"Game Changers" is the freshest exhibit at Fort Collins’ Museum of Discovery — and it’s attracting crowds

"Game Changers" is the freshest exhibit at Fort Collins’ Museum of Discovery — and it’s attracting crowds

It's part arcade, part museum showcase

CultureOctober 23, 2019 By Will Brendza

I did not expect the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery to be so busy.

In fact, I hadn’t expected it to be busy at all. Museums, in my experience, are quiet, subdued, largely solitary experiences. But not this one. When I arrived at 408 Mason Court, there wasn’t a single parking space open in the lot. In fact, there wasn’t a single parking space open for several blocks. So I parked up the street in a quiet little neighborhood and walked back.

But it was nice out. And I had no problem enjoying the warm fall air as I strolled along the sidewalk with everyone else who was apparently going to the museum that day.

I was here to cover a brand-new showcase: something called, “Game Changers” — an exhibit dedicated to the history and evolution of video games. Part arcade, part museum exhibit, Game Changers opened on October 12th. It is an interactive exposition that visitors can actually play with, while they learn from it.

Which, sounded like a lot of fun to me.

So, without too many questions (or much of a plan at all) I’d hopped in my car and set out from Boulder on an adventure of discovery. And here I was.

A wall of sound washed over me as I walked inside, through the front doors of the museum: people were chatting excitedly, instruments were blasting odd notes at irregular intervals, children were laughing and people were calling after each other. Families, classes, groups of friends all moved around in little clusters, in every direction. For a moment I stood frozen, staring at the unexpected commotion.

“Are you Will? With Rooster?” A voice beside me asked, breaking my trance.

“Yes,” I said, turning and locking eyes with the marketing and communications manager of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.  

“Kristin Stern,” she introduced herself, extending her hand.

We shook. I told her that I had never been to such a lively museum before.

She laughed, “Yeah it gets kind of crazy in here, sometimes.”

I was eager to see the Game Changers exhibit, but I was also really curious about the rest of the museum, too. The cacophony of brass instruments and crowds of excited people had piqued my curiosity. So, I was grateful when Kristin offered to show me around before we dove into the video games.

We circled the place and she gave me a cursory tour.

“This is our Music and Sound Lab,” she explained as we walked past the source of all the musical noise.

Kids were grabbing clean mouthpieces at the front of the exhibit, picking up brass instruments and blasting into them, laughing madly at the strange noises they produced. Some people sat in studio stations with headphones on, playing guitars, basses, keyboards or drum kits. I messed around with a Theremin (which, until that moment, I had regarded as some kind of dark 60’s hippie magic), and in the way back, was a jam room.

“People can actually go in there and pick up real instruments and play music together,” Kristin said, as we peered into the sound-proofed room.

We walked on. She showed me the Schatz Family Exploration Room, a physics lab for young scientists to experiment with color, light, air and motion. She showed me their Wildland and Wildlife exhibit, which features cattle skeletons, mounted deer heads, stuffed bobcats, stuffed buffalo, and a biodiversity wall describing the natural flora and fauna of the area. We took a trip up the Healthy Steps to the OtterBox Digital Dome Theater: a 39-foot 360-degree dome projection screen where the museum hosts special lectures, live music performances, artists, experimental art events and astronomy presentations.

Everywhere I looked there was some kind of interactive thing for museum goers to interface with: whether it was plastic tubes and marbles, French horns or fossils. People were holding things, playing with things, thinking, talking, laughing, learning all around and all together. There was a palpable energy in the air, an excitement that is not characteristic to most museums.

Then, came the main event: Game Changers. We walked through a pair of double doors into a room adjacent to the main area, a cool, large and dimly lit chamber scattered with panels, set up like a maze and divided into sections. Lights flashed. Nostalgic bleeping, chiming, ponging arcade noises filled the air. Excited kids were darting this way and that, while people loitered around the video game stations, playing Pong, Super Mario, Donkey Kong, and many other games.

Photo courtesy of Fort Collins Museum of discovery.

The exhibit is broken up into five different sections, Kristin explained, “There’s story, graphics, gameplay, audio and strategy.”

All of which represent different stages in the evolution of video games; all of which came to exist for different reasons. Strategy games could not have existed without improvements in graphics that came from story-based games, and story-based games couldn’t have grown into what they are today, if it hadn’t been for 2-D arcade games laying the foundation for everything that came after.

“All of these things intersect with one another in different ways,” said Kristin.

Photo courtesy of Fort Collins Museum of discovery.

We wandered through the graphics section. I stopped to look at a panel illustrating how certain classic video game characters have evolved over the years: How Lara Croft has gone from a boxy, human-shaped thing, to a 4K hottie; or how Link grew from cartoon character into a seamless digital warrior.

All around us people were playing different games: kids were playing games made before they were born, like Space Invaders, and adults were messing around with new ones like Guitar Hero. People were slamming buttons, laughing and hollering.

It was unlike anything I’d ever seen inside a museum.

Game Changers was brought to Fort Collins from Canada. In addition to the exhibit itself, the Museum of Discovery is also planning on hosting a number of programs and speakers over the next few months, to talk about video games, their place in our culture and how they grew and evolved over the decades. In November they’re planning a “video game-themed museum takeover,” where games will be dispersed throughout the building and in different exhibits.

Towards the back of room, the entire video game saga is laid out visually, across a series of panels.

“I really love this timeline here,” Kristin said, nodding towards the display. “It shows how video games have gone from arcades, to Gameboys, to snake on the first mobile devices, how they evolved for things like Wii and tablets, all the way up to Pokemon Go.”

The exhibit, which starts at the inception of digital video games, ends at the inception of augmented reality (AR). It walks visitors through the entire life and times of video games, showing where they’ve been, how they developed and where they’re at now.

“We’re trying to do some stuff towards the end of October with VR [virtual reality],” Kristin told me as we neared the end of Game Changers. “That will kind of take it to the next step.”

Photo courtesy of Fort Collins Museum of discovery.

So, there’s more to come for the Game Changers exhibit. Which is exciting, considering that it will be at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery until January 12th. Tickets into the exhibit are $6 for non-members and $3 for Museum of Discovery members. Which, is still cheaper than going to any arcade in town, and far more educational.

If you’re in the FoCo area, it’s well-worth stopping to check out the Museum of Discovery’s new exhibit. Game Changers is not like your typical museum showcase, and, for that matter, the Museum of Discovery itself is very unlike other museums. It’s fun, it’s exciting and you’ll undoubtedly learn a lot.