WASHINGTON -- Asteroids. Space Invaders. Visions of Pac-Man ghosts dancing in your head.
For more than two decades, video games have often been derided as the mental equivalent of bubble gum, a diversion for aimless youths intent on frittering away time and money.
But arcades as socio-economic catalysts? Pong as essential forerunner of Windows '95? Tokyo Wars as educational endeavor?
Keith Feinstein thinks so. And, in a crusade to educate America about the virtues of video arcade games, the computer buff from New Providence, N.J., has created a traveling, museum-style exhibit to support his case.
"Videotopia," on the history of the video game, includes every ker-pow and bleep from the first Atari system for the home released 22 years ago to the virtual-reality ski simulator Alpine Racer (complete with life-size skis). The exhibit, barnstorming the nation, is in Washington through tomorrow.
Videotopia is a nostalgic blast back to the prehistoric days of the digital age, when a game involving a small ball on a black-and-white screen was the cutting edge of high-tech entertainment, when e-mail was little more than a glint in a science fiction writer's eye.
"Videotopia," Feinstein says, "came out of a desire to set the record straight on computer games as they relate to society and provide an opportunity to educate the public on computers."
In 1990, Feinstein says, he became disgusted by the sour media coverage of video games, with widespread reports sounding alarms about the games' violence and mindlessness. Believing the games to be showcases for state-of-the-art computer technology, Feinstein established the Electronic Conservancy in Murray Hill, N.J., to buy and refurbish old arcade machines and display them in a traveling interactive exhibit.
Besides Feinstein, the Conservancy now has two full-time technicians and a public relations employee. Two years ago, the conservancy began showcasing its collection at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"Without video games, we wouldn't have the computer revolution we have today," said Feinstein, a one-time chiropractic student. He points to the game Breakout, created by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs just before the two established a company called Apple Computer.
The traveling exhibit capitalizes on the resurgence of nostalgia for old arcade games that first came on the scene in 1971. Atari, purveyor of the earliest games, recently sold the rights to its arcade library to Hasbro Interactive, a subsidiary of the toy company that plans to re-release such classics as Centipede -- this time for PCs.
Frogger, that Atari log-leaping game of yore, was a topic last week on "Seinfeld," with George obsessing about buying an old Frogger on which he still had the top all-time score. Since Hasbro put a Frogger PC game on the market in December, nearly a million copies have sold in less than four months.
One man from Toronto took a 13-hour bus ride to Washington to play the "Videotopia" games for three hours, then turned around and rode 13 hours back, organizers said. Another man flew from Britain to Philadelphia when the exhibit arrived at that city's Franklin Institute.
To watch people at play in "Videotopia" is to watch adults return to their childhood when the most pressing concern was beating the high score on games at the mall arcade. In Washington, brothers Warren and Greg Schaffer, 32 and 34, stumbled upon "Videotopia" last week. Gaping, laughing and gesturing to their old-time favorites, their eyes lit up when they spotted the Asteroid machine.
"This really gives you a flashback to what we all used to be addicted to," said Warren, visiting from Los Angeles and anxiously awaiting his turn at the console as his brother blew space rock to bits.
"It's amazing how many you forget, and then when you see them you remember how important this was," said Greg, a computer crime lawyer for the Justice Department. "In junior high, it all seemed very important."
Each game is accompanied by a brief history. Missile Command, popular in the early 1980s, was designed as a statement against nuclear attack: No one can ever win the game.
"The terrifying subject matter of Missile Command had an incredible effect on members of the team that created it, and many of them reported having nightmares of nuclear war," reads the text.
The 1981 hit Centipede is the rare game favored by more women than men, possibly because its pastel maze boards were designed by a woman, a placard postulates.
More than 4,000 people have visited "Videotopia" since it opened in Washington in late January, said Allen Farber, director of public relations for the Capital Children's Museum, which will receive proceeds from the show .
"We wanted to show the kids how far we've come in computer history," said Farber, 33. "Something I find disturbing is that those games have become artifacts in my lifetime."