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Pac-Man Fever Revisited

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I hadn't played the arcade version of Missile Command in probably 20 years. Or Galaga. Or Dig Dug. But they're all currently at the Tech Museum as part of a rip-roaring show called Game On! The History, Culture and Future of Videogames. In fact, Conrad Bodman, who curated the original show at the Barbican Exhibition Center in London, stood right next to me while playing Donkey Kong. How's that for transatlantic interaction?

This is the West Coast premiere of the show and it originally opened at the Barbican, the biggest arts center in Europe. The show debuted in 2002 and went to several venues in Europe before hitting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The Tech Museum is the second U.S. venue for the show.

The show takes visitors on a crazed interactive journey through everything that is video games. You can actually play the arcade versions of several games from decades ago. But it's not just a throwback to your teenage days, hanging out in the game room at Straw Hat Pizza. There are exhibits on the entire history behind GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2. One exhibit explains the entire development of characters in games like Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider. Japan's contribution to video games is explored in detail. You can also listen to 50 game soundtracks, survey how music and sound contribute to the video game experience, or check out an original PDP-1 computer from 1962, supplied by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. The show is the first one of its kind to study video games within a cultural context. And the funniest thing is that we're right here in Silicon Valley, where many of these games were originally developed, and the show had to come all the way from the U.K.

"We have this saying in England: 'to take coals to Newcastle,'" explained Neil McConnon, the Barbican's touring and exhibitions manager. "Which is basically just to take things back to the place where they originated, and that's very much what I feel like we're doing with Game On here in San Jose. ... The exhibition is really about trying to pay homage to these creative people who underpinned the games industry. Everyone knows and can name their favorite actor, their favorite film, but I don't think many people know that the games industry is actually bigger than Hollywood and grosses more these days. And people are not aware of these creative peoplečthese huge talents that sort of underpinned the industry. It was really to provide a showcase and a platform for these people that the exhibition was conceived."

When it comes to video games, you generally find three types of people. First you have folks who say they played them heavily as a kid, but no more. I'm one of those. Second, you see folks who still play them obsessively. Finally, you have folks who never got into them at all. But not even they can deny their influence on popular culture.

With all the trivia involved here, gamer geeks of any persuasion will laugh out loud. Who knew that Tohru Iwatani, the inventor of the video game Pac-Man, came up with the idea when he saw a pizza with a slice missing at a dinner party? Or that over 40 million copies of Super Mario Bros. have been sold, making it the record holder for best-selling game ever? Or that Atari had to bury millions of unsold E.T. game cartridges in a New Mexico desert landfill in 1982. This is fun stuff. And guess what? There are 240 dots on a Pac-Man board. Aren't you glad you know this now?

And the show is absolute sensory overload. So many televisions and monitors are encompassed in this exhibit, it makes Circuit City look like an archaic wasteland. The kids will eat it up.

On a more sinister note, the show does not exclude the more violent games and the curators absolutely intend to keep the debate over them alive. Since Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed a bill preventing the sale of violent games to kids under 18, I'll make my contribution to this mess by quoting Marilyn Manson. After Columbine happened, Manson penned an article for Rolling Stone arguing that humans are simply predetermined for violent behavior and it all comes from the Bible: "When Cain bashed his brother Abel's head in, he didn't do it because he was playing too many video games," Manson said in countless interviews. "People didn't have too many televisions back in those days."

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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