Game On review – interactive gaming exhibition is a thoroughly fun day out

<span>Game On at the National Museum of Scotland.</span><span>Photograph: Duncan McGlynn/National Museum of Scotland © Duncan McGlynn</span>
Game On at the National Museum of Scotland.Photograph: Duncan McGlynn/National Museum of Scotland © Duncan McGlynn

Walking through the doors of this exhibition, you are immediately greeted by the PDP-10 - the gigantic mainframe computer that was used to program SpaceWar, considered by everyone except extreme computing history pedants to be the first recognisable video game. Next to it, on the left, a bright yellow working Pong arcade cabinet from 1972. Puck Man (later Pac-Man) and Space Invaders cabinets stand side by side just beyond. These are very familiar sights to anyone with a knowledge of gaming history, and they set the tone. If you’re a keen (or, let’s be honest, old) player then it’s highly unlikely that you’ll learn anything new at Game On, but you will nonetheless have fun.

Beginning in 2002 at the Barbican in London, the Game On exhibition of video game history has been touring the world for all this time, only ever packed away entirely during the Covid-19 pandemic. It first came to Edinburgh later that year. Twenty-two years ago I dragged my dad along to this exhibition; this time I will be dragging my kids and encouraging them to have a go on the now-ancient games I loved when I was their age. Crucially, you can play almost everything at this exhibition, from Donkey Kong to Guitar Hero, Farming Simulator to Soulcalibur. One section pairs each console in gaming history with a defining game, another groups games together by genre, and a third is devoted to multiplayer, with four-player Halo 3 set up around a pillar. There are more than 100 games to sample and they form a well-curated nostalgia trip, focused primarily but not entirely on the 80s, 90s and 00s.

The exhibition has changed since 2002, and not just because games themselves have moved on considerably. Names such as Carol Shaw – the first woman to design a commercial video game – and Jerry Lawson, the black engineer who invented the game cartridge, did not get the recognition they deserved in previous decades, but now feature alongside their inventions.

It also reflects a little of the country it’s touring, with frequent references to Scottish games and gaming history. Scotland’s most famous gaming export is, naturally, Grand Theft Auto, and Rockstar has donated a selection of interesting memorabilia from its games, from GTA baseball bats to maps from Red Dead Redemption 2. But other facets of Scotland’s games industry are on display as well: last year’s brilliant A Highland Song, a game about running away from home in the Highlands, is on display alongside other interesting Scottish indie games Viewfinder and Pine Hearts, and thanks to the Scottish-flavoured informational panels I now know that the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was partly manufactured in Dundee.

For the first 40 or so years of video game history, change was driven mostly by technology – the giant leaps from 8-bit to 16-bit, two dimensions to three, SD to HD, offline to online. Computers and games consoles, and how quickly and prettily they could render things on a screen, drove the evolution of the art form, opening new creative possibilities to developers every few years, beginning in the US with MIT coders and then spreading through Japan and on to the rest of the world.

That is the version of video game history that you’ll see at Game On, with every console in gaming history arranged lovingly in a lit cabinet, sparking memories. I picked up the Dreamcast’s awkward controller and recalled hurting my fingers on its triggers by playing too much Crazy Taxi; I admired the brave Y2K ugliness of the crystal edition original Xbox, with its translucent plastic, and remembered the see-through green version that lived under the TV in my teenage boyfriend’s attic bedroom. It is an exhibition about the consoles and games that have lived in our homes, and where they came from.

For the last 10 or 15 years, though, change in gaming has been driven more by people. The pace of technological change has slowed, and instead what’s changing is who is making games and why. Different stories are being told, as the diversity of game developers, writers and artists has increased. More games are being made about real-life experiences, of dementia or homelessness or grief or growing up. You won’t see much of that side of gaming here, outside the small section of relatively indie games from global creators, and a couple of cabinets right at the end showcasing a couple of issue-driven games (such as Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, which tells a story about the drastic effects of deforestation on wildlife via a small family of apes).

This is an altogether very conventional interactive history of video games, but a fun and comprehensive one that rightly puts the focus on play. You won’t learn much about how these games were made, or who made them, but you can play more than 100 of them in a fun and family friendly environment.

  • Game On runs at the National Museum of Scotland from 29 June to 3 November