Game on: Exhibit gives glimpse into video games’ pop-culture past

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AURORA | The vintage video game consoles, plastic Donkey Kong toys and old cartridges summoned plenty of nostalgia for Tara Terwiske.

Terwiske and fellow Aurora resident Jace Hill spent Valentine’s Day afternoon taking in “Growing Up Gamer: A History of Video Games,” the new exhibit at the Aurora History Museum. The pair gazed at glass cases holding rare Japanese Nintendo consoles from 1983, Atari systems from the late 1970s and a wide selection of old-school games like “Frogger,” “Asteroids” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.”

The collection sparked a flood of childhood memories for Terwiske and Hill, both of whom played plenty of video games growing up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But the impact wasn’t entirely rooted in the past. Video games remain a big part of Terwiske’s life, she said.

“In our house, we have the original Nintendo, we have two Xbox 360s, we have a Playstation and we have a Nintendo 64,” Terwiske said. “We have one of those old console TVs in the basement, and that’s where we have the original Nintendo. I play ‘Duck Hunt’ and ‘Super Mario Brothers.’”

Aurora History Museum curators organized the exhibit with gamers like Terwiske in mind. Sure, there’s plenty of kitsch and ‘80s pop culture in the more than 100 objects on display, many that come directly from the collection of Colorado resident Brett Martin, the owner of the Video Game Memorabilia Museum and the current Guinness World Record holder for the Largest Collection of Videogame Memorabilia. There’s a rare plastic figurine of Mario from the “Donkey Kong” game; a stuffed, plush replica of Yoshi, the dinosaur star of “Super Mario World”; and a series of plastic miniatures of game consoles and characters from “The Legend of Zelda.”

But the exhibit isn’t only about trinkets and toys. The culture of gaming also plays a role here. Quotes from “Skyrim,” “The Oregon Trail” and “World of Warcraft” are spelled out on the walls. The collection also seeks to take a deeper look at the wider historical sweep behind an evolving technology. Complex questions of sociology, culture and communication undergird the growth of the video game industry.

“It’s important. We tried to not just talk about the games, but their impact on pop culture, on fashion, on education styles and the military,” said MaryJane Valade, a curator of exhibits at the Aurora History Museum. “We wanted to give information about how video games have impacted different aspects of life.”

Those impacts are spelled out in quotes and factoids on the exhibition room’s walls. For example, plaques on the wall detail the 2005 outbreak of a virtual disease called “Corrupted Blood” in “World of Warcraft,” an online game with a community of millions of players. After parent company Blizzard Entertainment introduced the new blood plague as part of an updated dungeon level for high-level players, a glitch caused the sickness to spread past its original setting. It went on to affect low-level players in levels across the virtual world.

According to Megan McCoy, a curatorial assistant at the Aurora History Museum, the online incident garnered international attention from high-ranking epidemiologists, doctors and researchers.

“Some players would try to save other players and other players would try to inflict the plague on others. It turned out that a lot of disease control people were really interested,” McCoy said, adding that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention contacted Blizzard Entertainment in 2007 for data tied to the incident. “They wanted to use it to model what might actually happen, how humans would react in a real situation.”

The exhibit also focuses on how video games have played a role in education. The technology and sophistication of such games has evolved from the floppy disc copies of games such as “The Oregon Trail” and “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.” Forms of video games and simulations have become a standard part of military training; research has shown that hand-eye coordination built up through time with controllers and consoles can serve as a valuable training ground for future laparoscopic surgeons.

“They made less mistakes. They were faster and more efficient than doctors who didn’t have that experience,” Valade said.

Combined with the T-shirts, toys and other memorabilia pulled from more than 30 years, the exhibit conveys a technology that’s grown to encompass much more than joysticks and simple 8-bit graphics.

“The Smithsonian just did an exhibit on video game art,” said McCoy, a self-professed fan of the “Skyrim” game series. “I think that really legitimized it as an art form.”

It’s a form that’s crossed generations. While Terwiske said she still plays rounds of “Super Mario Brothers” on her vintage Nintendo system, her 13-year-old son sticks to more modern consoles.

“I came here to check this out so I can bring him here,” Terwiske said.