We’ve just got back from a fantastic holiday in Germany which included some time spent in Berlin. We’ve made overnight stops in the city before but this was our first chance to spend a whole day there and begin to explore it properly. Berlin has a great vibe, and there’s so much to see and do: from the powerful experience that is visiting the remains of The Wall and reading its history at the Checkpoint Charlie exhibition, to admiring the iconic architecture of the Brandenburg Gate, soaking up culture on Museum Island, or laughing at the procession of animal-print styled Trabants belching out fumes as they drive in procession through the centre for a hilarious “Trabi-Safari.” But while we made time for many of these well known tourist experiences, we here at AddAltMode simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to enjoy a slightly less famous Berlin attraction and – in doing so – to cross off another wish from our geek bucket list. I’m talking, of course, about paying a visit to the Berlin Computerspielemuseum (Video Game Museum), also known as Geek Heaven.
Situated on Karl-Marx-Allee, the museum has a fairly central location, just a short walk from the Weberwiese U-bahn station. It was dead easy to find. Indeed, we knew we were heading in the right direction before we’d even left the underground station, as a certain Pacman and his pursuing ghosts were helpfully pointing the way.
Entry to the museum costs € 8 each for adults, which is quite a bargain since you don’t need to pay any extra to play any of the games inside. Even in the old-style arcade, the machines have been configured so they don’t need coins or tokens, just press start to play. Awesome! You can book online in advance which might be a good idea if you’re visiting during a summer weekend as it can get very busy. But on a slightly overcast Wednesday morning in May our group of 5 had no problems just rolling up and paying on the door.
So, what delights are on offer in the Computerspiele Museum? Oh so many! The museum presents a winning mix of genuinely educational cultural history and just plain geeky/nostalgic fun. I guess the precise degree to which your fun is tinged with nostalgia will depend on your age, but for B and I and the friends we went with… well let’s just say there were more than a few “oh I remember that” type exclamations being made!
The museum houses a permanent exhibit, “Computerspiele. Evolution eines Mediums” (“Computer Games. Evolution of a Medium”) which takes you through the history of gaming from the earliest machines to the present day. All of the exhibits are labelled in English as well as in German so you can still learn a lot even if your German is as embarrassingly limited as mine is. The experience of seeing machines that I remembered using as a child displayed behind glass as museum pieces was a little disconcerting at first, but those kind of “shit, when did I get old?” type emotions were quickly quashed by the feelings of joy from begin reunited with the devices of which I had such fond memories from my childhood. For me, this was particularly true when seeing the Atari, which was the first games console my family owned (Yars Revenge, anyone else remember that?) and of course the Sega Master System which I used to play every time I went to visit my older cousins, before I finally got a console of my own.
There’s also an interactive wall of games, arranged by date, where different titles are shown in their original boxes. There’s a moveable cursor, controlled by a joypad (of course) and by highlighting the different games you can get their introductions and demos to play up on the screen. We sat for quite a while watching – among others – Sonic, Mario, Lemmings and Worms and remembering the many good times we’d all enjoyed playing these. And we clearly weren’t alone in this response: while we were reminiscing about Lemmings some Germans came in, heard the music, and exclaimed “Scheiße! Lemmings!” which had us all laughing. I love how game nostalgia brings people together.
Although many of the games featured will be familiar to any English speaking gamer, the museum also offers some fascinating slices of particularly German history, with a whole section specifically looking at gaming in the DDR. I found this really interesting as it showed that games were really valued in the old German Democratic Republic: the state recognised that games could be educational, and that playing and creating them could foster fast reactions and creative thought, all attributes it was keen for its citizens to develop. However, computers themselves were a relatively scarce resource, so although there were some games uniquely created in the DDR (which the museum lets you demo) machines themselves remained a fairly rare commodity.
The museum also includes a lot of information about the evolution of game soundtracks, from the earliest synthesised sounds, through the demoscene heyday, to interactive stuff like Rock Band and the high quality soundtracks of many modern games. There are headphones throughout the exhibition space so you can have a good listen (and occasionally rock out). As a a bit of a chiptune enthusiast I really enjoyed this!
I also liked the more philosophical aspects of the exhibition, which often posed questions about how gaming narratives compare to those of theatre and literature, highlighting both the similarities and the key differences, such as the game player’s increased agency in creating the story.
So there’s certainly plenty of food for thought at the Computerspielemuseum but let’s not be too pretentious about it; the main attraction here is just getting to play the games. Many of the games in the exhibition can be sampled, with controllers attached to many of the display cases. We had fun trying to puzzle out the controls on some of the very crude early German games. There are also some early 3D games with glasses supplied for you to wear. Some of the more novel gaming experiences on offer here include: a 5 player pong table (I happened to be there as part of a group of 5, so we had blast with this) and the Pain Station (basically pong, but the stakes are raised: you get an electric shock if you miss the ball. I’ll admit I was too chicken to try it!) Oh, and there’s also… drumroll please… The World’s Largest Joystick which was hilarious but ridiculously hard to manipulate, it basically transformed Pacman into a full body workout!
But the main attraction is probably the retro arcade, where such delights as Space Invaders, Tetris and Gauntlet can all be enjoyed all in their old style cabinets. B and I spent a long time playing 2 player Gauntlet – we’d both forgotten how much fun this game is, I think we’ll be picking up copies to play on Steam now!
All in all, if you’re a gamer and you find yourself in Berlin then you should absolutely make time to visit the Computerspielmuseum. We spent the best part of the morning there: allow at least an hour or so to go round the exhibition and then as long as you like to play all the games. Trust me, you’ll love it.
The full photo album from our visit: including a few that didn’t make it onto the blog will can be found on our Facebook page, so do check it out and give us a like there if you want a further retro gaming fix!