On April 2nd, 2016, the city of Frisco, Texas saw the grand opening of the very first National Videogame Museum in the United States. (Be still my heart.) This interactive museum enhances the values of science, technology, engineering, art, and math by encouraging the play and creation of videogames. With a collection boasting an astounding 100,000 gaming consoles, games, and artifacts with more than 25 years of historical documents and archives, it’s clear that this isn’t your parents’ dusty old museum. With over 20 interactive displays, the National Videogame Museum cultivates an environment of playing, not just learning.
The co-founders Sean Kelly, John Hardie, and Joe Santulli started their hoarding back in the 1980s, and have spent the past 20 years tracking down the pioneers of the videogame industry to document their contributions and innovations. Talk about having a true passion for all things videogames! (Achievement Unlocked: Historians of Gaming) They began as a travelling museum going to conventions all across the country, but eventually decided to settle down into a more permanent home.
With a mission to preserve the history of the videogame industry via artifacts, information and stories, this impressive collection showcases more than just the characters we all know and love. The National Videogame Museum is soaked in the sentimentality and magic of bringing childhood memories to life, while helping create new ones for generations to come. There’s even a real-life living room and bedroom set-up straight out of the 1980s, and yes, you can even hang out in them! Have you ever wondered what the founder of Gearbox Software, Randy Pitchford’s office might look like? Wonder no more! They have his actual office set-up right smack in the middle of the museum!
The museum spans 10,000 square feet and includes a gift shop so you can take a little piece of the museum home with you. And the best part about it is that their collection includes enough items to be seated in a space 9 times that, so their exhibits will be ever-changing and you can get a new experience each time you come to the museum.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Joe Santulli and ask him a few questions, from one gamer to another, and get to know a little more about one of the co-founders behind the first museum of its kind.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTERESTED IN VIDEOGAMES?
“My cousin had a Pong system at his house, and my friend Kevin and I were big board game fans, and I just remember thinking ‘this is gonna do everything for me, this is going to be the game I don’t have to put away when I’m done, and it also is going to feed a little bit of a fascination with television that I had at the time.’ The thing is if you look at the Pong that we have here, it’s just a box and two lines going back and forth. And what happens on televisions when there’s just a box and two lines going back and forth in the same place is that they burn in. But what happened was on my cousin’s television set you had this great Pong system. When we would go over there and watch TV, my parents would see Gunsmoke with a big box around it and a big line going down the middle, so they would never let me have that on our TV set because it would ruin the TV. So I didn’t get to have my first game until I was in high school and I had a job, and was able to buy my own television set so I could have my own game system. So I had to go through that whole process to get one. But, that’s how it all sort of began.”
WHY IS THE HISTORY OF VIDEOGAMES IMPORTANT TO YOU?
“I’ve been gaming since that beginning, so part of it is having been involved with it for the entire duration and not wanting to lose that. So if you don’t ever walk away from videogames then what happens is you just go from one generation to another generation, always remembering the one before it, usually having some fond memories of it. So, I remember my cousin’s Pong, but then I remember my first Atari 2600 and that was a great time, and then I remember when I got a ColecoVision and thinking ‘nothing could be better than this’ and then when the Nintendo came out I was like ‘this is the greatest thing that the Earth as ever produced’, and then Super Nintendo came out. So there’s always one more thing. So, now I’ve built this whole timeline in my brain of all the great things that have happened in the history of videogames, and you kind of apply it to times in your life, too. For me the history is really important because I don’t ever want to lose any piece of that timeline from all the way to the beginning. It earmarks certain times in my life.”
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO START COLLECTING GAMING CONSOLES?
“I think I’m a hoarder. I don’t really know any other way to put it. I’ve watched the show Hoarders, and I’m like ‘ohhh’. Other than leaving trash in my house and having rats live among my things, it’s pretty close to the mentality. You get into this thing, as a collector or a hoarder or whatever that mentality is with collecting, and it’s that ‘I need to have every single one of those’, so once I know what the complete list is, now it’s become a check-list for me, and they all have to be checked off. If they’re not all checked off, I’m not finished. And I’ve been like that even before videogames, I was doing it with baseball cards and comic books. So, videogames came along, and then cartridges came along and that sort of gave me something to put all of my collecting and hoarding tendencies into at once.”
