running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Mastering the history of videogames

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland is currently hosting the rather superb Game Masters - a major exhibition showcasing the work of thirty of the most influential computer games designers and studios, and featuring 100 of the greatest video games since Tomohiro Nishikado's seminal 'Space Invaders' (1978).

Originally shown at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, this exhibition traces the development of computer games in a broadly chronological order, starting with arcade games, and covering the PC, console, multiplayer and tablet eras.

The setup is uniquely interactive and hugely absorbing. As well as allowing visitors to actually touch exhibits in a museum (you can play every game at your leisure), the show features filmed interviews with designers such as Peter Molyneux, Tim Schafer and Yuji Naka.  Also on display are sketchbooks, doodles, notes, character concepts and storyboards for many of the titles, including some fascinating initial drawings for DMA's 'Lemmings'. Particularly for the younger visitors to the exhibition, these paper artefacts, signposting the design thinking and narrative concepts behind the titles, serve to remind us that a computer game starts with a great idea.

I took my Minecraft-mad 10-year old son along and he was suitably awestruck at the whole experience, despite being bemused by the arcade games, and somewhat underwhelmed by the slower, more experiential 3D offerings.  For a ten-year old, gaming begins with TT's full Lego franchise output, along with Marcus Persson's aforementioned Minecraft, which had its own dedicated 10ft wide projection screen.

The stand-outs for me included the wonderful arcade game Robotron 2084 (Williams, 1982) and the ambient electro-laser beauty of Dreamcast's 2001 effort, Rez.  Check them both out, and enjoy -

Robotron 2084 - Viz Kids/Williams, 1982, Designed by Eugene Jarvis.

Rez, published by Dreamcast (2001), designed by Tetsuya Misuguchi. 

Will Wright's SimCity and Sim2000 also featured, but seeing those games running in early Windows on a PC holds very little in the way of positive memories now and felt truly dated.

The real cultural significance of an exhibition like this goes beyond a celebration of the most lucrative of modern pastimes, it somehow taps into the pioneering spirit of what is still a very young medium.  Many of the studios and designers featured represent entrepreneurial milestones in the creative industries, and their narratives - a set of biographical information boards for each designer/studio - clearly contextualises the technological and design developments in areas like game engines, user interaction, interface design, computer graphics and storytelling.

This exhibition runs until March and is well worth getting along to at least once. Is there anything negative to mention? Well, the omission of any titles by Westwood Studios (and by extension, Electronic Arts) seems a bit harsh.  Its worth noting that you only get a three-hour slot for your £10 entry fee, plus most of the merchandise in the shop is predictably overpriced. The National Museum website contains all the details, including a list of the 100 games.