Most of my friends in upstate New York, when trying to entice me into a return visit, send pictures of chicken wings, summer days at human-tolerable temperatures, or houses that don’t cost more than their parents might have made in their lifetimes.
Recently, however, a friend sent a picture that had me idly checking my vacation balance for the fall: a framed prototype chip for the home version of Pong. It was given as a gift to original programmer Al Alcorn, and it now lives at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester.
Alcorn, who made the game that would establish video games as a training exercise, fought terrifically with Atari founder Nolan Bushnell over the at-home version of Pong and the custom chip required to make it work on TV-ready hardware. After the home version hit Sears in time for the 1975 US holiday season, the chip was given to Alcorn as a gift. And now I must be in its presence.
The chip is housed inside the Strong Museum of Play’s 90,000-foot expansion that was finished and opened in late June, which includes an atrium with an OLED butterfly canopy, a “whimsical” parking garage, and, as previously noted, the world’s largest playable Donkey Kong arcade cabinet, at 20 feet tall. There’s a Level Up challenge, in which you can create an avatar and take on some puzzles and learning quests. But what you would really come for, like I would, is High Score, the section containing the history of the video game industry, the World Video Game Hall of Fame, and the Women in Games exhibit.
Along with Alcorn’s chip, High Score contains concept art for Dig Dug, a glimpse at the intensive wargames that inspired the designers of Civilization and Age of Empires, Doom designer John Romero’s Apple II computer, giant playable versions of classics like Street Fighter II, and (inhale) … just a whole lot.
If you’ve got kids, or you can borrow some, you can walk them through games from your younger days. You can get that wistful look on your face when you see Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic come up on a timeline screen. You can challenge them to Space Invaders and Centipede and other games you dropped far too many quarters into. You can feel simultaneously young again and extremely old. If you need help tacking the Strong onto a regional trip, I might humbly suggest Finger Lakes winery and brewery trails, the George Eastman Museum, and eating a garbage plate so that you can say you ate a garbage plate, even if you don’t finish it.
For me, I just need to be in the presence of the Pong chip. Like the first computer mouse on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, there is something entirely unnecessary but validating in seeing the beginnings of your field, your obsession, or some combination thereof, with your own eyes. Such tokens are often antiquated yet directly related to what we use today. If you find yourself near Rochester, you might gift yourself such an epiphany, too.
Listing image by Steve Poland / Strong Museum of Play