The Preservation of Fun: New York’s Videogame Museum «

The Preservation of Fun: New York’s Videogame Museum

The Strong National Museum of Play overlooks downtown Rochester, NY, a frosty, upstate boomtown better known as the home of Susan B. Anthony and Eastman Kodak. From the outside, the museum resembles a toy box gone supernova, all jumbled angles and primary colors. The inside isn’t much different — just louder.

Named for a local heiress who obsessively collected everything from teacups to bathtubs, the Strong Museum is as eccentric as its namesake: Part playground, part treasure trove, it’s the only museum in the world dedicated to the history and study of play. Here, the exhibits range from the silly to the scientific, and current installations include an art gallery of LEGO sculptures, a walk-through kaleidoscope, a history of the comic book superhero, and the National Toy Hall of Fame.

In March of last year, however, the museum took a decidedly digital direction, establishing a new research arm: the National Center for the History of Electronic Games, or NCHEG. NCHEG isn’t just an archive — although at over 20,000 artifacts and growing, it’s a pretty impressive one. It’s a research and curatorial effort focused on the study and interpretation of gaming’s impact on society (and vice-versa).

“Videogames have revolutionized the way people play — the way they learn and relate to each other,” says Jon-Paul Dyson, NCHEG’s director. “We want to capture that history now, so that when people are asking questions about this time 150 years from now, we’ll have an answer.”

Museum director Jon-Paul C. Dyson and associate curator Eric Wheeler show off their stuff.


The Tao of Preservation

NCHEG’s preservation effort is more than just an attempt to collect and catalogue every game ever made, says associate curator Eric Wheeler. It’s about the culture surrounding games, too — everything from game strategy guides and magazines to the puffy Pac-Man stickers you’d use to decorate your school notebooks.

“Fundamentally, what’s really important about these games is the experiences we have when we play them,” says Wheeler, a tall, energetic military vet and avid gamer. “We want to save the games themselves, of course… but also the memories tied up in them.”

Already, the collection has grown to surreal proportions: Since NCHEG started in March 2009, it’s acquired over 10,000 games, several hundred consoles, more than 100 handhelds, and dozens of electronic toys like Simon and Tamagotchi. Two of the newest jewels in the collection include over 5,000 recently donated educational games and nearly 1,000 strategy guides, including one of every Prima publication ever produced.

But this is just the beginning. To date, NCHEG’s efforts have focused mainly on the U.S. home console market, which — as vast as it is — is a far simpler proposition than tackling the dizzying universe of computer games. With all their various patches, mods, virtual multiplayer worlds, and downloadable-only content, PC games present a logistical nightmare for archivists, one that even Dyson (a self-professed computer geek who, as a kid, taught himself how to program his own text adventures) speaks about with some trepidation.

“Computers present a much bigger challenge,” says Dyson. “We can’t collect every app for the iPhone, or every indie game ever made. No one institution can. We just aren’t going to be able to collect everything.”

Yet both Dyson and Wheeler acknowledge that tackling that digital frontier in some way is crucial, as gaming has increasingly moved toward a virtual space. Given that so many digitally distributed and online-only games offer no physical copy to store away in a vault, a broader approach to preservation may be the only possible solution: some combination of archiving the game’s source code, its ancillary materials, and stories collected from its players.

Whatever method is adopted, it better be applied soon; In November alone, NCHEG acquired more than 1,000 computer games and platforms, a bounty that associate director Marc Check has been meticulously cataloguing ever since.