The MADE Celebrates All Things Games
You can play classic video games, creative interactive stories, and build an app at Oakland’s nonprofit Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, a modern-day community center.
Alex Handy has built a museum that celebrates gaming from the 70's to today.
Photo by Stephen Texeira
Hearing MADE founder and director Alex Handy, an energetic and fast-talking former video game industry journalist in his mid-30s, talk about the history and development of video games is like listening to that one film history major you knew in college talk about Akira Kurosawa movies. Sure, everyone’s seen at least one, and most people like them. But it never dawned on you that they had so much cultural impact or depth.
Oakland’s Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, or the MADE, celebrates the culture and craft surrounding games from the ’70s to today, hosting an impressively large collection of playable consoles and games from the Commodore 64 on up to the Playstation 4. Glass cases contain a wondrous assortment of failed peripherals like the Nintendo Power Glove, the Wii-like controller released in 1989 that promised to sense where your hand moved in space and translate that into character movements on screen. Throw a punch in real life, and you throw a punch in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. Great in theory, but it didn’t work. For those of us who were around when the Power Glove was sold in stores, it’s hard not to look at it like you might look at a shrunken head in a glass case in a different kind of museum. It’s a fascinating oddity now, an almost unbelievable piece of history.
There are library shelves stacked high with games of every era representing countless princesses waiting to be rescued and years of procrastination waiting to happen. How did it all get here?
Handy begins a story we’ve all heard, or even experienced ourselves: Some kid has a flawlessly curated comic book or video game collection, painstakingly built up over the years through careful selection, financed by countless mowed lawns and saved allowances. It would now be worth big bucks (or at least priceless in terms of nostalgia) if it weren’t for a callous if not outright cruel parent donating it as soon as the kid moves away to college. Only in Handy’s version of the story, that kid’s loss is the MADE’s gain.
“A lot of this stuff came from my collection and the flea market,” Handy says. “I would always go to the Laney College flea market in Oakland on Sundays. Laney flea is a pretty interesting place. It’s where every stolen laptop comes up, but it’s also the place where, if somebody dies, the landlord says, ‘Somebody clean this up,’ and the guy who gets paid for that takes all the stuff to the flea market.”
Handy scoured the bins and haggled with vendors one by one acquiring classics, rare and unreleased games, beta versions, controllers, consoles, and boxes of Nintendo Power magazines. In 2008, finally armed with a museum’s worth of video game charcuterie, Handy opened the nonprofit museum on 16th Street in downtown Oakland. People came to play, and even more donations came pouring in. The MADE was born.
It flourished, too, offering not just thousands of playable video games for no admission, but also hosting tournaments, social events, and game development classes for kids. It was all going well, but like many nonprofits, Oakland’s growth eventually caught up with it.
“The ceiling in our old classroom collapsed, and the landlord refused to pay us to fix it. He was a jerk. It was a standard Bay Area landlord-jerk situation where he thought he could make more money. He bought a building full of nonprofits and chased out all the tenants,” Handy says bitterly, then shrugs and continues.
The MADE did a Kickstarter campaign and raised $50,000, and four months later signed a new five-year lease and moved into new digs on Broadway.
Its new location is bright and open. An old bank, it has high ceilings, an imposing-looking vault, and room to spread out. The main room of classics has a variety of people milling about—some lone boys, a couple of parents, a patient girlfriend or two. A mother nurses her newborn while Dad is soundly defeated by the final boss of Golden Axe. “I used to be able to beat this game in one life,” sighs Dylan Berman, 39, setting down the old controller.
In the next room, a group of about 15 teenagers, all boys, battle each other in a dazzlingly contemporary combat game. Everything in the background is bright and alive, the on-screen characters moving so fast your eyes can hardly track them. We’re only a few feet from Pong and the Atari 2600 games in the next room, but they feel a world away. It’s hard to imagine these kids enjoying Pac Man. Handy sets me straight, though.
“You never know what kind of a cultural palette the kids will have. It runs the gamut. There are kids who come in and only know Minecraft and Pokemon. Just last week, I had a kid, 16 or 17, come in with his girlfriend, and they’re walking through, and he said, ‘You have Super Metroid? My grandma showed me Super Metroid! She had a Super Nintendo and she taught me how to game.’ You just never know.”
For many kids, though, the biggest draw isn’t the video games themselves. The MADE offers classes on game design, coding, app development, and pixel art. Handy explains, “Oakland is a great place because it’s a place where the education is needed, and it’s also a place where there’s a lot of imagination and diversity. In Oakland you’re so deep in it, there are so many different cultures, so many different perspectives, that bringing those perspectives into the gaming industry will only help it. Especially in its current state.”
Handy describes the aha moment he has seen on so many kids’ faces when they realize what math is for when they need to use it to make a game. Of course, no one wants a video game museum to have to fill the STEM funding gap in the Oakland schools, but it is nice to see a place spring up that’s dedicated to something that kids get obsessed with that also happens to teach them the more challenging subjects.
Maybe that’s why the MADE feels less like a museum or arcade and more like a community center. The MADE unapologetically indulges kids’ obsession with video games, but through that, attempts to draw them back into the communal environment arcades offered, and also provides a bridge into the art, craft, and science of creating interactive games. That’s the idea, anyway.
If that doesn’t happen, maybe at least they’ll come to understand a small part of their parents’ generation a little better.
The MADE, 3400 Broadway, Oakland, 510-210-0291, noon-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, admission is $5 donation, www.TheMADE.org.