Old school and new at Berlin video game museum

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"Damn it. Lost again," cries Andreas Lanke as he suffers his umpteenth defeat at the hands of Nimrod, the world's first computer game at the centrepiece of a new museum that opens Friday in Berlin.

Actually, explained Lange, the museum's curator resplendent in his retro Space Invaders T-shirt, Nimrod, dating from 1951, is virtually unbeatable.

Based on the simple game of "matchsticks", where the last player to pick up a match loses, the programming was so basic it could only react in one way to the user's input.

"In other words, it always makes the perfect move," Lange told AFP.

Despite this blatant design flaw, Nimrod, an enormous panel of flashing white LEDs, was a marvel when it came out, one of the first non-governmental computers and the first to offer a gaming element.

The rest of the museum is quite simply a geek's nirvana.

Spread over 670 square metres (7,000 square feet), it charts the history of computer games and gaming consoles from Nimrod to the latest 3D extravaganzas.

Nostalgia-seekers will delight at old arcade classics like Pac-Man, Asteroids or Space Invaders, while the museum also houses a colossal range of both hardware and software.

From the iconic 1975 video console Pong, through prototype Apple machines and Commodore 64s to early PlayStations, anyone who has ever played computer games will recognise an old friend.

Visitors also get to play some of the classic games that shaped the history of the genre, such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Brothers, through to the more recent Grand Theft Auto IV.

"We may not be the biggest museum in the world devoted to video games, but we do believe we are the most complete," Lange said, showcasing both the games and the machines that played them.

But the museum is not just for old video game romantics.

It also charts more recent developments in gaming technology, through the motion-sensitive revolution sparked by the Wii console to futuristic 3D driving games.

And appropriately for a museum housed on Karl Marx Allee, one of the main thoroughfares of communist East Berlin, the museum also touches on a social and political aspect of video games that may have escaped some players.

East Germany also had its Pac-Man, but although it took exactly the same form, the communist state's only multi-game arcade console, Poly Play, could not use the same characters employed in the "decadent" West.

Instead the protagonists were "Wolf" and "Hare", plucked from a popular Soviet cartoon.

And the communists were not blind to the opportunities for early indoctrination that computer games offered.

Near the Poly Play is a quote from an East German psychologist: "Computer games allow the ideas and values of socialism to be conveyed to children by means of play and fable."

"The only problem with this was that no one could afford to have the games," quipped Lange.

But the East Germans hit on a key aspect of video games: it's not just about having fun.

"Games play an important social function. They encourage us to interact. Playing together is a fundamental human activity but also hugely educational," he said.

Video games have also been in the vanguard of technological development.

In the early days of computer technology, one of the first puzzles programmers tried to crack was to teach machines to play chess.

"Once you've got a computer to make the decisions needed to do that, it opens up a whole range of applications," said Lange.

But no matter how far mankind advances, it will need insider knowledge to get one over on Nimrod, the original and to many, still the best.

"You need to make the first move. And you need to know the tricks," said Lange with a wink.

© 2011 AFP

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