Relive quarter-eaters' quarter-century

History: Video games' evolution has been far more than memories and fun, according to a local hands-on exhibit.

May 24, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

When the U.S. Postal Service asked Americans to vote on the most enduring and important symbol of the 1980s for a new stamp this year, guess what we chose?

Not the fall of the Berlin Wall, the construction of the Vietnam Memorial, or even the birth of the personal computer.

We chose video games.

Pac-Man and his pixilated pals graced the cover of Time magazine, dominated radio airwaves (remember "Pac-Man Fever"?), and gobbled 20 billion quarters a year.

Those days are mostly gone -- the action having since moved from arcades in shopping malls and pizza parlors to our living rooms. But this summer, you can relive them.

Enter Videotopia, a traveling exhibit of classic coin-operated video arcade machines that opens Saturday at the Maryland Science Center and runs through Sept. 6. More than a retro-game room, the exhibit is an attempt to restore the video game to its exalted place in history.

Video games? History?

You bet, says Keith Feinstein, the 31-year-old former Space Invaders addict who lovingly assembled and restored the exhibit's more than 100 aging electronic artifacts.

"For a whole generation, video games served the same purpose that rock 'n' roll did for an earlier generation. It was this thing your parents didn't understand, putting you in a world of your own," he says.

Obsessed by this vision, Feinstein quit chiropractic school in the early 1990s and began scouring basements, barns, junkyards and bowling alleys to rescue these moldering cultural monoliths. He painstakingly restored the machines, researched the lives of their designers and put it all together in a 25-year retrospective of digital history.

"It took a lot of bulldozing to get people to appreciate that video games were a very important part of the evolution of technology and the evolution of this society," he says. "There's this snobbery in academic circles that says that something that's fun or entertaining is not worth chronicling."

Slowly, conservationists are coming around. Museums have begun to warm to the idea that a circuit board can be just as historically significant as a Gutenberg Bible or Mercury space capsule. Some are collecting artifacts ranging from the garage-built Apple II prototype to Bill Gates' paper tape copy of his version of BASIC, which he wrote in his Harvard dorm room.

All of the games in Videotopia are historic. You'll find the 1971 Computer Space machine, which holds the dual distinction of being the world's first coin-operated video game and the first coin-op to flop. There's Pong, which debuted a year later and ignited a nationwide frenzy, and Gunfight, the first to employ a microprocessor. And there's Breakout, designed by two Atari wage slaves named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak -- friends who went on to found Apple computer.

Feinstein believes there's no better way to learn history than to relive it, sweaty palms and all. So unlike the Smithsonian's dinosaurs, Videotopia's digital behemoths live and breathe. Visitors get two free game tokens when they walk in the door. They can buy or earn more of them by answering trivia questions based on the exhibit's lessons.

Along the way visitors discover how video game technology works and what it takes to become a game designer and hardware engineer.

"If you spark a kid's interest, you want them to have some place to take it," Feinstein says.

But for many visitors, Videotopia won't be about technology or education or even history, but recapturing paradise lost. Want to see a grown-up vid-kid cry? Serenade him with the ker-plink of a dropping quarter, give him a glowing asteroid to blast and let him feel once again that he's 12 years old and Master of the Universe.

The Maryland Science Center will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. Admission is $9.75 for adults 19 and older, $8 for seniors and youths ages 13 to 18, and $7 for children ages 4 to 12.

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