“To me, most important is to travel to a sanctioned location, like Funspot – that makes it official; if tomorrow Tiger Woods golfs a 59, big deal. If he does it at Augusta, that’s where it counts” – the words of Pac-Man legend Billy Mitchell, who has achieved the highest possible score on the arcade game, ring true in our road trip through the world’s historic gaming locations. People tend to marvel at the technical developments represented by old, and current, consoles, or hold their characters in the highest degree of respect as icons. And yet, no one remarks of where these games were first played. Where did the first person to empty his pocket standing in front of a Pong machine stumble away from that night? How can a small office building in 19th century Japan represent a major global video gaming conglomerate that permeates every industry event, discussion, and development? The sights and sounds of those early moments in video game history are miserably underrated in our appreciation of the culture. Without these spaces, the aesthetics, practices, and mechanics of the video game industry would be vastly different.
Nintendo Playing Card Company, Kyoto
Way back in 1886, the Meiji Government in Japan legalised Hanafuda playing cards. This was good news for young businessman Fusajiro Yamauchi, who set up a small shop producing and selling these hand-made cards in 1889. 127 years later, the company is one of the largest in the world and a forerunner in the development of an industry Yamauchi could never have imagined. The original Nintendo office building in Kyoto has unfortunately been demolished (there’s apparently a fascinating carpark there instead), but the stone building created as an HQ in 1933 is still standing. There’s a wealth of history surrounding the building and the dawn of Nintendo itself, so we’ll just save that for another post and comment on the lovely plaque on the side of the structure.
The Dutch Goose Bar, Menlo Park
When Nolan Bushnell, Atari founder, created the world’s first commercially sold coin operated video game, Computer Space, out of one of the first video games to exist (Spacewar!) he decided to test the machine in a popular hangout for nearby Stanford University Students. The location of choice was The Dutch Goose Bar, in the San Fransisco Bay area of California and the game premiered in August 1971. Today the bar continues to operate, serving ‘Burgers, Brew, and more’.
Airport Marina Hotel, Burlingame CA
Two worlds collide in this hotel in California, reeking of the 70s and draped in ritzy vibes, it seems all too perfect a setting for the realms of the beginnings of home consoles and arcade to fuse. The Magnavox Odyssey, world’s first home console, was on demo here when Bushnell signed into the guest book and took a spin on the ping pong game on display. The conclusions here are obvious – Bushnell was intrigued by the mechanics of the game and later hired Alan Alcorn to design and build a coin operated version for the arcade world. And so, the historically legendary Pong was born.
Andy Capp’s Tavern, Sunnyvale CA
Pong was eventually created, and kitted out with the distinctive yellow casing we see in retro gaming magazines today. As far as testing grounds go, Bushnell knew which direction to take. He installed a machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern, a small pub with geeky custom. The legend goes that the day after its installation, the Pong machine was called in for repairs when the quarter collector was just too bounteous to continue. This is debatable, as some argue that cheeky old Bushnell jammed the collector himself for a good story, but nevertheless it is a good story. The tavern still exists but is now a comedy club.
McCormick Center, Chicago
Heading over to Chicago, we now visit the breeding ground for E3. While the Chicago Consumer Electronics Show is still alive and running (though not in the McCormick Centre), it was in the basement of this impressive building that the foundations for the industry’s biggest expo were constructed. CES had been alive and booming in this convention centre, and saw demonstrations of Pong, Atari 400, Atari 800, the first appearance of the Commodore 64, the launch of the Amiga home computer and Nintendo Advanced Video System (later renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System), and the debut of Tetris. After 1995, due to decreasing turnouts, CES took to the road in a touring scheme and the McCormick Centre (though it was only used for half the conventions, with Winter expos taking place in Las Vegas) was no longer on the scene. 1995 did however, see the first E3 which kicked off with the announcement of a newbie – the Sony Play Station.
When we see the capabilities of the next-gen releases, or the new paths our technologies are leading us down, it’s easy to crane your figurative neck, desperate to try and work out what’s coming up in the future. But I argue it’s important to remember to take a look behind you, at the distance these technologies and companies have travelled already. We all appreciate Pong and Computer Space, E3 and Nintendo – but what we don’t appreciate is that at one time these ground-breaking, industry exploding breakthroughs were being played for the first time in a dusty student bar. We don’t appreciate how the doors of the McCormick Centre saw developers wheeling in their humble prototypes unaware of how mammoth their footprints were in the course of video game history. We don’t appreciate a now defunct hotel where the founder of the world’s first video game development company was inspired by the first home console to produce the industry’s shared great grandfather, Pong. It’s important to remember these breeding grounds of video game innovation as they’ve come to epitomise, for me at least, the grassroots and experimental culture of collective learning and shared experience manifested throughout video game history.