Blockbuster video game exhibitions rarely inspire me to think critically about games. My opinion was confirmed upon visiting the Ontario Science Centre in 2013 to see Game On 2.0. Especially in respect to how the Pokémon franchise was incorporated into an exhibition covering over 60 years of gaming history. This logistically complex touring exhibition was organized by the Barbican Centre and perhaps is still the world’s largest touring exhibition on the evolution of video games.
Laid out in a loose chronological order and organized into 14 distinct sections, the expansive exhibit features more than 150 playable games. Game On 2.0 tracks the development of video games from the earliest computer games to arcade-era hits – including pinball games – as well as rarely-seen consoles, controllers and collectables.
From plushies to main series game boxes, the diversity of Pokémon is laid out in a cold display case in the “Making and Marketing of Games” section. Charting the path of Pokémon as an influential consumer franchise is of value but why showcase the banal aspects of the franchise? The redeeming aspect of this area is one wall featuring artwork and behind the scenes looks at the production of Pokémon but there is surely more that could have been explored.
To feature Pokémon Platinum (2008) and Pokémon Puzzle League (2000) as playable artifacts is another curious choice and the decision is not made apparent in the exhibition itself. The “Children’s Handheld and Portable Game” section featured 12 toys and games that were released between the 1978 and 2008. Within this span of time, there were 4 generations of Pokémon releases, so why Platinum?
The official exhibition guide presents this area as a showcase of the evolution of handheld consoles stating that “modern handheld and portable gaming devices are multigenerational whereas classic handhelds were marketed to children. The Nintendo DS becomes one of the first handhelds marketed towards an older audience…” Platinum, released on the DS, is perhaps one of the better DS games to belabour this point because of the multigenerational nature. But as part of the series, Pokémon Black and White (2010) are arguably the first generation of games with a richer narrative, introducing complex dialogues in ways that was never done in previous generations.
The “Genres – Puzzle” section features 4 playable examples which includes Pokémon Puzzle League. This game was the first Pokémon game developed for North America, but the exhibition doesn’t make note of this fact. Whether you’re playing with a Pikachu skin or Dr. Mario, the experience doesn’t change. Puzzle League at its core gameplay is the same. But the longevity of the series through branding, presentation details and special console features makes this a landmark game and has little to do with Pokémon.
Museums are terrible places to learn. Many of these historical details are lost in the exhibition’s design (and It’s not for a lack of didactic panels). Video game exhibitions are in their cultural infancy, it’s a feat in itself that this sweeping historical view of video games came to be. With such a rich history to parse through within the Pokémon series alone, it’s time to dive even deeper into the culture and design history of games. For now, an afternoon spent at a used game store, staying up all night at a game jam or attending socials proffers a richer environment to talk seriously about games.
Christine Kim is a curator and designer based out of Toronto, Ontario. The areas of her interest overlap video games in the museum, the aesthetics of glitches, and graphic design.