Coronavirus may just sink the world’s video game museums

When Alex Handy first founded the Museum of Arts and Digital Entertainment (or the MADE) in Oakland, Calif. in 2011, he imagined the institution as a bucket placed underneath an industry that was constantly leaking and dripping out vital artifacts of its own history. Over the museum’s near-decade of existence, it has weathered rising rents, flooding, and even robberies to deliver a playable library of more than 10,000 games to its visitors. However, more than six months after the ongoing coronavirus crisis forced its closure, it’s not at all clear if the MADE — or its fellow video game museums across the globe — will be able to survive the economic fallout wrought by the virus. And given the interactive nature of video games, it’s clear that these museums will have an even tougher time mitigating the risk of transmission once they open back up.

Handy began the year hoping to expand the MADE’s budget by several percent. Now, the museum is highly unlikely to continue in its current form. Though the MADE was originally envisioned with an all-volunteer staff, it has eight paid employees who are all on furlough while Handy seeks additional funding through online channels. In the past, the MADE has secured capital through crowdfunding campaigns on platforms like Kickstarter. Handy is unlikely to mount another, though, saying that money should go to more pressing issues.

“I hate doing Kickstarters, anyway,” he said. “They give me ulcers.” (Since our interview, Handy announced that the MADE will be moving to a new location, which has yet to be announced.)

The current coronavirus crunch is not specific to video game museums; it threatens the existence of many small nonprofits and cultural institutions. However, as the crisis has deepened, and states have begun to reopen (and summarily re-close) in a patchwork fashion, the future of these museums remains shaky. The most famous active video game exhibit is at The Strong in New York, which remained closed even as the state entered “phase two” of its ambitious reopening plan in late June.

This uncertainty extends to the handful of video game institutions in other countries as well. First founded in 2018, the United Kingdom’s National Videogame Museum (not to be confused with the US’s National Videogame Museum in Texas) successfully raised over 80,000 GBP in an online crowdfunding effort, which was roughly the amount of money they expected to lose over a three-week closure that has blossomed into more than three months. According to their head of marketing, Conor Clarke, the museum is in decent financial shape thanks to their campaign — as well as several large contributions made by large UK games studios, including Rockstar and Sumo Digital — but the future of the museum is still far from assured.

“If you had asked me [back in the spring] if this crisis put the continued existence of the museum in jeopardy, I would’ve said yes, massively,” said Clarke. “I’m much more optimistic now … But we’re not out of the woods, we’re not safe financially, and there’s still the risk that all of our programs could collapse.”

While each of these museums offers its own unique approach to the 50-year history of the medium, they’re all fueled by one simple observation, made by Clarke, Handy and others: The video game industry has never been particularly concerned with documenting or preserving its creations. (A recent leak gave modders and hackers unprecedented access to the code of classic Nintendo games, like “Super Mario 64” and “Star Fox 64”).

Handy points out the staggering number of hit games with missing or incomplete source code — the digital guts needed to remaster or restore a classic game — from cult hits like early first-person shooter “Strife” to million-sellers like “BioShock,” not to mention the number of online games that suffered a quiet death with no way for fans to bring them back from the dead. Famously, when remastering “BioShock” in the mid-2010s, publisher 2K couldn’t find a copy of its final source code. Instead, they had to use a non-final version as the basis for the remaster, which introduced a number of bugs and glitches into the game that weren’t present in the initial release.

“If that’s the level that a publicly-traded company treats its own assets these days, we have to do something,” he said. “It’s shameful.”

Museums are a way to push back on this trend. In 2016, the MADE worked with developers of the Commodore 64 game “Habitat,” often described as the first online game, to bring the game back online for the first time in decades. The game is now largely playable in emulated form.

For Clarke, the contributions of UK developers to the video game industry can sometimes go underexamined, particularly by those who work within it. He feels that developers often focus on their next big project to the detriment of their previous work, describing the prevailing attitude as a mentality of “constant improvement.” “Whatever cultural impact your last game had, that doesn’t matter, because ‘[Grand Theft Auto] 6’ is going to come out, and that’s going to be the world’s biggest thing. … In other industries, there’s the constant hype cycle, but it’s not to the level where films or television from 30-40 years ago are considered less-than. People love that stuff. But with video games, it’s mostly relegated to niche communities.”

To combat this narrative, Clarke said the institution tries to use its exhibits to examine the history of gaming from unexpected angles. Instead of a simple chronology of the industry from the Magnavox Odyssey to the Nintendo Switch, the museum might dedicate space to exploring the progression of gravity mechanics in platformers, or how the concept of a “bonus level” changed over time. They also focus on UK-specific phenomena, such as the beloved ZX Spectrum home computer, or the BBC Micro, on which older people learned the coding language BASIC years ago.

Unlike the UK NVGM or The Strong, the MADE focuses primarily on allowing its visitors to play any game from its vast collection, no matter the console. According to Handy, its initial configuration included a variety of in-depth exhibits — such as one that explored the history of platforming in games — but over time, he observed that most people simply weren’t interested. “The guys who make video games love the exhibits, but the average person couldn’t care less,” said Handy.

Both museums say that they’ve explored other avenues of gathering revenue beyond fundraising drives, but their efforts have run into obstacles. According to Clarke, since the UK museum was founded so recently, it was still in the process of obtaining accreditation from Arts Council England, meaning that they are ineligible for government funding. Handy said that the MADE may end up seeking funds through the U.S.’s Institute of Museum and Library Services, which received $50 million from the Cares Act to invest in museums and libraries. However, Handy feels that the MADE’s chances of securing such a grant are quite low.

“Applying for federal grants is more difficult and takes more time than applying for college,” said Handy. “We’ve been trying to get one for two years. … If the only way this museum is going to be saved is with a federal grant, then I’m just closing the doors, because it’s not going to happen.”

The UK National Videogame Museum reopened on August 22, though all visits must be booked in advance, and are only available in small numbers. Still, Clarke said that video game museums around the world will continue to struggle, especially given the amount of interactivity that people expect.

“When people go to the video game museum, they want to play video games,” said Clarke. “We go through so many controllers. … There’s no guarantee that when the lockdown’s over that we’re going to get the same amount of people in through the doors beforehand. People are going to be rightly worried about going to a place where we get 200 people through the door every day. It’s going to have a massive impact on our revenue streams for a long time, I think.”

Steven T. Wright is a reporter and critic based in the Twin Cities. He writes features examining odd and overlooked aspects of digital culture. Follow his writing on Twitter @MadCathedral.

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