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How a Private Video Game Collection Turned Into a Museum

Building America’s first museum dedicated to video games takes love and a lot of sacrifice.

There's a treasure trove of video game history deep in the heart of Texas.

Packed into an unassuming building, nestled between a community theater and an art gallery, I spent a quiet afternoon watching families explore the past. A father and his two young children fiddled with Rubik's Cubes while Wang Chung blasted over a sound system, telling us about their dance hall days.

A ten year old boy sat on a bed made up with Pac Man sheets and blasted away at Duck Hunt on a small TV. Playboy magazines peekedout from under the bed, leering up at a Super Punch Out trash can and a Pole Position poster.

This is Frisco's National Video Game Museum and the bedroom, mocked up to look like the typical gamer's bedroom from 1987, is one of many exhibits.

Most museums keep visitors at a distance, but the NVGM invites you to come in and play. There's no velvet rope cutting the public off from the displays. Patrons are free to walk through the bedroom, pull open its treasure filled drawers, and play the Nintendo Entertainment System waiting in the corner.

"It's filled with Love," Joe Santulli, one of NVGM's founders, told me.

Santulli is a 55 year old video game store owner from New Jersey. His co-founder John Hardie is a lifelong New Yorker who failed out of college twice because of his video game obsession. Now he works for Verizon and dedicates his free time ot the museum. Sean Kelly is the third musketeer: a red haired, middle aged man who owns a game store in Chicago.

Photo: Angela Biggs

"Each of us been collecting over thirty years," Hardie told me. "We were doing it at a time when no else was thinking to do it or really cared enough. So we were able to get a lot of good stuff back in the day that was heading to the dumpster."

Preserving classic games isn't easy. The companies who manufactured a lot of the early games saw the new form as a toy, something to produce in mass and dispose of quickly. Even today, many game companies have no real sense of their own history.

It's been up to fans like Santulli, Hardie, and Kelly to keep video games well preserved and well remembered. The video game collecting community was small in the '80s so Santulli started publishing a zine called Digital Press to help bring everyone together.

"Back then it was hard finding other like-minded people," Hardie explained.

"Both of these guys were subscribers and they were both a big pain in the ass," Santulli told me. John had written in Digital Press about needing a copy of Intellivision's Shark! Shark! for his collection and Kelly sent it to him. Hardie had ordered a pamphlet detailing developer hidden secrets in games called easter eggs from Santulli and kept writing letters because he thought the Digital Press founder had neglected to send it along.

The three became friends despite living in different parts of the country, keeping in touch over phone and email. Each had an impressive collection of video game paraphernalia, but together their collections became something impressive—a well-rounded history of video games.

Photo: Angela Biggs

Hardie was running an Atari convention in the late '90s which morphed into the Classic Gaming Expo when Santulli and Kelly came on board. "We started to bring our collections to this show of ours and we called that a museum," Hardie said.

The three traveled the country with their portable museum exhibit from 1999 to 2014, hitting industry trade shows such as E3 and PAX. "You would always see this oasis of old tech amidst all of this modern stuff," Santulli explained. While they worked the tradeshow circuit, the three guys always wanted a permanent home for their collection.

At the Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain (DICE) video game developer conference, the three met Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford. Gearbox is the company behind the hugely popular Borderlands games and the upcoming Battleborn. Pitchford loved the idea of a permanent home for the museum and he suggested Frisco, home of Gearbox Studios. The city loved the idea, gave the guys a space and invested $1.2 million in the project.

"My contribution was not that great," Pitchford told me when I reached out to him via email. "These guys are the ones who have been building and caring for their collection for over 30 years. I just provided them with hope, connections, and some resources and became a bit of a cheerleader of sorts to help evangelize the goal with other people who would also join in to help make it a reality."

Frisco's money and Pitchford's enthusiasm weren't wasted. The museum leads patrons through thea fully interactive history of video games.

Photo: Angela Biggs

A Legend of Zelda board game, failed consoles like the Halcyon, a Pong console shaped like a dog house specifically manufactured for Vet's offices, rests near the entrance, and other rarities line the walls.

After a larger than life Mario welcomes them, visitors can play Pong on a screen that fills a wall or turn around and use an SNES controller to navigate through the history of video game consoles. Early PCs such as the Radioshack Blackjack line one wall and newer consoles such as the PS2 and N64 line the other. Everything is playable.

A ticket to the museum buys you four tokens to use at the end of the tour in the museum's old school arcade. Visitors can buy extra tokens at the arcade so bring some extra cash and plan to stay a while. The neon blacklight room glows from the kaleidoscope of cabinet classics like Galaga and Space Invaders, favorites such as Mortal Kombat II and rare gems such as Nintendo's Super Punch Out.

What might be just as impressive is that the three founders maintained day jobs while they built the museum. Hardie works at Verizon and both Santulli and Kelly own video game stores. Both Hardie and Kelly were on their way back home after the opening.

Santulli is staying. Hemoved his whole life from New Jersey to Texas to make the museum a reality. "I'm the guy who cleans up the floor at the end of the night, but it's a joint effort between the three of us," Santulli told me.

Image: Angela BIggs

Despite a deep and abiding love for video games, it took Santulli years to turn his passion into a career. Santulli spent almost 20 years working for a company called IMS that analyzes data for pharmaceutical companies.

"It was interesting at times and kept me engaged and it was good money and it was what I went to school for so it seemed like the right place to be," Santulli said. "But during those years I had this constant distraction of video games."

Santulli kept that hobby alive by running Digital Press and helping Kelly and Hardie with the Classic Gaming Expo. He even picked up a side gig writing the classic games column for the now defunct Tips & Tricks magazine.

"It's really my wife that's sacrificed," Santulli said. "We both live our whole lives in New Jersey and we love it there. But here's a museum and we need to go. John and Sean have kids. We don't have kids. There kids are in school It was just impossible for them to go. In order to make this happen, it had to be me."

I asked Santulli if he thought the project was worth it. "We've come so far," Santulli said. "First you do a show, then you've got the industry behind you, then you've got a city behind you. You can't stop … you just can't. It would feel like a job unfinished."