Most people when they visit Rome head immediately to St. Peter’s or the Forum, especially if they can only spend a few brief hours in the Eternal City. Me? My first stop was Vigamus, Rome’s video game museum, and the first museum in Italy to exclusively focus on interactive games. I intentionally booked myself in for a day in Rome specifically to visit the collections and staff of Vigamus. As an archaeogamer, it’s a prime directive of mine to visit as many of these new installations as possible. I’m glad I came.
Vigamus is about a half-mile (800 m) from the Lepanto stop on the Metro A-line just off of the Piazza Mazzini on Via Sabotino. The museum’s unassuming orange sign gives a hint of what treasures lie within one story below street-level. The joyful noise bubbling up the steps made me smile, a mix of chiptunes, shouts, and laughter, everything one would hope to hear. Upon entering, I was met by life-size figures of Lara Croft and the guy from Creed (Assassin’s Creed). I instantly entered stealth mode and surveyed my options: go back up the stairs, or enter rooms to the south or east. There was a mini-boss seated at reception issuing tickets to several NPCs, and next to him was my guide, Micaela Romanini, Head of the Research Center for the Vigamus Foundation. Romanini and I had been in touch when Vigamus was creating its blockbuster exhibition, E.T.: The Fall, back in 2014, and she was delighted to give me the tour. We also filmed an interview, which will become part of the permanent exhibit.
Vigamus is divided into several sections, all of which have incredible things on offer. As a 43-year-old kid who played Space Invaders and Asteroids when they first arrived in video arcades, the history and archaeology of video games is also my personal history. The first cases highlight the hardware and first video games ever created, many of which are hand-signed by their creators. The earliest Atari consoles are on view, as are various Commodore and Amiga computers. First-generation consoles from every major manufacturer are here as well as a selection of the games that defined genres. The signage is in English and Italian, and many of the cases feature looping video interviews with video game luminaries.
Copies of Zork were across from boxed copies of Monkey Island and King’s Quest. There was a case dedicated to Doom. Other cases included hardware from Atari and Intellivision, earliest consoles on top. Handheld game systems of every variety were positioned next to sample games: back then one could not play the games without the appropriate gear. I was happy to see the pairing of hardware with software giving context to younger visitors, and reminders to older ones.
The next room was dedicated to the fabled “crash” of the video game industry in 1983 that saw the fall of Atari and gave rise to Nintendo. The centerpiece were several cartridges, manuals, hardware, and comics, as well as dirt from the Alamogordo landfill, site of the Atari Burial Ground that I helped excavate. Being reunited with that material felt good, and I’m glad that Vigamus is one of a few museums that has this stuff on display. The exhibit does a good job at explaining the myth of the crash, the story of the E.T. burial, and of its recovery. I remain honored to be a part of that story. I ever wore the excavation t-shirt to the museum that day.
Down the hall and around the corner was a room of playable games on original systems. I played Doom on an original first-generation Playstation (I had played it on PC in college in the early ’90s). In the connecting hallway were cases full of Mario Bros. cartridges, a history of that franchise behind glass. Other cases contained other favorites of mine, including the Half-Life series of games. I let nostalgia take control, completely overriding the scientific side of my brain as I recalled with fondness all of the hours I spent playing and replaying these masterpieces.
At every turn there was something new to delight and amaze me. Two people were playing Golden Axe cooperatively via a projector. It was clear they’d never played the game before, and they were howling with laughter and the clunky controls and character movements. Growing up, we always wished for photorealistic gameplay, but settled for the 8- and 16-bit art we were given by Atari, Mattel, Psygnosis, and others. For these kids, it must be like watching the first cartoons or earliest films. We were just figuring it out back then.
Ubisoft sponsored the next room, which was full of Assassin’s Creed game art as well as several stations for playing the games, a constant LAN party. The room was full of kids, all wearing museum-provided gaming headphones. The sense of enjoyment was palpable.
The biggest room contained a setting for traditional lectures, and off to the side were several arcade cabinets including the very first cabinet for Space Invaders with the instructions in Japanese. I came back later after the tour was over to seriously play it, and had an absolute blast, like reconnecting with a long-lost friend. And I was astonished that this really was the first cabinet for this game. Playable history.
The real heart of the museum, at least for me that day, was the Oculus Rift room, which had state-of-the-art OR hardware donated prior to the Facebook buy-out. Vigamus prides itself on featuring the past, present, and future of video games, and the Oculus room proved it. The room contained two complete OR setups with chairs and hardware, as well as screens to show others what you’re seeing. I’d never played with OR before, and I was jacked in to a proof-of-concept game where I got to fight elementals with balls of water and fire. My immersion in that virtual forest was complete, caught in a sphere. The only thing missing was the heat of the fire and cold of the water I created.
The applications for archaeogaming with OR and augmented reality are quite real, and I look forward to future conversations with Romanini and others about what this will entail. The museum is part of the Vigamus Foundation, founded in 2013, and has publications as part of its mission. It has already published over a dozen monographs on various aspects of game studies, mixing serious research with the state of play.
I stayed for nearly two hours before deciding that I probably should see the rest of Rome. I’m a Classical archaeologist after all (or at least I was). I do hope that Vigamus inspires everyone who visits it as much as it inspired me, and that other video game museums follow its lead. New York’s MoMA exhibit on games could have learned a lot from Vigamus and its approach to gaming history, archaeology, art, and cultural context, inviting both play and reflection.
I plan on returning to Rome again, and when I do, Vigamus will certainly be the place I visit first. If you can’t go in person, follow them on Twitter.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming