Return to the Supercade

Jason Bennett,

September 12, 2020 10:08 AM

Twenty years after showing us how video games are intertwined with our lives, Van Burnham prepares a long-anticipated sequel to her path-breaking book

They say that one good turn deserves another.

In the case of author and curator Van Burnham, the turn to document another decade and a half of video game history will finally arrive next September. In July, Van launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Volume 2 of Supercade: a visual history of the videogame age, 1985-2001. Twenty years after the publication of the first volume by MIT Press, the sequel was fully funded within 5 hours of going live and by the end of the campaign earned over five times the original funding threshold, unlocking a series of stretch goals that include publication of an Anniversary Edition that includes both volumes.

"Sincere thanks to everyone who backed, shared, and supported this project,” Van wrote on Kickstarter. “I'm absolutely overwhelmed with gratitude. I've been wanting to do this book for so many years now and am beyond excited to make it a reality."

Supercade Volume 2 will take readers through the final decades of 20th century gaming [Image source:]

The roots of the project arguably stretch back to 1993 when Van became a collector of video games, fulfilling a childhood desire to experience the full breadth of what the 1980s had to offer by building on her family’s original digital age experience - the Magnavox Odyssey2 system. Her initial decision to type out instructions via HTML or share box scans from her favorite games like KC Munchkin on the burgeoning world wide web quickly grew into a full-time interest. Through the years, Van served as contributing editor to WIRED and her writings have appeared in a range of publications including Electronic Gaming Monthly and Retro Gamer.

In the course of her work, Van noted that among the different publications about the video game industry, there wasn’t a true synthesis that delved into the myriad of ways that gaming was a driver of technological adaptation and acceptance. With the support of WIRED staff, Van delved deeper into the project. The culmination of her efforts was Supercade: a visual history of the videogame age, 1971-1984, a striking 440 page volume published in 2001 that served as the definitive treatment of video games and the cultural impact of technology as both visual history and pop culture.

Van’s iconic treatment of the dawn of the computer age gave lasting expression to what many of us instinctively sensed but lacked the language or perspective to articulate - that glass, metal, and wood weren’t simply the constituent parts of gaming machines designed to take our quarters, but these same machines also shaped how we saw and engaged with an increasingly technological society.

“The golden age of videogames marks the point in time when society shifted from an analog to digital culture,” wrote Van, arguing that a field of technological innovations ranging from personal computers to compact discs were made possible “because a generation was exposed to the future of technology in a way that made it accessible and, most of all fun - through video games.”

The textual curation of the Bronze and Golden Age of gaming inspired a parallel curation of physical objects - namely, arcade game machines. These efforts led to the establishment of Supercade, a site in greater Los Angeles that houses Van's private collection of nearly 500 unique arcade titles. The site itself represents the full spectrum of arcade experiences - from fully functioning games that bring one back to the 1980s to the slow and careful work of carrying out repairs and restorations of damaged cabinets, from new side art treatment with carefully matched paints to the replacement of hard-to-find parts.

The importance of preserving and restoring classic arcade games also extends to raising awareness with others whenever she can. When I first wrote Van in 2011 to see if she could help me with obtaining replacement art for a gutted Universal Magical Spot arcade cabinet that I planned to convert to a 60-in-1 multigame unit, she had some firm advice: if I planned to simply convert it, sell the rare cabinet to a collector with the space and patience to restore the game with original parts.

“[But] if you promise to restore this machine properly,” she wrote, “I will help you.”

Thanks to Van’s intervention, a neglected cabinet originally slated for a quick multi-game fate became a fully restored original by year’s end.

Van’s stewardship of gaming history has more recently extended to public programming. In August 2018, she curated the ARCADIA exhibition at Soho House West Hollywood.

A staircase entrance view of the exhibition ARCADIA, August 2018 [Image source: supercade71]

“So thrilled for the opportunity to share some rare items from the Supercade Collection and the rich history of games with their guests,” wrote Van in a Facebook post. The exhibition brought photographer Ira Nowinski's ‘Bay Area Video Arcades’ photos from the early 1980s into conversation with a selection of arcade games from Van's collection.

With the successful Kickstarter behind her, the timing couldn’t be better for Van to follow up on recent successes with the next installment of the Supercade volume. Covering the final decades of the last century, Van will focus on the changes in the arcade scene with the advent of ‘fighting games’ such as Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat as well as the steady march through new generations of consoles from the Nintendo Entertainment System to the XBox. Journalists, academics, and influencers will also contribute content, including "Art of Atari" author Tim Lapetino, Edge magazine contributing editor Chris Schilling, Kotaku co-founder Brian Crecente, and “The Art of Video Games" author/curator Chris Melissinos, among others. As well, Van hopes to include contributions from game developers and other industry insiders such as Eugene Jarvis, Masaya Matsuura, and John Romero.

Following in the footsteps of the original Supercade, Volume 2 promises to be an exciting sequel that continues to showcase the vibrant history of the gaming industry. 

To pre-order your own copy of Supercade, or to follow the progress of the volume, check out the links below:


Instagram: @supercade71


Twitter: @supercade71


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