Much to Console

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Review of exhibition 'Game On' at the Barbican, until 15 September and transfers to the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, in October

The 'Game On' exhibition, an exploration of the culture and history of videogames, is very timely. It comes at the start of a new wave of consolidation in the games console industry. Microsoft's X-Box and Nintendo's Game Cube have just been launched in Britain, where they will be pitched against Sony's PlayStation 2.

At the 'Game On' exhibition it is the 200 playable games, dating from the 1970s right up to the new X-Box and Game Cube, which steal the show. Although the exhibition is grouped into 16 sections, covering different aspects of gaming, almost every room has several consoles or cabinet-style video games to play with. This is a hands-on exhibition aimed at fans of video games.

One thing that is apparent from this exhibition is that, despite the hype that accompanies the launch of new consoles, there are strong elements of continuity since the first commercial games developed in 1971. Most games fall into simple categories (racing games, shooting games, flight simulators, etc) and follow well established patterns of play. The massive advances in computing power have merely increased the realism, complexity and speed of the games. It is also clear that, although they may claim to offer escapism, most computer games reflect the capitalist society they are produced in. Much has been made of the violence of most games, but this exhibition also demonstrates the sexism of many games. For example, in the popular Tomb Raider series of games the main character, Lara Croft, has gradually changed shape over the years to assume ever more ridiculous supermodel proportions.

Nestling among the games are a number of art installations, most of them parodying computer games. 'Insert Coin' by Mark Dean is particularly good. It shows video footage from recent wars with a rotating disk, rather like a coin, superimposed and a looped sample of the Nico song 'I'll be your mirror' playing. As well as being eerie, it manages to capture some of the horror of war, while also reflecting the way that recent wars have been presented like computer games on our television screens. The other installations are much less inventive. 'Alien Invasion' is interesting as it tries to examine the media portrayal of immigration. It takes the classic 'Space Invaders' game and replaces the alien space ships with rows of identical caricatured black and Asian faces. Unfortunately, as well as being a rather heavy-handed attempt at satire, this is also unoriginal--parodies of 'Space Invaders' have been around as long as home computers.

One other factor in the development of the games industry, which is touched on but not really developed in this exhibition, is the convergence between forms of popular culture. Today's games usually feature film-like sequences linking together the action. A few, like 'Tomb Raider' or 'Resident Evil', have been made into movies. Increasingly the soundtracks for games are custom produced by leading musicians or will use existing hits. The influences go the other way too, with movies like The Matrix modelled on the style of computer games. Underlying this trend is both the increase in computing power and the cross-media consolidation taking place in the entertainment world. Companies like Sony or AOL Time-Warner now have a stake in the film, computing and music industries.

Sadly, the wider importance of gaming--the massive economic growth and consolidation of the market, the portrayal of women in computer games and so on-are not emphasised enough in this exhibition. Yet it is a fascinating museum and showcase of video games, which the enthusiast will greatly enjoy.