WHAT ARE THE TOP 3 THINGS TO SEE AT YOUR M– USEUM?
“The first thing you see when you walk into the museum property is the giant Pong. So, to me that’s number one. You’re going to see a Pong console that’s 6 feet wide and 15 feet across. The next thing I’d say, which is probably what most people will remember when they leave here, is that they saw the 1980s living room and bedroom side-by-side. So if you lived in that generation, or you just kind of know about it, you’re getting a snapshot in real-time of what it was like in 1987 and 1981. The third thing would be the arcade, because it’s as close as any of us remember to any arcade from back in the day. You know we did the neons, the fluorescent lights, and black light lighting, and a giant centipede popping out of the wall, and a real scoreboard for local leaders with pop-out letters that change when people’s scores change. A token machine that came right out of the ‘80s with our own Pixel Dreams tokens. Whether you’ve had any experience with an arcade before, just being able to experience an ‘80s arcade for the first time is pretty cool.”
WHICH PIECE IN YOUR COLLECTION HOLDS THE MOST VALUE FINANCIALLY, AND EMOTIONALLY?
“I would say, like we’re sitting right next to an RDI Halcyon game system so for 10 minutes in the history of video gaming laser disk seemed like it was going to be the big thing, and during that 10 minutes somebody said ‘maybe we should make a game system that uses laser disks,’ and they did, they made it. But the problem was that it was expensive to make, and therefore very expensive to buy. So you would’ve had to pay $2,500 for that giant thing that looks like it’s two VCRs stacked on top of each other with a keyboard and a headset, and a giant laser disk as your games, and game cartridges that slide in to make the laser disk work. And it’s actually kind of cool and pretty tech-savvy for its time, but just clumsy and big and not perfect, and super expensive. So, it didn’t ever really get into stores. It got from the salesmen to a couple of independent stores, and probably mostly sent back. So, we have one of those and it’s complete, and there’s probably 20 of them out there. And if some collector that’s out there that had a chance to buy one today, they would probably pay $20,000 for it. So as a single item, that’s probably financially our best piece.
I don’t have an emotional attachment to any game. It’s funny that you would say that because I’m thinking ‘what would be the one thing that I would never give up?’ But the truth is I moved from New Jersey, I loaded up a semi-truck, and I brought everything here. Everything. And, there were times when I was like ‘ah, this isn’t gonna be in my house, if I ever go back to New Jersey this is gonna be someplace else.’ There actually wasn’t a time where I couldn’t part with it for that reason. I think maybe that’s because all along, the only thing I ever really wanted to do was share it with people. So, now it’s here, people can share all of my stuff, and I’ll be fine without it.”
WHICH GAME IN THE HEAD-TO-HEAD HALL ARE YOU BEST AT?
“Probably Golden Axe on the Sega Genesis.”
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THE YEARS OF TRAVELLING AND COLLECTING CONSOLES AND GAMES?
“Pack your stuff well. I mean the reason why we’re in a physical museum is because the travelling museum, as fun as it was to do, puts wear and tear on every single piece. So, if you have valuable things like the Halcyon you better make sure that they’re super packed. And no matter how much you think you’ve prepared, there’s always something that’s going to happen. Someone’s going to drop a box along the way, shrink-wrap is going to get too tight, it’s going to get too hot in the place where it’s at, something will start to stick. That’s what I learned, preservation is much more complicated than it seems, I’ll tell ya that. You know I don’t really know the first thing about being a museum curator, I’m kind of learning on the job as I go, but there’s so many little things that you pick up along the way. I keep this by my side, I have rubbing alcohol and Q-tips with me wherever I go, ‘cause that is the panacea for all game cartridges. I keep a dirty toothbrush with me at all times because I can get in all these little crevices, you know like that Turbografx has all these little teeth and so many places for dust to get in, and dirty fingers on controllers. I guess that’s what I’ve learned, is how to best maintain super valuable items.”
