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National Videogame Arcade

6 May 15 words: Charlie Phair

"Once a textile factory, it's now a mecca of creative technology. A cathedral to games, providing a new frame to think about what videogames are"

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The bosses: Iain Simons and Jonathan Smith. Photo: Sam Kirby

I’m a proud gamer from the East Midlands, where both Tomb Raider and Goldeneye were made down the road in the nineties. I attend GameCity every year, and I’m always delighted at how it celebrates all the little things that make video games important in terms of expression and interactivity. Indeed, there’s clearly no better place than Nottingham for the NVA.

“Video games are this chaotic medium”, says GameCity’s co-director Iain Simons. “It’s a meeting point for so many different forms, artistic or otherwise, and so represents this fantastic medium, for learning and creating, simply through the act of playing.” This is the ideology GameCity has championed for almost a decade, and something the NVA has been founded upon.

The Hockley building officially flung its doors open at the end of March this year, acting as a permanent home for GameCity’s pursuit to bring the positives of gaming to the masses. “We wanted this big transparent building,” says the arcade’s co-director Jonathan Smith. “We wanted to give the impression that this is where things are made.” Once a textile factory, it’s now a mecca of creative technology. A cathedral to games, providing a new frame to think about what video games are.

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Photo: Anthony Hopwood

Walking around this grand, bright and airy building, there is the smell of new paint as builders apply the finishing touches. There are numerous retro arcade machines, from Donkey Kong to Space Invaders, scattered throughout the building’s labyrinth interior. At every turn there seems to be something going on. Some attractions are waiting to come online – it’s very much a work in progress, but that’s the point.

“We wanted to show the wires,” says Smith. “We wanted to emphasise the many background systems we have keeping this place together.” Running up the middle of the four-floor stairwell is scaffolding and many colour-coded cables, all signifying a different element – purple is networking, blue is audio – all designed to provide deconstruction of the systems we take for granted. This ideology is applied to the NVA’s gaming exhibits: deconstruction and extrapolation, all through play.  

On the first floor is Mission Control, a seemingly simple game to understand on the surface, built especially for the NVA by its engineers. It’s a Space Invaders-styled game where two people play via classic N64 controllers. All around the exhibit are means to change the nature of the game through various physical interfaces. Kids can even draw new enemy variants and scan them into the game. It’s all designed to be changed easily, and immediate to see in action on the screen, giving a firmer grasp of all the component design parts that feature in a video game as you’re playing it.  

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Photo: Dave Parry

On the second floor is the NVA’s first exhibition that focuses purely on the art of jumping in a video game. The Jump-o-tron, for example, breaks the jump down to provide a better understanding of animation, physics and movement. Nearby, the popular iOS endless runner game Canabalt has been modified to allow for four players and includes jumping mats, making for a more physical engagement than the usual touchscreen controls.

On the third floor is the Hall of Inputs that looks to explore the concept of control in video games. It offers the unique opportunity to both play a piano through a banana and play a versus match of Steel Battalion on the arcade’s local network. Steel Battalion is a mech combat game that was notorious for shipping on Xbox with a £200 pound controller that included over forty buttons, two joysticks and an array of foot pedals just to play the actual game. The servers have long since gone offline, but it is possible to play it at the NVA, which is mind-blowing in its own right.

Adjacent to the exhibit is the Early Access Green Room, which includes four terminals hosting a number of early access games, i.e. games that have simultaneously been released to play as they’re still being developed. One game featured was Utopian, which basically takes the realtime process of editing Wikipedia articles and turns it into a Geometry Wars-styled top-down shooter.

As a seasoned gamer, it’s all very exciting – taking the chaotic practice of policing the world’s largest open source encyclopedia and applying the mechanics and drama of video games into a dizzying shooter. I’ve had editing jobs before, and it gave me great pleasure to thwart the attempts of username BULLSHIT765 from spreading his trolling drivel by making his efforts explode as I shot at them from my tiny spacecraft. The thought of a future in which all jobs will be performed via a video game interface both scared and excited me. This was just one of the games demoed in this area and the NVA is expected to provide opportunities to meet with many indie game developers, to play their game while they’re developing it beside you.  

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School children playing Jump. Photo: Anthony Hopwood

The final exhibit on our tour was the nostalgic History of Video Games in 100 Objects. A modest collection of artefacts from video game’s short but turbulent history. There is a working BBC Micro, which of course heralded a UK culture of bedroom programmers, along with the ZX Spectrum, the Super Nintendo, the PlayStation 3 and the Oculus Rift – the virtual reality helmet that’s making waves in the gaming world, allowing players to inhabit their games to an unparalleled level.

In among all these machines are small precious items, including Hideo Kojima’s business card, Nintendo’s failed Virtual Boy and a Lucozade bottle featuring Lara Croft, one of the first video game advertising tie-ins.

The museum really acts as a look back at what games have been, but the entire initiative of the arcade feels like a look forward. “At long last we have a cultural centre for games,” says Ian Livingstone CBE. “Games have historically been considered as the dark arts, almost. I think here we can celebrate games in a very positive way.” Livingstone needs little introduction, being one of the area’s most prolific creative entrepreneurs. Forty years ago, he co-created Games Workshop, and almost twenty years ago the very first Tomb Raider game was published by Eidos Interactive, a game studio he started.

Although Ian Livingstone was taking people on at Virtual Tennis on the Dreamcast, others at the press event seemed reluctant to get involved and were tentatively walking around not doing much. My guess is that this will all change when kids are left to play in their own ways. There are so many fantastic ideas and concepts on display, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the arcade does next, and perhaps seeing the talent that arises after being inspired by it.

If anyone wants to challenge Charlie to a round of Steel Battalion, his Twitter name is @Chazmaster2000. Just name a time and date and he’ll be there.

The National Videogame Arcade, 24 - 32 Carlton Street, NG1 1NN, £5.20/£6.50/£8.50.

GameCity website

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