OAKLAND, Calif.—It’s not hard to find monuments to technology in the Bay Area.
Down in the valley, Google, Apple, and Facebook have each built their own cathedral-monastery, architectural showpieces that bound over the landscape. In the city itself, the Internet Archive is housed in an old church of Christian Science, its door gated by a marble Corinthian portico. And further downtown, where the land meets the bay, new obelisks even now are rising.
Oh yes—there’s no shortage of reverent, open-aired atria here. Plenty of places will let you salute Fair Software and Tender-Hearted Hardware.
But maybe what’s needed is something different. Maybe the right monument to how technology lives in the world isn’t best described with a Latin word. Maybe we just need a church basement devoted to the stuff.
That’s what I found, in essence, when I went to the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, known as the MADE. The MADE is a non-profit, volunteer-run video-game museum, which last month moved into a new space near downtown Oakland. In preparation for the move, it raised $50,000 on Kickstarter. The MADE isn’t huge or cinematic, but it is communal, affably unpretentious, and—above all—it preserves technology as it is, not as we dream it might be.
What does that mean? At the MADE, nearly every wall is covered in video games. Yellow Nintendo 64 boxes, neon-green Xbox cases, big black chunky consoles from the Nixon era: They’re not hidden behind cases or raised out of reach, but right there for the taking. Here’s an Ikea bookshelf filled with Gameboy cartridges. Here’s another one with what could be every Playstation title. And here are glass cases—that can be easily opened—with every portable handheld you ever pined after. And, core to the MADE’s philosophy, every game can be played by anyone who walks in the door.
“If you see a game you want to play, you just ask the staff and they try to set it up the best they can,” Alex Handy, the MADE’s founder and director, told me. “When it comes to Nintendo games, there’s a whole lot of blowing into the cartridge.”
The MADE’s collection spans almost 50 years, from the dawn of home game consoles in 1972 to the present day. It includes the Magnavox Odyssey, a glorified board game that required a TV; the Atari 2600, the first console; many, many Pongs—“there were dozens and dozens and dozens of Pongs back in the day,” says Handy—up to the Xbox and PS2.
Handy, an enterprise-software journalist during the day, founded the MADE five years ago. He has assembled its collection as he goes. It started when he discovered a tranche of undiscovered Atari 2600 games, including Cabbage Patch Kids: Adventure in the Park, at a flea market at nearby Laney College. (C.P.K.:A.I.T.P. is now playable online.) When GamePro magazine went out of business in 2011, he inherited their library of games and their archive of games journalism. (Another room has a wall of old game magazines—the last and only record, in many cases, of titles from the Eighties and Nineties that were never released.)
The museum’s collection includes the unconventional. On the top of one shelf sits the Coleco Adam, perhaps the world’s only combination PC-and-console. Manufactured by Coleco, the same company that made Cabbage Patch Kids, it may be the most essentially 1980s device ever seen. The Coleco Adam was so poorly made that, if someone inserted a cassette tape into its tape deck, it was immediately degaussed, Handy said. It flopped upon release in 1983.
The museum is more than a playable games library. It holds weekly free computer classes for local kids in its computer lab. And it is stewarded by a set of volunteers who seem as important to the museum’s feel as its collection. Chris Wolf, the museum’s curator, was preparing an exhibit on visuals in video games while I was there; he began working at the museum when, as a visitor, he noticed some of its collections were out of alphabetical order. After he sorted the games, Handy asked him to come on full-time.
The MADE, right now, is only open on weekends, so I didn’t get to see how visitors take to the museum. But I was struck by how much the games there seemed, if not in a natural environment, then in a recognizable one. It was a museum as a rec room, a museum as a den.
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Plenty of places now host emulated versions of older games online. The Internet Archive spills with dozens of old PC games that are completely playable through a web browser; and, in fact, the MADE has plans to revive and host an online version of Habitat, one of the first massively multiplayer online games.
But exhibiting video games in physical museums—that’s trickier. When games do get shown, it’s often for a reason beyond their value as pure games: It’s about their art, for instance, or their music. In 2012, the Smithsonian American Art Museum put on “The Art of Video Games” in D.C., which included playable versions of older classics (Super Mario Brothers, Myst) and newer, critical successes (Flower, a creation of thatgamecompany). The games shone on big, bright screens in an otherwise dark room. Still images from other titles were hung around the space, like so many backlit ikons.
There was, in other words, very little blowing-in-the-cartridges. And in the days since visiting the MADE, I’ve concluded that was the Smithsonian’s loss all those years ago, and I’ve wanted to see other types of museums adopt the MADE’s lo-fi approach. I thought back to the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s national museum of design in New York. Thanks to the modernist’s insight that mass-produced objects can be beautiful—the diner mug, the Luxo lamp, the Swingline stapler—design museums now seek to elevate those everyday ephemera to the level of art. Go to the Cooper Hewitt today, for instance, and you’ll find pristine glass boxes filled with staplers, 3-D-printed sponges, and Milton Glaser posters.
But the art museum’s clean white exhibition hall is not the environment for which a stapler was designed. After seeing the MADE, I want a stapler sitting on a messy, PostIt-strewn desk. I want a torn-up Milton Glaser poster wheatpasted to a dirty wall. I want to see objects in all their dusty ordinariness—and I want genres beyond design, too. Let me listen to Electric Ladyland on vinyl, while nestled between corduroy throw pillows in some faux bedroom; let me settle into an Eames chair and hear Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. And let me sit on a hard dusty floor and play Ocarina of Time.