Inside Britain's New National Videogame Arcade

The new space aims to offer a first permanent cultural home for gaming.

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Mar 27 2015, 2:00pm

Super Mario Bros. is one of the few games I'd say I know pretty well. At some point in my childhood I figured out where most all the gold coins were stashed, and which green drainpipes led to bonus levels. Over a decade later, and today I learn of a hidden passage I never knew existed: a glitch at the end of the second level that leads the player to a mistaken new zone, the "Mi​nus World."

"There's a glitch in the code of the game that you can access by jumping in a very precise way—it takes a lot of practice even if you know how to do it," said James Newman, a media professor at Bath Spa University. The trick is to jump through the drainpipe just before the end-of-level flagpole at just the right, unmarked point.

Paul Newman with a zoomed-out version of Super Mario Bros. on the Game Inspector

He showed me the undesigned "World -1" during a tour of the National Vide​ogame Arcade, the UK's first cultural centre for gaming, which opens to the public this weekend. In one of its galleries, visitors can explore games including Super Mario Bros. using a "game inspector," a tool that lets you zoom in and out of the level and reveals points of interest so you can explore how the game is put together without worrying about countdowns or stray Goombas.

"You get to see the game in a way that you've never seen it before, that just playing wouldn't reveal," said Newman.

That could be a mission statement for the whole of the National Videogame Arcade, located in an old lace factory in Nottingham's creative quarter. The NVA follows ten years of the GameCity festival, and finally gives gaming a permanent cultural home. "It seemed like games and GameCity were just crying out for some sort of persistence, some sort of place," said Iain Simons, director of GameCity and co-director of the NVA alongside game producer and director Jonathan Smith.

The National Videogame Arcade

Speaking at the launch, British gaming entrepreneur Ian Livingstone CBE emphasised that having a permanent building helps recognise video games as a piece of culture as worthy of display as, say, film or theatre. He said he thought games faced a lot of prejudice from media and needed to be demystified for the public; Grand Theft Auto shouldn't just be remembered for its 18 ce​rtificate but also as a great British success story.

Indeed, controversy is in short supply at the NVA; the whole place is kid-friendly (though there will be special events for older visitors) and is designed from the foyer onwards to be welcoming. At a time when certain outspoken spheres of the gaming community are less than friendly to others, the NVA strives for inclusivity. You don't need to consider yourself a gamer to game.

An arcade game

The emphasis is not just on playing but also making games, and the organisers are keen to encourage everyone to get involved—"particularly young people and particularly daughters," said Simons. They're reaching out to groups like Brownies and Guides to find out what girls want to see (which is actually the same as what anyone else wants, Simons added, not pink DS consoles and ponies), and want to run events not only for school groups but also mother and baby clubs and senior citizens in order to encourage diversity.

There's a variety of systems throughout the centre, from old arcade boxes to every console you can think of and a few more unusual displays, and each hammers home this theme of hands-on interaction. Room Racers, created especially for the NVA, uses a projector and camera in the ceiling to combine a digital racing game with real-life objects. You zoom a digital car around the track, while others can move real-life objects—a paintbrush, a snorkel, a sieve—to trap you.

"Room Racers" - note the red car trapped under the sieve

The first temporary exhibition in the space, "Jump," is dedicated to just that: jumping in games. The walls are lined with screens showing different characters demonstrating their jumps, while a weird machine that looks like an antique cabinet breaks down the properties of a character's jump so that you can see how factors like in-game gravity affect it. A game of Canabalt—a mobile game similar to Temple Run where you have to jump over gaps to avoid falling to your death—is powered by jump pads on the floor, so you actually have to jump for your avatar to make the leap.

A whole level is dedicated to other different ways of controlling games, with gaming controllers replaced by bananas through the MaKey MaKey system, which allows anything conductive to become an input, or a table tennis bat in Pong Invaders, a mash-up of the two iconic games where you bat away space invaders. As I watched, two kids played with what Smith said was "the world's most complicated control system for a game," Xbox game Steel Battalion's 40-button controller.​

Mission Control, a game you can play and build at the same time

Some of these are new for the space, which will also let developers test out games in alpha or beta before they're released, and others hark back to gaming history. One room boasts "A History of Gaming in 100 Objects," and includes such treasures as a BBC Micro, the home microcomputer developed by the British broadcaster as an educational tool in the early 80s; a Virtual Boy, Nintendo's early attempt at a virtual reality headset; and what the group reckons is probably one of the only remaining unopened Lucozade bottles that features Lara Croft, an early example of a commercial gaming tie-in.

All this stuff is sourced primarily, Simons said, from donations. "The history of video games is in people's attics," he said. "That's the most interesting stuff, particularly the non-mass-produced objects like the pirated cassettes and the fan art, stuff people have knitted, the craft movement—the stuff that really expresses what games mean to people, that's not the stuff you get from company's archives."

"Larazade"

Having such a varied collection has its challenges: In a room surrounded by old consoles hooked up to monitors for anyone to play, I asked about maintenance. My Sega Mega Drive breaks down any time a bit of dust gets into it—how will they keep everything running smoothly?

"All of this ultimately will disappear, because it's made of plastic," said Simons. "One day it will break forever." They sometimes use emulation technologies, but when it comes to the original kit they will rely on a team of engineers to replace parts immediately. Simons compared it to a "pit stop" and said that the idea is to fix everything in plain view, as part of their attempt to demystify the workings of these games.

"But the old stuff, you just do your best with," he added. "It's all full of cat fur, and history, and love."