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Video game museum gives arcade classics extra lives

Nerd nirvana? It's a video game museum that doubles as an arcade.

By Ethan Gilsdorf/ Contributor / August 5, 2010

Gary Vincent presides over playable vintage video games at the American Classic Arcade Museum in Laconia, N.H.

Taylor Weidman/Staff

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Laconia, N.H.

Downstairs at Funspot, the venerable amusement center here near the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, tourists arrive in waves to play air hockey, ride the bumper cars, and pump tokens into modern video games such as Dance Dance Revolution and Terminator Salvation.

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But upstairs, the dim, cavelike American Classic Arcade Museum (ACAM) creates another reality. Period music – Toto, Men at Work, Duran Duran – trickles in, mixing with the electronic beeps, zaps, and chirps of machines arranged in long rows like a robotic army. Among this array of classic arcade games, the largest in the world, you'll see classics such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders, but also rare finds such as Quantum and even Pong, the only one still on public display and playable.

Here, time has screeched to a halt. Neither the games nor the music is younger than the final year of the Reagan administration.

Double Dragon came out in 1987, "around the time that things began to change," says Gary Vincent, the museum's president, who opened it in 1998 and grew the arcade's collection to some 280 video games. As the first nonprofit dedicated to preserving coin-op amusements, ACAM is a sort of living history museum of gaming culture.

"The games don't make much money," Mr. Vincent says. But money is hardly the point. Unlike at other museums, here you can touch. Every game on the floor is there to be played. And for 25 cents, the museum lets folks try to revive their old-school gaming mojo.

As gamers get older, there's been a resurging interest in arcade classics. This nostalgia trip hit the public consciousness with the 2007 documentary film "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," which offered a peek into the world of retro video game competitions. Since then, the subculture that exults these games has broadened beyond a dedicated few. Gradually, a movement to collect relics from the medium's history has gained traction. Academic institutions and individuals have begun archiving them. But preservation isn't simply a sentimental effort to relive people's digital childhoods. These games offer a unique window into the cultural and social impact of video games.

"Quite simply, digital games are a part of contemporary culture," says Henry Lowood, curator of Stanford University's History of Science and Technology Collections and Film and Media Collections, in an e-mail interview. "If we care about understanding our culture, we have to care about preserving its history, and games are a part of that history." Similar institutional efforts to gather video games and memorabilia are housed at the University of Texas at Austin and the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.