The weekend of July 28, the Classic Gaming Expo took place at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. The CGE is something of a black sheep in the world of video game events. Even though it covers a specialty niche, it's not an industry event like GDC, and it's not a player's event like PAX. CGE is a collector's event.
And yet, it's not a collector's event like Comic-Con, which took place the very same week in San Diego. Comic-Con is a media event, attended by throngs of diverse attendees: cosplay weirdos, rare issue dorks, and ordinary fans alike. Today, Comic-Con is as much about seeing Joss Whedon or Ron Moore as it is finding issue #1 of Fraggle Rock. CGE caters mostly to the rare issue dork-type of attendee, collectors of classic video games and accessories. And that's really too bad, because it could be so much more.
I wore a number of hats to CGE. One is that of a researcher, poking around with my co-author Nick Montfort for insights on an Atari VCS book we are writing. One is that of a teacher who regularly uses the Atari and other classic systems in my classes and lab.
One is that of an amateur Atari VCS programmer, looking for manufacturers to assemble my weird new games into the shells of old cartridges. One is that of a collector, looking to find titles that advance my other interests. And one is that of a game critic, developer, and player interested in learning more about the origins of my medium of choice.
For the researcher in me, the museum and panel sessions were immensely valuable. I'd say these alone are worth the cost of admission, but admission only costs $30 for the whole weekend anyway. But these two are worth the trip out to Vegas and even the trauma of sleeping in the decaying, fifty-year-old Riviera.
CGE offers one of the most complete museum displays of original game hardware, software, and peripheral products you can find anywhere -- much larger than the one at the former E3. The show's collection is assembled from a variety of sources, and tables running chronologically from Ralph Baer's original Brown Box prototype up through Dreamcast took up an entire room at the show. This is a small, intimate event and most of the items were just set on tables, many with helpful explanations.
The CGE fondly calls their classic game developer invitees "alumni," grants them honorific (but functionally meaningless) VIP status. Many appear in panel discussions -- some of those held this year included a keynote by Vectrex designer Jay Smith, and a panel each of former Atari, Activision, and Intellivision programmers.
The details of these early days of game development are increasingly important as they grow further distant in time, and the sheer volume of detailed observations gained in an hour's discussion among these creators is far more valuable than all of the historical books and questionably accurate Wikipedia articles combined.
That said, I did hear a number of stories I'd heard at past CGEs, and the sessions themselves were somewhat poorly scheduled. None had a moderator, which made discussions charmingly freeform and left lots of room for questions. Still, I would have welcomed some additional preparation on the part of the conference organizers.
For the player, CGE offers something that few other venues anywhere can: a place to play classic arcade and console games on their original hardware. Arcades are practically non-existent these days, but those that do remain are mostly filled with new games or reissues of classic games, many of which don't play the same as they did on their original boards.
CGE's expo room is lined with original arcade cabinets as well as tables of classic systems, all configured for free play. And I was especially happy to see a 1970s-era living room set-up, complete with gold couch, coffee table, and wood console television with Atari VCS. Part of understanding the history of games is recalling the social contexts in which they were played.
But the teacher and the programmer and the collector in me found CGE wanting. The reason for my disappointment was the same in every case: for me, classic video game systems and titles are not dead objects. They are living objects that we can still play and program, that help us think about the history of games and of computing in general.
The teacher in me was sorry that no time was devoted to workshops or presentations about programming classic machines. Programming a machine like the VCS teaches a great deal about technical constraint in general, and the specific design decisions of original games in particular.
Many of the talented and devoted "homebrew" (a word I despise for the way it marginalizes a completely legitimate creative practice) developers were in attendance, including authors working on Atari VCS, Vectrex, Intellivision, NES, 3DO, and others. What a shame that these and other creators weren't able to share their knowledge with others, to help increase the number and diversity of creators on classic systems.
The programmer in me was sorry that the show scheduled no formal talks with both classic and contemporary authors of classic games. Hearing David Crane and Steve Cartwright and others discuss the early days of VCS programming was great, but I would have liked to hear their reactions to newer developers' work.
Many amateur programmers focus on retrofitting contemporary genres or games for classic systems, or on inventing new techniques or fixing old mistakes given the luxury of time. I would have enjoyed hearing a discussion about the role of programming in the history of these machines, as well as how the homebrew and the original developers relate to each others' work.
The collector in me was sorry that collecting broke down into two categories only: expo floor swap-meet style shopping on the one hand, and the highly competitive Saturday evening auction on the other. There was little sense of personal value or sentiment in these practices. Indeed, there was something melancholy about seeing classic games either strewn out in boxes for anonymous rummaging or wrapped delicately in plastic to be interned in some collector's grotto.
The careful browser can still find some choice selections -- I picked up a complete copy of Kool-Aid Man for Intellivision, which I've added to my early advergames collection -- but it's hard to say if everyone will enjoy similar success. It's best to come to CGE with a sense of what you are looking for. The format discourages a context for collecting, and the wayward attendee risks buying things just because they look cool, or seem expensive.
All in all, CGE can be more than a collector's event, and it should strive to be more. Collection isn't about understanding, it's about acquisition and retention. At worst, the collector of video games is little different from the collector of beanie babies or china teacups: rare objects may have financial value, but that doesn't give them cultural value. And that's what classic video games need to foster, a deeper understanding of their creation, their influence, and their meaning.