HOW DO YOU ANTICIPATE TAKING CARE OF THESE ARTIFACTS WITH THE PUBLIC HANDLING THEM?
“They’re going to get beat up, all I can really tell you is that what you see here isn’t all we have. So, that’s not the only 2 controllers for the Super Nintendo, and that’s not the only Super Street Fighter cartridge, and we’ve built this whole place with that in mind. So anything that we’ve left out we’re either willing to part with at the expense of giving other people a chance to at least have some time with it, or we’re really good at fixing them. So most of these controllers they break, unless they shatter we can fix it.”
WHICH CONSOLE DEVELOPMENTS OR FEATURES WERE YOU MOST SURPRISED BY, AND WHICH ONES ENRICHED YOUR LIFE AS A GAMER THE MOST?
“There are some that I thought were ahead of their time, the Sega Dreamcast is a perfect example of a console that did a whole lot of things for the first time. When I got my Sega Dreamcast we were playing Phantasy Star Online using a dial-up, and every dial-up system from that point back in time has the same problem, someone picks up the phone while you’re in the game, your game’s over. Some minor disturbance in the line between you and wherever the thing ends up, you lose your game. But, they came along with the first broadband adapter for a game console, and all of the sudden playing Phantasy Star Online was an awesome experience. It was a totally different thing, it wasn’t ‘how long am I gonna play before I get disconnected,’ it was ‘how long can I play until I pass out?’ So, that was a huge thing when that came out, and it came way earlier than I expected it to. And the Dreamcast also had that Visual Memory Unit, memory cards were probably close to coming around anyway, but the fact that that VMU came out, you could actually take it out of the controller where it did all the saving, and then play a game on it. So, some games like I think the first Sonic Adventure you could play it and collect something in the game, and then if you weren’t playing the game you could take the VMU on the road with you and like do all this, sort of, bashing through to get even better at it. You could make your character and your items better, and then go back to the original game with that data and it would add to what you did. That was really cool for its time. They also, I think, had the first microphone game, so Seaman, they’re fish with human heads that speak to you, you spoke back to them on that microphone that was also plugged into your controller. I mean, I remember thinking that at the time ‘this isn’t going to work, it’s going to suck’, but it actually had pretty good voice recognition, it could hear what you were saying. So, those were at least ahead of their time, when they came out they were pretty great innovations.”
WHICH OUTSIDE-THE-BOX GAME DEVELOPMENT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD THOUGHT OF FIRST?
“I think it’s happened a lot of times where I’m like ‘I could’ve come up with that’, or ‘I would’ve designed it that way’ but the first time I think I ever thought that way was when I had a controller where there was a turbo button on it. You push that, and now you don’t have to (hit the buttons) as fast as I can, I can just touch this and it goes the fastest the game system can possibly handle. Like, that I remember thinking ‘c’mon’, I knew that that was the right thing to do. ‘Why did it take this long for that to happen?’”
WHAT GAMES FROM THE PAST WOULD BE A GAME-CHANGER IF VIRTUAL REALITY HAD BEEN — USED WHEN THESE GAMES WERE FIRST INTRODUCED?
“I would think, first of all, the game would probably have to be a 3D game, right? Like, what would virtual reality Double Dragon be, exactly? Well if this were virtual when I stepped in it, would it still be two-dimensional? The first thing I would expect for any game to have transcended what it does, it would have at least to have been a 3D game. So, I would take the very first 3D game that was significant, which to me was Super Mario 64. If you said a game like that was now virtual, you’re now in the game, I mean imagine what that would be like. If you were doing all those things you do in the game, which are already super fun, you’d be able to experience that as if you’re running around exploring it. Yeah, that’s what I’d pick, Super Mario 64.”
WHICH GAMES DO YOU THINK ARE THE MOST UNDERRATED?
“I’m a big fan of those tower defense type games. You know, a lot of gamers sort of don’t like that kind of a game ‘cause it’s more like chess than playing a video game. To me those games may not be challenging your eye-hand coordination so much, but they do challenge the way that you think about it, and the very first tower defense game in my mind was Missile Command. In Missile Command you’re rolling a ball and dropping a bomb in front of the missiles that are going to hit your base. And I always loved Missile Command, so maybe if somebody can somehow figure out a way to make a game as fast-paced and fun as Missile Command, but with the same sort of elements where you have some strategy.”
