Why We Need to Remember the Art of 'Obsolete' Video Game Consoles

Evan Amos tirelessly documents video game hardware because devices are important cultural objects in the age of streaming.

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Nov 7 2018, 2:00pm

Image: Flickr/Blake Patterson

Last month Google launched Project Stream, which lets players play the latest Assassin’s Creed title in a web browser—no game console, not even a download file.

By many accounts, the service worked pretty well. Google isn’t alone in taking a crack at streaming games, either. Microsoft has also announced Project xCloud, which holds similar aspirations. It seems that for an increasing number of tech companies, playing games over a stream—as opposed to purchasing expensive consoles that eventually become obsolete—is the way of the future.

Whether you buy into that hype or not, the release of the new book The Game Console: A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox, amid this push toward a console-less reality feels quite prescient. The book is billed as a work of photographic preservation, but it also reads as an inherent defense of the game console just as its under threat. While services like PlayStation Now prove that streaming has the potential to increase access to older hardware-bound games, The Game Console posits that consoles themselves are important cultural objects that we shouldn’t forget.

The Game Console was born out of author-photographer Evan Amos’ gaming hardware documentation project on Wikipedia. Disappointed by the quality of video game console images on the site, Amos set out to make and upload his own and ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to help him do just that. Even if you’re not familiar with Amos by name, you’ve almost certainly seen his work. Search the name of any game console on Google and at least one of Amos’ photos is bound to be in the top three results.

An exploded photo of the Magnavox Odyssey
Image: Evan Amos

His photos are all available to download and use, license-free, but The Game Console gives this hardware preservation-via-photography work an appropriately physical format.

“I was inspired a lot by museums, and imagine each entry is like walking up to a case where you'd see the console and the write-up [next to it],” Amos told me over email. “When I started to get into Wikipedia and this project, it was mostly because I loved discovering the history of these consoles. I really enjoyed learning and seeing all of the stuff that I had no idea existed.”

Beginning with the Magnavox Odyssey—released in 1972—Amos takes readers on a historical tour through what he categorizes as eight generations of gaming boxes released over the course of 45 years. Each entry features at least one “representative” high angle photo on a solid white backdrop, a brief blurb about the console’s place in gaming history, and a chart featuring technical specs and other quantifiable details. Many consoles also get an “exploded view” treatment where the component parts are separated in aligned arrangements that reveal what these systems were actually made of and how they fit together. Also, it just looks cool.

An exploded view of a Gameboy Advance
Image: Evan Amos

There’s some wild concepts included in The Game Console. Some are so out-there that it’s hard to believe they ever seemed like marketable products, like the many failed CD-drive add-ons that companies tried to hawk over the years. Others, like the iQue Player—a handheld version of the Nintendo 64 released in China that contained the entire console in one bulky controller—paint a richer global picture of the history of video games than the typical narrative of the “console wars” between Sony and Microsoft.

“The photo project is something that I already know has become a big deal for preservation since I've seen how often the photos get used to present gaming history [in various media],” Amos said. “Seeing that response is a big reason I keep at it. If I'm not taking these photos, there might never be high-quality versions available.”

Maintaining fully-functioning hardware is the holy grail of game console preservation, but photography allows for much wider reach in terms of cultural understanding and applications. Instead of one Atari 2700 (a prototype that had a radio frequency antenna in the controller) being stuck in a private collection somewhere, The Game Console brings it and over 100 other devices into historical context with one another, all within a readily digestible format.

An exploded view of a PlayStation
Image: Evan Amos

It’s not easy work. According to Amos, doing his particular brand of preservation can come with a price tag.

“If there's something that I need for the collection, I have to spend my own money on it,” he explained. “I do pick them up when I can, but [most of what’s absent from the book] are European or Japanese computers, which are very expensive to have shipped to America.” He’s accumulated so much hardware to document that he’s running out of space in his apartment, he said.

Above all, The Game Console makes the case that these mostly-bygone gaming boxes are worth remembering, and that there may be something of value lost if we were to fully transition to a streaming-only future.

Unique consoles can have unique interfaces, for instance. Take the Coleco Telstar Arcade, which featured built-in controls (twin paddles, a steering wheel, and a toy revolver) on each side of its triangular design. Emulating Telstar Arcade games with a PC instead of the physical console removes a core element of the original games’ designs.

Whether Telstar Arcade games are any good is another story, but as a cultural artifact, the console itself and dozens of other pieces of video game hardware featured in The Game Console remind us that just because technology is “obsolete,” that doesn’t mean it can’t still hold significant cultural value.

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