Today the V&A Museum of Childhood made this tweet to celebrate the opening of Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition at the V&A all about the design and culture of contemporary video games. Here’s the tweet in question:
My immediate response was one of sadness at the pristine Game Boy. Untouched, unused. Complete. Perhaps never fulfilling its role as a handheld console. I remember that outrageous box, the instruction booklet, the ear buds, the little cases the game carts (used to) come in. The opening screen and the noise that went with it.
I’m excited about the new exhibition, the latest in all too rare video game exhibitions. I’ve not seen it yet but for all the exhibitions about video games I’ve seen so far, I’m always left disappointed. By focusing on hardware and software, the key ingredient of what makes gaming a pastime for so many is missing. At Game On in the Science Museum, I think they boasted over one hundred playable titles. Like you’re going to play through Final Fantasy VII standing on gallery (well until you hit the disc change screen). But, for me, and many like me, gaming is also strongly tied up in memory, experience and the relationships with the games themselves and the time you played them can be a deeply personal connection.
Take my Game Boy for example. Here’s a picture.
A life well wasted. My Game Boy. Better days have been had. I’ve still got the headphones (broken), poster that came in the box, original Tetris and instruction booklets.
Now THIS is a Game Boy. My brother, sister and I were given Game Boys (maybe each or maybe two between the three of us) by my Uncle who had been living in Australia for a long time as a present to make up for all the missed birthday and Christmases in between. My Game Boy is a long lost Uncle coming home. It was an amazing gift. My mum labelled each of them and the identical copies of Tetris with Dymo tape.
My family has always been a gaming family. Before the Game Boys our Grandma had a number of Game & Watch err games and watches which I think belonged to my auntie, uncles and mum. Snoopy Tennis, Octopus, Manhole and Donkey Kong Jr. I still have Octopus and Donkey Kong Jr. today and recently downloaded Donkey Kong Jr on my 3DS. With the Game Boys(?) in the family, traditional family dinner at my grandma’s on Sunday became day long Tetris competitions either head to head using a link cable or undertaking B-Type challenges. My mum and auntie were freaks on the challenges, competing for times on 9-5 settings (a feat I still can’t do today). My Game Boy is the dog Rosie, the smell of Yorkshire puddings and gravy and my deceased Grandfather.
Before games journalism, before Metacritic there was just what’s on sale at Argos at the time. I wonder if that amazing Asterix tie-in with Stena Sealink is still valid?
At the time, like today sadly, there weren’t really video game stores. For the longest time Canterbury only had one computer shop at the top end of town, which mostly offered a random assortment of Amiga games. There weren’t gaming websites or shops or really magazines either so what Argos and later Blockbuster had in stock was the major decision making process for the games we bought with Christmas or birthday money. My first game was Asterix, my brother’s a far more respectable Kirby’s Dreamland and my sister’s was either tough as nails Alien Vs. Predator or Gremlins 2. My Game Boy is a bizarre line in licensed games which were impossible to beat.
My best friend who lived down the road from me in my family home also had a Game Boy. He had a rubberised case for it (the coolest thing) and even the ridiculous light extension. The Game Boy didn’t play well in the dark or the car without it. He had The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening which he temporarily swapped for… a really awful game, ah the memories are hazy I can’t remember… and never got it back. I’m still in touch with Fraser. When we (too) rarely meet, we still communicate in the Amiga soundbites of our childhood. In the Summer holidays, we’d set all our Game Boy and handheld games up on the sofa like a mini arcade. My Game Boy is care free summer’s with the kids from the neighbourhood.
After a while with the N64 and PlayStation coming out, the Game Boys still got play on Sundays. By this time, our cousins had grown up and kept up the console abuse. By this time, the case was yellowed with age and countless sweaty hands. We’d lost one of the little plugs which went in the cable slot (they were too loose after taking them in and out). My Game Boy is a connection between generations.
I moved away to University and met Richie. Richie had a Game Boy colour. We bonded over video games, especially Pokemon. One summer I dug out the old Game Boy and Pokemon Yellow to take to University. The screen had come off through all the years of Tetrissing. Richie and I talked for hours about video games and I especially remember him playing Pokémon Trading Card Game on the coach during fieldwork. His Game Boy is me being hungover vomiting into a plastic bag on the back of a coach in the Czech Republic. Richie was the best man at my wedding.
It was during that next Summer that my Game Boy in my bag was landed on by my friend James. My Game Boy is dead. Maybe. I don’t want to put batteries in it to see if it still works today. It’s earned the rest to be honest.
At my wedding I did a solo dance to what still remains, the greatest Tetris remix to date. Dacav 5’s Tetris. My Game Boy is getting married to the woman I love surrounded by friends and family celebrating our lives together.
So THIS. Is a Game Boy. Not the package perfect, unused, unloved, unconnected Game Boy and these are some of the stories I wish museums would tell when it comes to gaming. Not the technological innovation, the empty shells of the hardware, the marketing materials and the catridges and cases in glass coffins. The antithesis of play. It’s the stories and connections I’d rather see. A row of stickered, battered, broken Game Boys, each with it’s owner’s stamps, lifelong friendships, family and memories that make us.
I’ll reserve judgement of Design/Play/Disrupt for when I see it but I’ve yet to see a video game exhibition which really puts players, not just the games at its heart.