When I went to check out Nom Nom: 40 Years of Pac-Man Design and History at Chicago Gamespace, there was a lingering question in the air. The question no one should be asking anymore, but that it turns out lots of people still do, is “should this stuff–stuff like this Pac-Man exhibit– be in a museum/preserved?” And maybe the best way to answer that question, besides an obvious and resounding “YES!” is by actually taking in what Chicago Gamespace is laying down in Nom Nom: 40 Years of Pac-Man. It’s here that curators Jonathan Kinkley and Tim Lapetino lay out, in a thoughtful selection of 300 artifacts given space to breathe in the compact destination off Bloomingdale, now expanding to add a second floor of exhibit space, which will contain a carefully curated walk through video game history.
It’d be hard to believe you could be unfamiliar with Pac-Man, but in case you somehow weren’t acquainted with him, he’s kind of a big deal. Reportedly based on a pizza with a slice out of it and targeting people who might not otherwise game, Pac-Man took the world by storm in 1980 with a simple but rewarding gameplay loop, colorful graphics, primitive though they were at the time, and catchy music, and before long, he was everywhere. In fact, here in the Chicago area, Bally Midway was so taken with the game, they produced their own version, Ms. Pac-Man, which featured a few upgrades on the original gameplay that in part contributed to what would become Pac-Man fever.
Nom Nom takes you through every era of the game and introduces that Chicago connection as well, with stops along the way to hear from Pac-Man’s creators, the original and more importantly, playable Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man cabinet, and many of the 40 years of versions of the game that have hit almost every major console since, from Atari to Xbox and PC. It’s not just a look at the different versions of Pac-Man though, it’s a look at just how big a phenomenon and part of pop culture Pac-Man became. There are concept designs for Pac-Man games, ads from the game’s heyday, recordings of the Pac-Man cartoon that aired and plenty of memorabilia, in no small part there thanks to curator Tim Lapetino, who is not only a collector who contributed some amazing artifacts, but a Chicago native game historian who quite literally wrote the book on all things Pac-Man—Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon, which will release this summer.
Nom Nom touches on so much in so little space. You’ll get a chance to appreciate the art of Pac-Man as it evolved through the years, Pac-Man as a cultural phenomenon and of course, enjoy the games and see how they changed over time, both for better and in some cases, for worse. You’ll get a look at Pac-Man making the cover of MAD magazine and the cover of TIME and you’ll be able to read some articles that accurately portray the moral panic any groundbreaking art tends to engender, from rock music to comics and video games, with “True Confessions of a Pac-Man Junkie” and my favorite, a particularly unhinged piece called “The real threat of Pac-Man” that ends up arguing that playing games like Pac-Man will so badly isolate children that they’ll soon become truants who view humans as mere blips or dots on a screen to be destroyed. You’re not really making it if someone’s not mad about it, though, right?
What’s greatest about Nom Nom: 40 Years of Pac-Man though is so much of what’s greatest about Gamespace Chicago in general: you don’t have to imagine what it was like. So much of the time when you’re walking through an exhibit, you’re left to wonder what it was like back then, or what it’d be like to have had first hand knowledge. The beauty of a space dedicated to games preservation and the beauty of video games at large is their inherent interactivity–you don’t have to wonder what all the fuss was about–you get to play Pac-Man, as it was in the beginning and as it is today, and have that experience for yourself.
To ask whether these things should be in a museum, is to me, absurd, especially having seen Nom Nom. Pac-Man, after all, is one of the most recognized fictional characters in the world, and spawned not only a wife and kids with their own games, not only cartoons, hit singles and a game on just about every console in just about every generation from 1980 through now, not only a fairly hip themed restaurant and entertainment complex in the Northwest Suburbs, formerly known as Level 257, a reference to an “unreachable” level in the game–it’s part of history, and part of the fabric of pop culture.
Pac-Man and his family and wide range of fans began it all and paved the way for everything from Fortnite to Fall Guys and Last of Us II–and all of it is not only important, but absolutely worthy of space in a museum. Just ask MSI, with its Game On exhibit from all the way back in 2005 that still lives on as one of my favorite museum moments ever, or the Art Institute when they asked Bit Bash over to exhibit indie games along with the other artworks for Artists Connect: Interactive Influence, MoPOP in Seattle when they began their efforts to showcase indie games and work towards games preservation, and the Smithsonian when they acquired artifacts and cabinets from Bandai Namco themselves to put on display.
But you shouldn’t have to ask–you already know. Just like Mickey Mouse is more than “just” a cartoon and Darth Vader more than “just a sci-fi villain” so too Pac-Man is more than “just” a video game character–he represents so much more. Just ask Jonathan Kinkley and Tim Lapetino when you check out Chicago Gamespace–we’re certain they’ll be happy to tell you. You can visit Chicago Gamespace at 2418 W Bloomingdale Ave on Saturdays and Sundays for this exhibit, from 1-5 pm by advanced ticket purchase only. Admission is only $5 and kids 12 and under are free.
As an added bonus, hear a little more from curators Jonathan Kinkley and Tim Lapetino tonight when they appear on the Dave Plier show on WGN 720 tonight at 8:07 pm.
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