How does a hands-on vintage video gaming experience sound? What if you were able to design your own controller layout and use them on the first (production version) at-home video game system? If we can get over a few small hurdles and through some interpretive design, the visitors to National Museum of American History may have that opportunity. I am fortunate enough to be part of the team that is working to make this happen.
What is the connection between video games and the Smithsonian? The National Museum of American History has collected the basement workshop of legendary video game pioneer Ralph Baer. It was in this workshop where Ralph invented games and toys that have become classics. One of Ralph’s greatest inventions was the first interactive at-home video game. The prototype of this game goes by the name Brown Box. The production version of the game was the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972.
Quite a few of the Odyssey games still exist in good working condition. In the final days of 2014 we purchased one of these working systems for our proposed activity. The Smithsonian already has two systems in our collection, but collection objects are meant for preservation. We purchased our Odyssey game system so that it could be played with stock components and possibly with visitor-created controllers.
When the Odyssey arrived we had to test it for compatibility with the monitor we had on hand. Once we had it working we took time to do some “research”—playing the games. (Playing vintage video games must fit under the “other duties as assigned” part of my job description.) The stock system comes with multiple carts and plastic screen overlays. Once we were sure the systems worked, I could take apart one of the controllers. We have the wiring diagrams for the game system, but being that I am not an electrical engineer by training I needed to get inside a controller. From there I tested the components and determined that we should make a prototype “create your own controller” activity.
As a museum we strive to engage our public in the stories that make up our American History. It is the hope of our project team to not only tell the story of the first at-home video game but also have visitors step in the inventor’s shoes. If you can create something that controls the vintage system, you have experienced that part of history and you get to take it down a slightly different path with your design.
Of course history has its surprises, like lost battles, failed prototypes, or simple issues with scalability. As we move on with this project we will be forced to look at how often and to what degree can we offer the experience described in the text above. That is where our passion and expertise come into play. We will be working wholeheartedly to the goal of a highly interactive, hands-on experience with its roots in invention and history. Given that we all love to know, share, and explore, I am certain that we will make a way to succeed. When we do the next question to our visitors will be, “Is anyone up for a game of vintage video tennis?”