Game On, the exhibition, was at The Barbican last year. The history of computer games, supposedly. A geek droolathon and an excuse to put a load of old machines on free play, in actuality. I went of course. And drooled. And I took DDN, over here on holiday from France and his record label ( and with a ready supply of Gallic drool. Here's what we thought once we'd rehydrated. (6th April 2003)

Game Over?

Picture the scene. It’s early evening. On a housing estate. It’s seen better days. There’s a community centre. Prefabricated, concrete, 1960s, dirty. Light through thin curtains is refracted by cracked window. Frayed posters splattered across the entranceway. Playgroup, needle exchange, five-a-side, Easter Fayre. Bus stop across the road. Vandalised, graffitied, surrounded by hard teenagers with cider, cigs, sickofitall. Dismal. Depressing. My Destination. Inside. Hello. My name is Jimmy Possession and I’m a nostalgiaholic. Support group. Problem shared. Problem not yet solved. Story not yet told. Tell us. OK. It started back in the good old days..

Picture the scene. London. The Barbican. It’s early evening. Surroundings unheeded. I’m high. High. HIGH. On nostalgia. Legitimate nostalgia. At least, establishment-approved nostalgia. Exhibition masquerade. Game On. There’s a teenager here. Just stepped gangly out of my head. Reverted to past life. Amusement arcade mid 1980s. Space Invaders. Pac Man. Tempest. Defender. Mr Do. Pengo. Centipede. Missile Command. Pong. On Free Play. Free Play. Free Play. Free Play..

Only one of these events has actually taken place. But the other can’t be far off. I’ve got a Playstation. I got it so that I could play 1942, the game that tied me and Donna Donnelly forever together at Halesowen College, 1987. The game that we’ve been trawling seaside arcades to play ever since. I play games on our PC. Old arcade games I downloaded off the internet. Old Sinclair Spectrum games I sucked off some dodgy Russian FTP site. Old Atari 2600 games, flickery and frequently terrible, sourced like porno through a network of web pages covered in disclaimers and misdirection.

It’s not that I haven’t tried new games. I have. But they’re crap.

That’s not true. They’re too hard. And they cost a quid a go. A quid. A friggin’ quid. They used to cost 10p.

10P 1 PLAY

But mostly they’re just too hard. Take Space Invaders. Two buttons, or a joystick, for left and right. One button to fire. The invaders come down the screen. They shoot. You shoot back. They move back and forth. You move back and forth. They ultimately win. You lose. But it’s simple. Simple to grasp, simple to play. Addictive.

You can’t step up to an arcade machine these days without a NASA scientist, a 500-page manual and two extra hands. You could stick your quid into one of those electro chickens that lay a cheap plastic egg containing a cheap plastic toy and get more value for money, more interaction and, dammit, more fun.

But machines these days are so realistic, they say. But I don’t want realism, I say. I’ve got really real all real day every real day and I don’t need any more. What I want is outside of real. Virtual Reality serves it all up on a plate. I want Actual Unreality. I want to imagine, I want to escape into my head. I want my brain to be addled by the cathode radiation arcing onto my retinas. I want to believe that those are my cities being bombed and the only way I can save them is by spinning a plastic ball and watching wobbly, low-resolution lines zig-zag their way up the screen towards the forked lightning alien attacks. I want to slide these ice cubes into that penguin. I want to rescue the princess from the clutches of the evil gorilla by scrambling up girders and leaping over barrels. I want to help the frog across the road.

I want fun. I want interaction. I want simple to get into. I want to imagine I’m somewhere else. The old games gave me all that along with a festering addiction that fortunately couldn’t be fed very easily where I lived and so manifested itself as a yearly Summer holiday binge. For 12 months: save up the silver in the 10p tube from the West Bromwich Building Society. Mum thinks it’s great that little Jimmy is being so conscientious about saving money. She’s misguided. Five quid in 10p pieces? Fifty plays!

10P 1 PLAY

It makes me glow inside just thinking about it. Arcades don’t thrill me any more. I want it like it used to be. It’s Game Over for me. Roll on that first desperate Nostalgiaholics Anonymous meeting..

