three all in complete, working condition. I don't think I'd be so lucky now. Collectors are in bidding wars for something as small as an original control panel or bezel. And if they miss out, they might have to wait years for another. And when they do, they'll find themselves in the same bidding war with someone who is in the same position as them.” 

It might come as a surprise that Fallon's has no knowledge of the names of well-known players like Jon Tannahill, Richie Knucklez, or Donald Hayes. That said, once he begins to discuss his admiration for Space Invaders, you get a sense of what really attracts Fallon to these machines. 

“I like the game, but I love the artwork and how it was made,” Fallon claims. “The original Space Invaders with a black and white screen produced a colored effect using a uv fluorescent tube behind the plastic moonscape. It created a colored moon imposed over the black and white moving pixels. And then there’s the sound. It only comes from a single speaker, but each sound effect has its own volume control. The look and sound - it all just works so well.”

It apparent that Fallon is drawn to the aesthetic quality of the Space Invaders cabinet as a thing of visceral beauty, more so than as an interactive game. He speaks of each of his three Space Invader cabinets in a similar manner an admirer of art might talk about their favorite sculpture or piece of music, commending the designer’s choice of materials, color schemes, animation, and sound, and how these all work together, not only formally, but expressively. Fallon's attraction to the art of the cabinet as a form of expression is also evident in his hope to one day add one more title to his collection. 

“I'd like a Taito Defender, if I could find one” claims Fallon. “[The cabinet] was completely different to what Williams did. I liked Defender as a game too - great sound, great feel - but there was something about the Taito Defender cabinet that just works better. There's something about the design of the Taito cabinets - something else.”

The Importance Of Preservation & Recognition

The multitude of new video game titles coming out every day invigorate gaming culture, thus widening the repertoire to accommodate the thoughts and feelings of each new generation. And to retain the interests of their generation, and future generations, they'll each, on their own merit, need to remain relevant to the moods and perceptions of any generation, just as some have by being a genuine irreplaceable one-of-a-kind (Primal Rage II), a pure game (Mappy), a vehicle for social interaction (Space Wars), a relic of historical reverence (The Grundy’s Gyruss), an authentic reminder of who we once were (restoration vs preservation), or a thing of formal and expressive beauty (a Space Invaders cabinet).

The Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian took their first steps towards legitimizing the art, aesthetic, and appreciation of games and their relevance, but when you look at the values and rhetoric of just a handful of collectors and enthusiasts out there, it becomes clear just how much more could be done to make sure these treasures don’t slide into obscurity.

[Featured Image by TJ Denzer/Twin Galaxies]


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