National Videogame Arcade: Appreciating games of the past to inspire games developers of the future

Rather than simply introducing people to playing games or offering nostalgia, this aims to explore video game culture and the mechanics of play

Last week, a film trailer was released which proved to be rather enticing for the 34.3 million people who watched it. It showed a platoon of video game characters hell bent on destroying the world, a dire situation indeed for mankind but good news for Sony Pictures which is still reeling over the hacking scandal and the prevailing wrath of Kim Jong-un.

Movies based on video games have been a mixed bag over the years, yet the 3D sci-fi adventure comedy, Pixels, seems to have pricked viewer interest for a reason. The cast is a nostalgia-fest of recognised names from the 1980s that range from pill-popping Pac-Man to the barrel-throwing gorilla Donkey Kong. This one's as much for adults of a certain age than it is for the kids.

Fast forward a few days and Nottingham flings open the doors to its shiny new addition; a sizeable, five-floored, glass-fronted homage to the gaming industry. Like Pixels, the National Videogame Arcade harks back to an earlier age steeped in familiarity for so many. There is an entire – albeit small – room committed to Donkey Kong with an original arcade cabinet, numerous references to Mario and Sonic and an area packed with memorabilia.

It's also a what's what of gaming's history as intricate as a Lucozade bottle bearing the face and body of Lara Croft. Not only does it contain examples of old consoles dating back to the 1970s, it has a cassette deck - the frustrating likes of which have caused much premature balding - and a copy of the atrocious E.T. for the Atari 2600 which had escaped being sent to a Mexican desert landfill in 1982 (Pixels would be missing a trick if it does not at least include a reference).

And yet this is almost a red herring, a side-show that is part and parcel of a wider agenda, one which reimagines the dark, dusty and competitive video game arcades of old for a modern, vibrant, tech-curious crowd, keen to explore and be creative. In the same way as the film seemingly flips long-held ideas on its head - “Pac-Man is a bad guy?” says a startled Adam Sandler, rather cringe-worthily – so the exhibition changes the perception of what video games can be.

 

Room Racers encapsulates this well. Created at the turn of the decade, the game brings the concept of Codemasters' Micro Machines to life, letting you create your own race tracks by placing real items on the floor while an overhead projector beams down virtual, controllable cars which bump into these objects in real time. The Minecraft Room is also a noble attempt at blurring the boundaries between games and the real world. Players grab an Xbox controller and stick their head into a dome while projection mapping software works its magic, making it feel as if the gamer is working their way through the virtual location. It is a technology originally intended for use with treadmills in the gym but it works wonders in gaming.

And yet the co-directors, Jonathan Smith and Iain Simons, have leaned the National Videogame Arcade towards exploring video game culture and the mechanics of play, rather than simply introducing people to playing games or reacquainting themselves with the past. For them, it is more important to encourage visitors to get under-the-hood of the game-making process and to explore new ideas of play. To that end, the installations are simple and approachable. This is not a foreboding arcade, retching with anxiety over high scores.

So while the NVA will have a program of changing exhibitions, it has deliberately chosen the first to be Jump! which is an exploration of what has long been a fundamental gameplay mechanic. A machine called a Jump-o-tron lets people control a jump's gravity and physics. It invites visitors to test it by leaping on to a pad, encouraging them to think about how jumping is used within gameplay.  There is also an impressive game called Mission Control created by Alex Roberts which mocks up a NASA-style control centre and claims to turn anybody – even the novice – into a games-maker with a few flicks of a switch and a number of button presses.

This kind of path fits well with Smith and Simon's credentials as people of gaming pedigree. Smith is a former games journalist who became the chief games designer at Codemasters before bagging a BAFTA for his role in heading up the development of blockbuster Lego titles for TT Games. Simons founded Nottingham's annual art-led gaming festival, GameCity, in 2006, overseeing such gems as a late-night concert in a church by video game music composer James Hannigan and a game of Pac-Man on the streets of the provincial city.

The pair hope to attract 60,000 visitors a year to the NVA and they forecast bringing £2.5 million to the local economy by 2018. The opening could not have been better timed either. Last week, chancellor George Osborne pledged up to £8 million in funding for the UK video game industry, giving half to a revived Prototype Fund to grant start-up gaming studios access to finance and the rest to the Skills Investment Fund.

The NVA hopes to encourage the UK's games designers of the future and it is no surprise that Ian Livingstone, founder of Games Workshop and author of the Fighting Fantasy books, is on board. As well as heading up Eidos, publisher of the Tomb Raider franchise, he co-authored a report which successfully saw a new computing curriculum introduced into British schools last September. Earlier this month, he helped unveil the BBC's new Micro Bit programmable device that is being given away to a million children aged 11 and 12.

With all of this going on, the NVA is hoping to be part of a new growth in video game development in Britain. “We've always worked to inspire people from all walks of life with the creative possibility of games," says Simons, "and this project brings these values and ambitions to the first permanent cultural space of its kind.”

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