Curious about the history of home computing west and east of the Iron Curtain? Berlin’s ComputerSpieleMuseum in the German capital has you covered.
Museum director Matthias Oborski was The register‘s guide around the site of the ground floor of the museum, which is located among Soviet buildings on Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee (a five-minute metro ride from Alexanderplatz or a 25-minute walk if you wish admire the brutalist architecture).
After the reception, with its impressive Soviet-era mosaic still in situ behind the cheery staff, there’s a temporary exhibition celebrating the role of food in computer games. Oborski winced a little at the word “temporary” – it was created in 2019 and was still in place due, mainly, to the events of the past few years.
“Temporary” food exposure
Move past that and one is in the museum proper, starting with games from the pre-computer era (like chess played by post) before moving on to the very earliest examples of games in the mid-century great iron. Twentieth century.
Nestled among the information pads is a recreation of the Nimrod, from 1951, designed for playing a game of Nim. Unfortunately, the vacuum-tube original is not operational; instead, a representation on an FPGA does the trick, and of course your writer managed to lose on his first attempt (despite Oborski’s hints and tips).
Unlike the Center for Computing History and the National Museum of Computing in the UK, the ComputerSpieleMuseum is, as its name suggests, all about games.
Eternal loop: computers play Ludo against each other
Another recreation, Space war!, was hiding just around the corner. While the original’s PDP-1 was only present in pictorial form, the emulation was more than enough to give the viewer the feel of the game and the wonder it must have caused some 60 years ago. .
The ComputerSpieleMuseum is a mix of interactive games and joystick-controlled presentations. Oborski explained the approach, saying, “If everything is interactive, it’s overkill; you can’t really concentrate.
“And we have so many different types of people who come to this museum. A lot of people, especially Germans, but also other Europeans, if they see the word ‘museum’ they expect something not interactive or somewhat interactive.
“And because people, especially older people, are a bit scared to play because they don’t know what’s going on, [they’re worried] they might break the thing. Which happens all the time anyway,” he added.
As we can attest, it can be a little humiliating to be beaten by a child with considerably greater play prowess.
The Reg was particularly impressed with a story wall, documenting the game’s milestones. We did, however, take issue with Sega’s choice of Afterburner over something like Outrun and Doom. Oborski called the timeline a “wall of arguments,” and we can certainly imagine it triggering some heated playground-style disagreements. Still, at least Elite was present and correct.
And then there’s the PainStation (or “the work formerly known as PainStation” if some lawyers have itchy hands).
Originally an art installation, the PainStation is apparently a two-player game based on Pong. A ball bounces between bats controlled by players each having one hand on a dial to move the bat and another on an ominous-looking pad. Lose, and there’s every chance the game will deliver an electric shock, a bit of heat, or a whiplash to the back of the hand. Take your hand away and you lose. Stick with it, and punishment levels can increase as a losing streak continues.
This writer didn’t even make it past the first round after yelping like a little kid and pulling out a hand after some typically inept gameplay caused a shock.
A word of warning. The PainStation requires the supervision of a museum staff member. “Some people can’t stop,” Oborski explained, “and it can get quite dangerous. People started bleeding and stuff… We try to avoid that.”
To be fair, just seeing the Windows XP splash screen is enough to set off a nosebleed for administrators tasked with running the operating system at its peak.
Away from the PainStation, the museum is full of artifacts and paintings. There’s a playable RDA video game consisting of a home television tucked away in a handmade wooden cabinet with a few dusty electronics underneath, interactive exhibits such as an Atari VCS for the 1970s, a hidden PlayStation for 1990s themed and a recreation of a 1980s arcade filled with playable machines.
Our tour ended with a wall of aged computers and consoles safely placed behind plexiglass, as they are due to receive touchscreens at some point this year. And Oborski highlighted several areas, including the East and West Germany IT corner, which is due for a refresh in 2022.
If one has around an hour to kill in Berlin, we have to recommend a visit. Both to bathe in nostalgia and to learn a little more about the history of gaming with a typical German touch. Admission is €9 (around $9.42, although concessions are offered) and time slots can be booked on the museum’s website.
We fully intend to return in 2023 to see how many of Oborski’s plans come to fruition. ®