No, hang on. There’s hope for me yet. I’ve found a new, modern, arcade game to play. Dance Dance Revolution is my saviour. For a quid each, you and a mate stand on a mini Saturday Night Fever dancefloor and compete to see who’s funky struttin’ is the Fonziest. The machine plays the music, shouts encouragement, tells you where to put your feet and keeps the score. You just dance. Left, right, forward, back. It’s Like That. Left, left, right, right. Video Killed The Radio Star. Bounce, bounce, left and right together. Word Up. Pure hypnotic escapism. I might not end up in that NA nightmare after all. I bought DDR for the Playstation. I had to buy the special dance mats as well. But think of all the quids I’m saving. If I play it often enough, it’ll only cost 10p a game. (Jim)

Game On!

I have an English friend and we share lots of bad habits. Listening to harsh music at very loud volume. Wearing band tee-shirts past the age of 30. Collecting vinyl records no-one else would want to buy. And playing vintage videogames. My friend took me to this Game On exhibit, with all those 1970-1980s arcade machines you could play for no money (yes!!) till exaustion. It was brilliant but I came outta here with a headful of wonders.

I wonder why I had to kick a 6-year-old out of the machine to play Star Wars for half an hour (was it 'feel the force, Luke' 8-bitwan Kenobi said?), while I waited 5 minutes to play Tony Hawk Pro Skateboarding for 5 minutes and was handed the... The what? Now how do we call these... 10 buttons and triggers, two or three joysticks, bright colors, looks like an alien scorpio. Anyway, I was handed the GameThingTM by a 18-year-old and fuck you teenies I was much better at it than he was, not being a youngster and all (and please don't say I picked up the only game I have at home, truth hurts sometimes).

I wonder why I sticked so much longer in front of thin green/blue lines drawing clumsy spaceships firing at clumsier invaders for no appearent reason (ah yes: 'they want to invade our world', why would anyone want to invade our thrashcan is another worthy thing to wonder about) than I do now in front of 'realistic looking' (??!) multilayered multicouloured multidimensional flying arsenals (press Caps+F5+rightctrl+f for this extra special supercheapofire that turns your enemies into a mixture of fudge, raw oysters and hot chocolate then forces others to eat it).

I wonder why everything was 'laser' when I was a kid (and if it was super-advanced-technology, then it was 'lazer') and everything is 'virtual' nowadays. Virtual reality, my foot. I prefer laser-reality, cause there's probably some Gravitar arcade machine somewhere there (and there wasn't at Game On, curses). 'Virtual' laser-sucks.

I wonder why I really didn’t give a damn about first floor and modern technology and stayed mostly in the first room, where the genuine machines were (and the Tron was out of order, too bad).

I wonder why the humming low boopboopboop of Asteroïd still means something to my heart and I could recognize it before even seeing the machine at Game On (and spending the next hour playing it) whereas 5.1 means to my heart as much as a pen to a lobster.I think I know why. It's because the game was in my mind. Now that it's all there on the shiny screen, 'emphasis on gameplay' 'new surround sound effects' 'enhanced enemy AI' 'bright and different 3D panoramic vision' or whatever, it's not in ME anymore. I don't feel more like an actor playing those RPG games than I did playing Tempest. The game is a lot more difficult and sure requires 2145712544 hours training before you learn to pick up your first weapon, but it's all a bloody swindle. They SAY you're an actor but the only thing you do is push the buttons again, not dream or imagine anything cause it's all pre-imagined for you. Tempest didn't pose as art, Tempest didn't pretend to enhance your imagination. Tempest (or Penguin, or Pac Man, or Defender, or Missile Command, or write your favourite here ________ for god’s sake) was simple and fun and that was it. Played it for half an hour and basta!, back reading. Or maybe not, maybe I stayed there and played it all afternoon since I loved that game. Can’t remember.

Not that I'm absolutely allergic to modern games or think kids are perverted by videogames or anything. Actually I played videogames a hell of a lot myself when I was a kid and Resident Evil (I think it is called BioHazard in Britain) is one of my favourite games, ever (okay let's see: 1-you were perverted 2-Biohazard isn't a modern game, it's almost 10 years old, granddad) (now shut up or be laser-blasted). Okay, okay, so they didn’t even sell any tee shirts at the expo-shop? Nope. No books? Well, none worth mentioning. Nothing you could carry with you as memories of this wonderful afternoon? Hell, NO. But playing Tempest again is not something I’ll easily forget, so I’ll just say no to consumerism and remember. Do you remember? (ddn)

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