Gamer's Grammar: Preserving the Pixel at Atomic Books

Machine at Atomic Books
(Justin Sirois)

Art preservation has been a well-respected discipline for centuries, its origins probably dating as far back as art itself. Unfortunately, new media often suffer through a growing pain of acquiring the notoriety and respect that necessitates preservation. Think about blues music and how, without producers, journalists, critics, biographers, and archivists, the vital heritage of American culture could have been easily lost.

Video games are no exception. In the context of art, video gaming is one of the newest forms of human expression, yet it's a medium that nearly all of us interact with. Mobile games will make an estimated $30 billion this year and that doesn't include console gaming, which is also in the tens of billions. For perspective, that's far more profit than Hollywood. If you own a smart phone, then you own a gaming system that you carry with you all day and probably sleep close to at night.


What makes this medium particularly difficult to preserve is that it's constantly—almost aggressively—evolving. Some of the earliest games are lost because the hardware that runs them becomes obsolete. Pong and Commodore machines are long dead. Even Nintendo systems are hard to find in working condition. Documentaries about the founders of Atari and its many games are finally being made 40 years later, but in those lost decades we've seen thousands of fun, odd, silly, experimental, and groundbreaking games become unplayable. Not all of them deserve to be preserved, but many do.

Activists are spearheading this preservation movement. Gabe Durham of Boss Fight Books publishes thoughtful books by diverse authors that "take a critical, creative, historical, and personal look at a single game," such as local author Michael Kimball's detailed book, "Galaga," about the classic arcade game that he loves and, by my definition, mastered. The Vintage Arcade Preservation Society, boasting more than 8,500 members, is a network of collectors who track and save physical pieces of video game heritage like game cabinets and pinball machines. Their community shares resources to make sure these pieces of our digital history aren't scrapped.

With current technology, getting around the obsolete-hardware obstacle isn't difficult. Programmers have created emulators that mimic the Nintendo Entertainment System and other outdated consoles on current operating systems; all you need is a computer and the internet to play the original "Legend of Zelda" or "Tetris." But what if you want to play a classic game on its original hardware—standing in front of a tall cabinet with a pocket full of quarters and a soda (or beer) by your side?

Atomic Books made a recent commitment to provide that very thing. In the Eightbar, located in the back of the store, you can access over 60 games inside a game cabinet equipped with a traditional joystick and even a trackball for playing "Centipede." I went there twice with Michael Kimball to size up the machine and we ended up spending an accumulative three hours playing vintage games. Honestly, we didn't expect to be there that long.

It isn't just the art that is being preserved here, it's the communal experience of gaming. Playing and competing with friends, commenting on the programming and patterns, is something we rarely do in person. Finding a new game together is even rarer. In the first hour, Michael and I played "1942," "Galaga," "Frogger," "King and Balloon," "Burger Time," and our new obsession, "Phoenix." There's nothing really innovative about "Phoenix"—it's like "Galaga" with a wider array of enemies, including a "boss fight"—probably the first boss fight in all of gaming. The boss is a mothership that appears on the fifth stage; you have to shoot its shields down to fire at the alien pilot. Meanwhile, smaller fighters attack you from the sides. It's a real bitch.

Needless to say, it became our mission not only to kill that damn boss, but to learn how to blow it to particles with ease. Laughing, cursing, and pounding until our forearms felt like hammered steak, we finally conceded. Thinking about this boss fight, created and released 35 years ago, I'm astonished at its power to unite two people in one hilariously antiquated mission. And this is just one of tens of thousands of games, all made by teams of people, that have the power to do the same thing. I'm glad Baltimore has stewards of game culture, Benn and Rachel at Atomic Books, to keep that beacon glowing. All I need is more quarters.