Archive brings games old and new to students

BY JAMIE BLOCK
Daily Arts Writer
Published November 5, 2008

Deep within the maze of computers that forms the Duderstadt Center on North Campus, there’s a secret alcove of video-gaming wonder. Though the room appears neither glorious nor vibrant — it was once used to house photocopiers — a look around its walls will instill glee in anyone who's ever picked up a controller.

(Angela Cesere/Daily)

The Computer and Video Game Archive — a branch of the Art, Architecture and Engineering Library — is dedicated to collecting and exhibiting video games.

The archive is no bigger than an average classroom. Booths with new televisions and consoles line two of the walls, and a ceiling-high shelf system encompasses the third. On the shelves are games and consoles ranging from the popular to the incredibly obscure. There's also an enormous television standing in front of three comfy armchairs, perfect for plopping down after a stressful day and inflicting virtual wrath. All anyone needs to do is walk in and choose a console and game, and the staff will set it all up at a gaming station.

But the archive, open weekdays from 1 to 8 p.m. on the second floor of the Duderstadt, is more than a great new place to play games. It’s proof that video games are a cultural phenomenon and an expanding field of academic study. The idea for the archive met almost no opposition when it was pitched, garnering full support from the University.

“It’s an idea whose time has come. Video games in the academic world are in the same place film studies were 20 or 25 years ago,” said David Carter, long-time game enthusiast and the archive's founder.

The archive is first and foremost an academic resource, and while most of its student use will be recreational, research is already happening there. The archive plans to work closely with pre-existing University courses in several departments. In one class, Intro Engineering, students are required to create their own video game. Carter hopes the archive will not only help them research games, but also allow the finished products to be played by other University students. The Communications, Psychology and Screen Arts and Cultures departments also offer courses that illustrate and analyze the cultural impact of video games on society.

The archive is trying to understand the future of video game studies.

“We collect stuff now trying to anticipate as best we can what the needs of researchers and students will be down the road,” Carter said. “These elements of pop culture that people tend to look down at are in fact causing us to think in new, interesting and different ways.”

Video games have had an impact on American culture since their inception, and the trend will continue as long as the industry survives. In the days when Pac-Man and Donkey Kong ruled the gaming world, arcades sprung up as social hubs and a way for young people to come together. Carter fondly recalled the arcade atmosphere from his youth: “The greasy food, the cacophony, sensory overload, sights, and sounds and smells.”

The archive attempts to preserve the authentic feeling of its old games by having the original consoles and controllers whenever possible. Playing a game on a single joystick allows for a far more accurate recreation of the original experience than using an Xbox controller.

The list of old consoles is impressively thorough; it includes the Atari 2600, Mattel Intellivision, TurboGrafx-16 and Sega Master System, and Carter is always looking for more. For computer games, Carter has some obscure old machines, going as far back as the Commodore Vic-20 and the Tandy Color Computer 3. He’s even searching for ’80s-era televisions on which to display the games. As Carter remembers, a large part of the frustration with gaming in its infancy was “dealing with the fickleness of the technology.” The old equipment has a unique charm to it, especially seeing it all together on the shelves. It’s a comprehensive timeline of gaming’s evolution, all contained in one unassuming little room.

What’s so crucial about the archive is that all this gaming equipment is finally being conserved. As the years go by, old consoles become harder and harder to find. Carter hopes that creating the archive now will make video games easier to study later, allowing for researchers to access the oldest gaming technology, most of which would otherwise have faded so far into obscurity that it would be impossible to find.

But recreational gamers need not worry — the archive doesn’t just house games of bygone days. The room holds nearly every console imaginable, including the current big three: Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. While the supply of games is by no means complete — the archive has only 400 games total — it’s certainly sufficient to entertain a modern audience. The archive has both new releases like “Halo 3” and “Heavenly Sword” and popular classics like “Duck Hunt” for the original Nintendo Entertainment System.

With only a few gaming stations, there is often a wait to play during popular hours. Carter would love to expand the archive, but space at the University is a precious commodity, and he doesn’t have high hopes. With a relatively constraining budget as well, the archive relies heavily on donations and is always accepting games and equipment because, as Carter simply and accurately put it, “things break.” As an added bonus, donations are tax-deductible. (E-mail game.donations@umich.edu for details.)

The games of today that are attracting recreational use are by no means less culturally significant than the classics of the industry’s origin. Gaming is in the media every day and is becoming a dominant form of media itself. The archive is playing a role in the process; it has plans to aid in a study on the impact of violence in modern video games and is helping to organize a symposium on gaming’s other cultural influences.

The archive’s grand opening is Nov. 17 from 3:30 to 6 p.m. The opening ceremonies will feature speeches and include food. And, of course, there will also be plenty of gaming. Carter expects that “the day after that is probably going to look a lot like the day before.” The archive plans to begin reserving stations for gamers and hopes to hire another student to enable operational hours on weekends.

The Computer and Video Game Archive is a great place to hang out with friends, but more importantly, it’s a sign that the University and the academic world as a whole are starting to recognize the significance of gaming in modern culture. Whether you’re looking for modern hits or arcade classics, the archive is a great place to visit and play. Who knows? You might even learn something.