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Video Game History Beyond Video Games

A Curator’s Appeal

Alana Staiti (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), a grassroots group of collections managers, curators, educators, and administrators promotes video game history through oral history projects, public programs, exhibitions, and scholarship. Participants share the belief that video games constitute an important part of US history, examined through lenses including culture, law, technology, business, and art. Despite varied backgrounds in games historiography and experience in game play, we members assert that game history is a vital part of collecting, preserving, and interpreting at NMAH. Further, we believe that curating the history of video games does not only fall under the purview of art, design, and technology museums; video game history serves a critical role in history museums, too. Simply put, there is a history beyond the technological and formal aspects of video games, and history museums are uniquely equipped to interpret and exhibit video game history, broadly imagined.

Over the past several years, exhibitions about video games at museums around the world (though predominantly in the global north) have tended to emphasize the aesthetic, formal, and technological aspects of video games.1 They have identified groundbreaking games, pioneering inventors and companies, and notable video game platforms, consoles, and popular gaming trends. These exhibitions have established both dominant and alternative time lines, alongside important firsts in video game history, helping visitors track and understand technological development over time. They offer interactive media that bring games to life, allowing audiences to experience for themselves what it’s like to play specific games. If that’s what a video game exhibition looks like at an art, design, or technology museum, what would it look like at a history museum?

History museums can offer organizational frameworks for storytelling in ways that art, design, or technology museums may not choose to highlight due to institutional prerogatives and constraints. Imagine exploring displays that highlight the social and political significance of games, how the diverse landscapes of game play and players have changed over time, and other themes like intellectual property, fandom, freedom of expression, education, local game histories, and the stakes involved in video game controversies past and present. We history-museum folks are excited by the possibilities of telling histories of video games beyond the games, and we will look to contributors to ROMchip for inspiration for the stories we tell.

While the curation of video game history can and should be about more than just the games, the consoles, and the companies, we shouldn’t do away with these crucial details either. Because artifacts drive the storytelling scheme at most museums, we run the risk of displaying technology simply for the sake of displaying it, at the expense of digging deeper to access the social, political, and cultural valence of video games and their histories. Video game history that extends beyond video games offers access to primary sources that speak to the historical impact of games and gaming spaces, the people who have played and produced them, and even the people who have protested them. We ask that historians continue to probe the game, the medium, and its users, with an eye toward broader historical themes, in the interest of telling histories of video games that extend beyond the game as an end in itself.


1. ^ Major international traveling exhibitions include London’s Barbican Centre (in 2002 and revised in 2010), the Smithsonian American Art Museum (from 2012 to 2016), and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (on tour since 2012). Temporary and semipermanent exhibitions that emphasize the technological, artistic, and formal characteristics of video games have been installed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK; the Computerspielemuseum in Berlin, Germany; and the Montreal Video Game Museum in Canada. The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, represents a unique case of video game collecting and exhibiting, as the institution’s scope pertains specifically to the history of play. This museum is home to the International Center for the History of Electronic Games as well as the World Video Game Hall of Fame and represents an important hub of scholarly activity and public history initiatives for video game history.