Smithsonian Steps In to Preserve Gaming's History...Again.

Steve Anderson : End Game
Steve Anderson
The Video Store Guy
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Smithsonian Steps In to Preserve Gaming's History...Again.

The true historical value of just about anything is commonly lost on most people. That's often why most historical treasures are valuable: sheer scarcity. If you'd asked the average citizen in the 1850s, for example, if they'd rather have a $20 gold coin or the five weeks' worth of food and the like it would buy—it represented around five weeks' pay—most probably wouldn't have kept the coin. That same coin could be worth $60,000 today depending on condition and year. The same holds true for inventions, as prototypes are cannibalized for parts or thrown out. Video games are no different, but the Smithsonian, perhaps sensing the historic nature of video games, is working to preserve the early days of gaming with a new effort.

A component of the Smithsonian, the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation is working to conduct a set of “oral-history interviews” as well as preserve materials that are related to how the industry got started. Said start occurred—in a development sure to make early gamers feel old—50 years ago. The Lemelson Center's plans include a complete two-year study of gaming's pioneers, including as many as 20 from those operating in the 1960s and 1970s. Already the center has made great progress, landing Ralph Baer's original “Brown Box”, considered to be the first ever video game console from the late 1960s, as well as Baer's entire basement workshop.

This isn't the first time the Smithsonian has gotten involved with gaming, either; back in January, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), also known as the group behind the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3), pointed out on its Facebook account a 360-degree video of the Smithsonian's Indie Arcade. Hosted by several groups including the ESA, the event hit the Smithsonian American Art Museum, giving independent game developers the chance to show off their materials in a one-day event that the public can freely attend. The event seems to have been running for some time, at least the last couple of years, and may ultimately prove to be an annual event.

The preservation of gaming history isn't exactly new in and of itself. Even here, we've talked about the biggest console failures in gaming history, the worst technological failures in gaming history, the most important people in gaming history, and even a look at some of the earliest days of gaming with a live look at a pinball expo. We're routinely analyzing, discussing, rehashing and listing the biggest, best, worst, and most every other superlative of the gaming market.

We, and those like us, are doing it for a good reason; it's one of the great platitudes of history that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, so we must understand our history. By understanding history, we can learn what went wrong previously so as to avoid it in the future, and also apply these lessons to future concepts. We can even create a kind of novelty by turning to what worked well in the past but hasn't been used lately.

Look at what happened when Sony brought out Crash Bandicoot at E3; it ranked as one of the biggest stories of E3 by IGN's reckoning. Look at Skylanders itself; it's an offshoot of Spyro the Dragon from the original PlayStation era almost three generations ago. Look at most of Nintendo's entire arsenal; they're still making hay from games developed around 30 years ago. The value of history is all around us; we build on history to create the present, and the present we build today will be the history that the future draws on tomorrow to make its games. A little oblique, granted, but still valid; today's original concept is tomorrow's retro gaming jackpot.

The Smithsonian's concerns, meanwhile, aren't likely geared toward giving game developers the fertile fodder on which to develop the next generation of hot gaming properties. It's likely a lot more altruistic, rather; simply a matter of taking a very popular art form—though not everyone agrees as to the overall artistic merits of the work—and preserving its earliest days while its earliest days are still on hand. It's a simple matter of foresight and reasonable planning, which admittedly, is not something we see a lot of out of any organization even vaguely connected to the United States government.

In the end, we should be grateful to the Smithsonian and its attendant organizations for stepping in to preserve a chunk of our gaming past. There are lessons to be learned from the past, and that's valuable enough. There is also, however, inspiration to be derived from a hard-fought struggle to elevate gaming from a practice commonly regarded as the province of social rejects in their parents' basements to a practice that most anyone can enjoy. We have overcome both technological and cultural problems to elevate this art form to one that is truly the match of portraiture or symphony, and though the price of legitimacy here is eternal vigilance, the Smithsonian's interest alone makes it clear that we have arrived.

Now let's not forget how we got here. Or where we parked.

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