Over a year ago, I was asked to research “Canadian” video games and suggest how we might be able to develop an artifact based exhibition opening in 2016. There was just one small problem, the Museum did not have an extensive video game collection. Would this mean that I could start from scratch and shape a new collection? The Museum did have a few intriguing video game related artifacts that I could use as a starting point. My initial exploration of these objects and their history would shape the way I think about physical objects, digital objects, and the often blurred line between the two.
The first true video game collected by the Museum was a cocktail table arcade game (1985.0580). The first video game system in the national collection was quickly followed by the acquisition, in 1987, of the TELSTAR home system (1987.0457) manufactured by Coleco Canada. Although, both of these artifacts are examples of video game hardware, the software, or games, are integral to the artifact. Unlike a computer, where games can be played or not, the hardware and software in the first two video game artifacts cannot be separated. In both cases the software, or games, is a Pong clone.
Many manufacturers, created versions of the smash hit Pong to capitalise on the success of Atari’s Pong. The original Pong is regarded as the first commercially successful arcade cabinet and is also responsible for creating the home console market (whether the Magnavox Odyssey or the Atari Home Pong console). Both artifacts are important, in their own right, in the development of a video game industry and culture in Canada. Although they were collected separately, I can’t help but think that both video games systems were always meant to be seen as a pair in the collection. When paired, they illustrate the rise and popularity of video games in Canada during the mid-1970s. The arcade cabinet and the home console highlight the proliferation of locations where we, as consumers, were expected to play and how the gaming industry was formed by building copies of popular software rather than innovation. The first video game artifacts act as an excellent starting point for discussions about technological uptake and the cultural/social value of video games.
The quick analysis of these two artifacts suggested something more than the material nature of the object. Until I started digging into the holdings of the collection I had been treating the hardware and the software of video games as discreet entities, as something to be examined on their own. What these early video game artifacts show is that the physicality of the object is interwoven with its digital component and only by examining them together can deeper meaning be drawn.