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Making video games in Baltimore with Sid Meier

A look inside the exhibit "The Video Game Wizards - Transforming Science and Art into Games" at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
A look inside the exhibit "The Video Game Wizards - Transforming Science and Art into Games" at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. (Kamau High)

What does it take to make a video game?

The complicated answer to that question lies at the heart of a new exhibit at The Baltimore Museum of Industry titled "The Video Game Wizards – Transforming Science and Art into Games" that opens today.

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Put together by legendary Maryland-based game designer Sid Meier, famous for "Sid Meier's Pirates!," "Sid Meier's Civilization" as well as the upcoming "Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth," his wife Susan and son Ryan, among others, the exhibit explores in a hands-on way just how a game comes to life. Designed for kids between third and sixth grade, it is fascinating to anyone who has even a passing interest in games.

"Young people ask me all the time 'How do I get into game development?' Now, people can see a video describing what people who work on games do. You can see what an artist does and that people in Quality Assurance [the department that tries to make sure a game works before it is released] aren't just playing games all day," said Meier while giving a tour of the exhibit on Wednesday as workers hurried about finalizing last bits of code in the machines, polishing displays and making sure all the wires went to the right places. Meier, one of the founders of and the current director of creative development at Firaxis Games, part of Take-Two Interactive Software, added "You're getting a microcosm of the process of making games"

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That microcosm consists of six separate stations that give you a flavor of what it's like to work on different parts of a game by having you make an actual game. The stations consist of two screens, one describing what the job entails and the other an interactive one that allows you to work on your game, which is about a security guard at a museum who must avoid disturbing the exhibits while trying to find the exit.

At the Quality Assurance Tester stage, for example, you look for problems with your game and see if you can fix them. Moving on to Level Design, you work on areas for the player to explore that are based on existing exhibits at the museum, such as The Platt Oyster Cannery. At another station you can set how high your character can jump and how far its flashlight projects in the dark. Other areas include: User Interface Designer, Artist, Programmer and Audio Designer. Once your game is finished a copy of it appears on a web site where you, and others, can play it.

The idea for the show stems from a conversation Susan, Meier's wife who currently works at Firaxis on special projects, had with one of the museum board members about putting together an exhibition on video games. After many, many, meetings and about six years years the results are on display. For Susan, who, along with others, started Baltimore Video Game Wizards to work on this show, helping to put together something about how video games are made has taught her a great deal. Despite being married to one of the most influential video game makers in the world Susan doesn't play video games herself. Instead she prefers jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles and Bananagrams. "Since I don't play games I didn't understand rudimentary aspects of how games are made. But after working on this exhibit I have a much greater understanding of how things work."

While many of the businesses that are the focus of the Baltimore Museum of Industry have long been extinct, shows such as this one are an attempt to convey that there are still contemporary thriving industries in Maryland. "We try to celebrate Maryland through its people and products," said Jane Woltereck, director of collections. "But a lot of them have gone out of business. Now we try to celebrate our past, present and future."

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Typically a museum exhibition about video games focuses on either video games as art, such as the recent Smithsonian show in Washington, D.C. "The Art of Video Games" or on letting visitors play games as The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York did with its "Hot Circuits," which showcased early game machines. What "Video Game Wizards" does differently is to present in an easy to understand way how games are made and how you can make your own.

If you go

"The Video Game Wizards – Transforming Science and Art into Games" runs through 2019 at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, 1415 Key Highway. Adults $12, students $7, children between 7-18 $7, seniors $9. Call 410-727-4808 or go to thebmi.org.

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