WHICH GAMING GENERATION IS YOUR FAVORITE?
“If I had to pick a generation, I would have to pick the second generation from the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Vectrex, Odyssey 2, Astrocade; there’s a lot of systems in that generation, and that’s part of the reason why the industry crashed right after it, but I owned a lot of those game systems and played those games at the time. Everything was new, all the games that came out it was like the first time you had ever seen anything like that. Like, who had seen something like Joust, or Moon Patrol, or Dig Dug? Those games were brand new ideas, it’s hard to imagine that. Like, nowadays it takes you a year until you find something that’s so innovative that you’ve never played anything like it before. Almost everything is a derivative right? I really love that generation for that reason. I go back to those games because it’s like riding a bicycle, in almost every case it’s one button and you can play the game for two minutes, or you can play for 15 minutes, but you can go back to it and you don’t have to relearn it. I love the modern generation of games, and I always have, but if I put Fallout 4 down for a week or two, when I come back I have to remember what all the buttons do, and that just doesn’t make me want to go back to it unless I’ve got some serious time invested. So, I would definitely say that second generation was it.”
WERE YOU SURPRISED THAT THE VIDEOGAME MARKET WENT FROM A NICHE MARKET TO BIG BUSINESS, OR DID YOU ALWAYS THINK IT WAS HEADED THAT WAY?
“It was never a niche market for me. I mean like, if you’re talking like parents thought they were toys and adults thought that you were a kid, or you weren’t grown up if you were playing video games in your 20s, that kind of a thing. I’ve never agreed with that, I’ve always thought it could be more mainstream and if people opened their mind to it, it’s the best form of entertainment there is. I’d rather be playing a game than watching a movie. I feel like your brain is engaged a little bit more, and it just always seemed a little more entertaining than anything else you would do in front of a television set. But, I’ve never really looked at it as a niche. You know what’s changed now, is that everybody is a gamer. They used to use that term back in the day, and some people still do. Are you a gamer? It’s ridiculous because everyone is, if you play a game on your phone you’re a gamer, there’s no question, right? My mom hated me playing videogames when I was growing up, didn’t like the fact that I left my job to open a videogame store, didn’t like the fact that I had to leave New Jersey to come open a museum about videogames, none of these things appealed to her, and my mom would never say she was a gamer, but she plays Farmville every day. So guess what, she’s a gamer too. That’s the difference between a niche and not-niche, that’s a big thing that’s happened for people, everyone is somewhat involved in it now. My dad was the anti-gamer, I would bring him in from time-to-time, like ‘Dad, I need a second player’ or ‘you’ve gotta check this game out, it’s gonna be so great’, and my dad was the guy that, ‘it’s a racing game, let’s drive’, the first thing he would do is turn the car around and go against the traffic. Anti-gamers, you know, they fight it the whole way.”
WHAT WOULD YOU CONSIDER A MUST-HAVE GAMING ACCESSORY?
“The memory card. Do you remember the older games where you had 36 characters that you had to write down so that when you came back to the game you had to type the 36 characters in and pick up where you left off? Do you know what that’s like having to do that? Because you also don’t have a keyboard, what you have is letters on the screen that you have to match, and then when you get to the 36th one you hope you didn’t miss a letter. So, memory cards were real big, I remember when those came out I was like ‘oh thank God somebody finally thought about this!’ But yeah, memory cards finally put some kind of a safeguard in place that you weren’t going to lose all that work that you put in.”
WHAT ELEMENTS DO YOU FEEL NEED TO BE PRESENT IN ORDER FOR A VIDEOGAME TO BE A CLASSIC IN THE MAKING?
