Exhibit showcases video game history and IMGD success
It’s not often you hear the fun and bouncy sound of Super Mario Bros. theme music in a library. But on the last Friday in October, the recognizable soundtrack to the retro video game and the exclamations from excited game enthusiasts permeated the ground floor of the George C. Gordon Library.
On this evening, the entrance to WPI’s Archives and Special Collections was filled with dozens of students, faculty, and staff. They huddled in groups around four televisions to play classic video games like Pac-Man, Mario Kart, and Zelda and watch others test their skills on game consoles dating back four decades, all items preserved in WPI’s collection. For some, it was a surprising scene. “I was utterly astounded,” said Benjamin Levy, a sophomore computer science and interactive media and game development (IMGD) major. “I was amazed they managed to collect so many different consoles and iconic games. I can see so many different people having fun here and it warms my heart.”
The buzzy scene was the kickoff event for the newest exhibit of Archives and Special Collections, “Video Game Console Wars 1976-2001 featuring WPI’s Interactive Media Archive & Interactive Media & Game Development Department.” The exhibit, located in the library’s Gladwin Gallery, features a display of consoles including a 1970s Atari 2600, the Mattel Electronics Intellivision, a Nintendo Entertainment System from 1985, and a 1995 Sony PlayStation. The exhibit also includes vintage system controllers and games such as Frogger and Metroid.
The collection on display was built through collaborations between Archives and Special Collections and IMGD program faculty and staff. One of the program’s founding professors, the late Dean O’Donnell, was a driving force in gathering and preserving the historical items. Arthur Carlson, University Archivist and Assistant Director for the library, says the exhibit reflects a core mission of Archives and Special Collections, “to support WPI's unique educational model. One of the ways we do that is by documenting both the history and development of academic courses and providing access to unique resources.”
Carlson says the archive of video games and interactive media is rare among colleges and universities. The collection places WPI with the likes of The Strong National Museum of Play and the Smithsonian, which developed a video game archive in 2016.
"We cannot celebrate progress unless we understand how far a journey we've made."
University Archivist, Assistant Director, George C. Gordon Library
The exhibit and the event are inspiring students to reflect on the past and their own future at WPI and beyond. “All the consoles and games are from my parents' generation. I feel bad for professors who are standing right over there who are like, ‘Don't say it's old’,” said Casey Costa, a sophomore IMGD and computer science major. He said he especially appreciates the exhibit posters that describe the evolution of the video game industry and the portion of the exhibit dedicated to the history of the IMGD program and its recent student and faculty projects. “I was reading every single sign. I feel like I need to know exactly how this [IMGD] happened. It's so cool. I am excited to work on projects, work on games, and get my ideas out there and explore what I can really do here.”
A stroll through the exhibit takes you down a nostalgic video game memory lane on one wall. And on the opposite wall, you travel back to the present, guided by snapshots of IMGD history, including WPI Journal coverage of IMGD’s launch in 2004 as the nation’s first such degree-granting program, the original degree proposal, information on the program’s special events, and game and interactive media projects led by students and faculty. Among the projects highlighted are Neurotype Café, a video game designed to depict the everyday experiences of neurodivergent people; the Worcester Art Museum Augmented Reality Jewelry Try-On, a mobile app that lets visitors “wear” pieces from the “Jewels of the Nile” exhibit; and WHEEL UP, a virtual reality wheelchair training simulator.
“I think the exhibit is a good reminder that if you're a student here, everything you do while you're here is something that contributes to WPI’s future history,” says Gillian Smith, director of IMGD and associate professor. She points out that the broader video game industry is building upon history, with some of the decades-old game titles and systems featured in the archives being used today in artificial intelligence research. “I’m excited for our students to be able to experience being able to look at this really rich history of games and think about how we design technology today and how we will design it far into the future.”
At the exhibit kickoff event, attendees perused the displays and added responses to whiteboard questions like “What is your favorite video game?” and “What was your first video game console?” One respondent self-deprecatingly wrote “Atari… I know this ages me.” Sophomore mechanical engineering major Kylie Beaudry was impressed with the exhibit and the interactive nature of the event. “Everything looked nice and professional, from the graphic design of the posters to the recognizability of the game titles and how it was put together,” she said. “It makes sense that a library should have something like this. These games and consoles are important parts of video game and cultural history.”
The exhibit will be on display until August 2024. It’s one in a series of displays at the Gladwin Gallery that showcase WPI history and culture. Exhibit organizers expect other events throughout the academic year, including more opportunities for students to play the vintage consoles. Carlson, university archivist and assistant director of the library, hopes the interactivity of the exhibit, “reintroduces a new generation of students to what the library has to offer. It’s an active learning environment that hosts a variety of events that cater to everybody. It’s not just always quiet study.” He also thinks the display can help students build a bridge to their future. “We cannot celebrate progress unless we understand how far a journey we've made,” Carlson said. “Having the students come in and work on these first-, second-, and third-generation consoles, understanding how technology evolves, I think is integral for both making them experts in their field, and also providing them the context and the abilities and skills to go forward and make a difference in the fields in their own careers.”