In 1971, a young entrepreneur named Nolan Bushnell decided to market a game that computer scientists were playing, trading, and tinkering with on mainframes across the country. Though Computer Space wasn’t much more than simple line-drawing “ships” among white pixel “stars,” Bushnell made history by making the game a piece of furniture. As the first coin-op, cabinet-sized video game, Computer Space tanked miserably. But one year later, Bushnell had sold his first hit (Pong), formed a skyrocketing new company (Atari), and blasted open the word “game” permanently.
Bushnell’s first failure is with us still–in spirit at least. The video game exhibition “Computer Space ’98,” opening this week at the American Museum of the Moving Image, makes it clear that ”the core video game experience is still basically the same,” says Carl Goodman, the museum’s curator of digital media. “There is all this shit surrounding you, and you have to eliminate it before it eliminates you.” Which isn’t to say that we care that Doom is just Asteroids is just Computer Space from a different perspective. Every time we drop a quarter on 1982’s flagship Tron, it still feels just like the first time.
Fortunately, the museum doesn’t interfere too much with its own exhibition. Instead, it plays host to a fun house of public distractions, with 27 games from the museum’s extensive collection of upright, console, and PC “digital entertainments.” Golden oldies like Defender (1980), Pac-Man (1980), and Q*bert (1982) join more hardcore, twitch-factor games like Playstation’s NHL FaceOff 98 and Quake 2. But Goodman has been careful to include quirkier, vanguard titles like Zero Zero (1997), developed by local Alley figure Theresa Duncan, and PaRappa the Rapper (1997).
The hourglass-shaped curio Computer Space is also out on the floor, but isn’t operational–Goodman simply wants to show off “how misguided it was” as a commercial product in 1971. “It’s got all these buttons for gravity and joysticks,” he says. “It had too many variables for the public to deal with when they weren’t used to interacting with a screen at all.”
Moving from the early, abstracted fight-or-flight games to outright carnage, the real subject matter here isn’t just the machinery, but the evolution of violence as a pastime. During the ’80s, developers were constantly making concessions to parents to soften the blow. Brutish and nasty, Narc–from 1988–gets away with a highly violent scenario by “cloaking it in a right-wing, ‘Just Say No’ morality,” says Goodman. “Suddenly the watchdogs that would have been upset [about the violence] were much happier about it.” When you shoot the drug dealers’ menacing mutts in Narc, they don’t die but multiply into harmless, scurrying puppies. By 1997, with the rise of networked bedlam, gruesome person-to-person showdowns are the norm; ID Software, makers of Quake 2, even market their game with the question “Never had a multiplayer Deathmatch experience?”
The pre-Bushnell history of the arcade owes as much to Coney Island as to computers. As with the nickelodeon, people in the early part of the century routinely “put money into slots and had their minds blown,” notes Goodman. The tradition continues at the museum; five tokens for the coin-ops are included with admission (extras at four for a dollar).
Local Area Network
Given that networking is the core competency of New York’s new-media companies, their “digital age” Rolodexes may prove the next financial gold mine, with a fierce little competition brewing over just how to “get listed” in Silicon Alley.
In the next two months, three separate directories to the city’s tech industry will hit the market. For the last two and a half years, the New York New Media Association has been publishing its venerated, dead-tree directory, which is restricted to its members (who fork over a $125 fee to join). Now shipping its sixth guide to new media professionals (it’s published twice a year), the NYNMA guide will face off against @NY’s Silicon Alley Red Book, funded in part by Arthur Andersen, and @MediaPartners’ New Media Resource Directory.
While NYNMA’s directory is built around individuals’ submissions, both the Red Book and @MediaPartners’ guide will focus on company listings in the effort to drive business into the city. The Red Book benefits not only from journalists Jason Chervokas and Tom Watson’s extensive database of contacts (from covering the Alley for CyberTimes and their own @NY newsletter), but from a partnership with a start-up called Constructors.com, which is attempting to create a massive national registry of tech companies. The directory will have a projected price tag of $10, and they expect to market it to Andersen’s client base.
Miles Rose, head of @MediaPartners, is already planning to shortcut Chervokas and Watson by shipping the bulk of his company’s guides direct to 8500 “decision makers” here in the city for free. Pitching it as a “fat Zagat’s,” Rose has big plans to put the database of several thousand companies–culled from his own work as a “professional networker”–online at the siliconalley.com domain, which he recently purchased from another Alley figure and Microsoft “evangelist” Howard Greenstein (Rose would not reveal what he paid). Companies can buy a full-page ad for $2000 (compared to the $1000 for the @NY guide).
Alley start-ups want new places to build their brand. As NYNMA’s Lori Schwab notes, “A lot of those companies just want another list [to be on].” But it’s unclear how many of the companies will be around for next year’s edition. With the rapid boom-and-bust cycle in the city, the directories may end up more nostalgic than useful. (Businesses can add themselves for free to @NY’s list at www.atnewyork.com/ redbook.htm, and at @MediaPartner’s guide at www.webconcepts.com/ nmr.)
Signal and Noise