“One of the things that I’ve always thought, like back then and now is that the game needs to have some element of random to it. That it shouldn’t be memorizable. So you know back in those days I couldn’t stand, and still don’t, like Mega-Man games because to me, sure it’s a platform game with a lot of action in it, but ultimately you have to remember where everything is because you’re just gonna die if you don’t. And I never liked that, it always drove me crazy. In today’s games, it’s a little more scripted scenes, so you can almost see them coming. You play a game like Call of Duty and it’s real quiet, and you know you’re in a scene that’s important, and you’re like ‘what step do I have to make to trigger the event where the planes start flying down, and the bombs start going off, and the guy’s like ‘come this way!’ And I also know that when I go back and save my game then I go and step in that same exact spot, the same exact thing’s gonna happen. It’s just a pet-peeve of mine, I don’t like knowing that that’s gonna happen. I liked games like Adventure on the Atari 2600, simplest game ever. And there’s a memorize mode in the game, but the guy that designed it put this random mode in there, Game 3. In Game 3 you hit reset and every element in the game is thrown into a position of complete randomness. So now, I have the same goal, I have to find the challis, I probably have to kill a couple dragons, I might have to use the magnet and the bridge to get to them, but I don’t know where any of those things are. I don’t know where my sword is, I don’t know if dragons might be chasing me for a while, or I might get lucky and the challis is right there in the beginning! I love that, and I still love that in games when you clearly don’t do the same thing every time and everything’s in the same spot. I want it to surprise you, and I want it to feel different each time. That’s key to it being a classic to me, and it adds replay ability to me.”
IF YOU COULD CONVERT ANY LINEAR GAME INTO AN OPEN-WORLD GAME, WHICH WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
“I would probably be picking a game whose environment is really cool that I would want to explore more of. That’s a tough one. When you think about it, open-world games happened so late in the grand scheme of things, what was it, like the last 10 years? How about ToeJam & Earl, it’s a Sega Genesis game and once again, it’s on my mind because we were talking about random games, and that’s what that game was all about. They’re aliens and they’re on Earth, but it’s a weird, distorted, Dali sort of an earth. The characters that we might not like so much as humans are really bad to them like the dentist is creeping around with the drill. You know like every bad thing is horrific there. Like the cheerleaders are bad for you, hula girls mesmerize you, etc. And twenty pieces of your ship are scattered across this planet, and you have to find them, and they’re never in the same place. But, the game was really cool because it had all these very cool characters to it, and it was somewhat non-linear because you didn’t know where all the parts were, so you found yourself having to go up to level 3 to find one, then back down to level 17 to get the next piece, and so on. But if a game like that had a more mission-based, you know take the thing in whatever order you want, you don’t necessarily have to put the ship together, maybe they build a mission where the boogeyman was one of the bad characters where you had to defeat him, you know I think that would be really cool. It’s a game franchise that kind of died, too. Which is sad, I’d love to see ToeJam & Earl come back, that would be like a perfect thing to have all those characters back and be part of this new world.”
HOW HAS YOUR GAMING STYLE ADAPTED TO THE NEW CONSOLES AND TECHNOLOGY?
“I still suck. I rarely find a game that I can master, and when I think I’ve mastered it I go over to the next town and it’s always a disaster, it’s a train wreck. I was the best in my friendly neighborhood at Intellevision Football, nobody could beat me. Nobody in my school, nobody in my neighborhood, and then I went to college and we busted out an Intellevision and my friend’s brother was like ‘I’m pretty good at that Intellevision Football’ and I was like ‘lemme show ya how the game’s played’. And he knew every single trick I knew, and it was just one of those ‘well, I guess there must’ve been a kid in every single town that figured every single trick out so evidently I’m not all that good at it.’ And it’s the same way today, now I’m too old to invest the kind of time I need to become the master of the game. But that’s the one thing that has not changed at all.”
WHAT HIGH SCORE DO YOU REMEMBER THE MOST?
“For me, I did master Punch-Out!! in the arcade. In my college arcade, where I spent way too much time in the arcade and not enough time in my classes, they had a Punch-Out!! cabinet which is that boxing game that they made a Mike Tyson version of that game on the NES. I had mastered that game to the point where I could play it all the way until it was about to rollover. Like, it would go to 999,999 and then I would just stop so I could be the highest score because it would go back to zero. So, I remember getting 999,990. It was one of those where you put in the three initials and I always just put in JOE ‘cause that was my name.”
WHAT WAS THE MOST OUTRAGEOUS THING YOU’VE DONE TO SQUEEZE IN MORE GAMING TIME?
“I’m sure that on more than one occasion I called in sick from work. I’m sure that happened more than once where you know, the game was too good, I’m not going to work. Or I stayed up too late to be able to make it to work and be able to function today. So you know, I’d squeeze a whole 8-hour work days in to play a game in the past.”
IF THERE WAS ONE VIDEOGAME THAT YOU COULD LIVE IN FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, WHICH ONE WOULD IT BE?
“V.I.P. with Pamela Anderson.” (laughs)
WHAT REAL-LIFE SKILLS/LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM PLAYING VIDEOGAMES? HOW HAVE YOU APPLIED THEM TO YOUR LIFE?
“I think my resource management skills are pretty good ‘cause I’ve often engaged in games like SimCity to start with an early one that kind of force you to if you want to survive in this game for long, or be good at it, you have to best use what’s at your disposal. There’s a game called Don’t Starve that came out a few years ago, there’s one very much like it called The Flame in the Flood, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a similar developer somewhere, it’s not by the same developer company, but it’s the same concept as that. You’re on a river and you just keep going down this river and every once in a while there’s a place that you can get off the river and you scavenge for things and it’s very much like Don’t Starve in that if you run out of food, or you can dehydrate, and it’s actually got this element of actually being on the river going places where your boat also has to somewhat be managed on top of you. I think playing games like that has definitely given me a little bit of a better resource management in my life. Like my banking account now, I handle it much better than I did many years ago before I played SimCity. My collection that at one time was rag-tag with things piled on top of each other and probably wasn’t very well thought out is now very well thought out. Before I even start putting things away I think about it spatially like, ‘well I only have so much space, and I have this much things.’ I never used to think about things like that before, and I don’t just think that came from just getting older, I think it came from having lived in this world where you better do it or you die. Those are pretty easy concepts to take with you in life.”
HOW HAVE VIDEOGAMES AFFECTED YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE?
“Have you ever played a game for a while and you start to see the real world in that same way that you see the game? Sometimes it only lasts for a day or two, sometimes it lasts for weeks, right? So like, if you’re playing Grand Theft Auto a lot, all of the sudden you start to think about ‘hmm, that car is better than the one I’m driving right now, if I were to get out and take that car I wonder how much faster I could get to where I have to go.’ Or in a game like Portal where you’re like now I’m starting to look at places like ‘I wonder if I were to fall out of there if I were to land in the right spot to be able to get out.’ Um, I’m not sure that that’s the same thing as taking the game into my real life, but I do very often in my real life visualize the environment that I’m in as a game, usually whatever it is that I’m playing at the time.”
WHERE DO YOU SEE VIDEOGAMES BEING IN 10 YEARS?
“I bet you the answer to that question was the same 10 years ago, and its Virtual Reality. It’s ‘I’m in the game, I have Pam Anderson in the game with me.’ It’s all the same dreams we have when we were kids playing games. Like ‘how far can they go with this’, and the farthest you could go is ‘I’m in the game.’
Well, it seems like we’re getting pretty close to that. I mean, I’ve seen an awful lot of attempts at virtual reality over the years, but they were all kind of a joke, right? Now you can see it, if you go to any sort of a demo you can do Oculus Rift and it’s incredible what it can do. So, it’s probably real. I don’t know if I’ll ever have Pam Anderson in a game, but I hope 20 years from now I can look back and go ‘oh remember when I thought that might happen?’”
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE WHO ISN’T SURE IF VIDEOGAMES ARE FOR THEM?
“If you’re reluctant to get involved in something this much fun, how do you even look at it and not want to play? Maybe I would tell them there are games of all different kinds, you don’t have to consider a videogame to be something violent or a place where you’re just exercising your hands and you’re eyes as fast as you can. There’s strategy games, there’s games that engage your creative side, there’s games that simulate almost every other type of game in life without having to put the pieces away. I guess all I’d really say is try to keep an open mind about it. What do you like to do in your free time? I bet you I could find a videogame that does something similar to that.”