LOGAN SQUARE — In a brick building on a narrow street below the 606 Trail, adventurous explorers can enter cyberspace — without fear of getting zapped by digital villains.
Cinema buffs and gamers are flocking to the video-game museum Chicago Gamespace, 2418 W. Bloomingdale Ave., for the exhibition “Light Cycles: 40 Years of TRON in Games & Film.” It includes a bevy of playable games, along with artwork and memorabilia related to the 1982 Disney film “TRON,” which starred Jeff Bridges, Chicago-born Cindy Morgan and Elgin native Bruce Boxleitner as video game programmers and scientists who somehow get sent inside the digital games they designed.
Highlights of the show include a vintage TRON arcade game and the immersive Discs of TRON, which requires the player to step inside a darkened booth. The show also features console games, vinyl LPs, vintage magazines, publicity photos, production notes and a pinball machine inspired by the 2010 sequel, “TRON: Legacy.”
One of the most unusual items is a playable version of Space Paranoids, a game that briefly appears in the 1982 movie.
“Video games are a standalone medium, but they’re also the synthesis of all media,” said Jonathan Kinkley, owner and director of Chicago Gamespace. “It’s theater, it’s 2D art, it’s animation, it’s sound, it’s lighting, you name it. I think it’s the most exciting medium of our time.”
Kinkley co-curated the exhibition with Tim Lapetino, author of “Art of Atari” and co-author with Arjan Terpstra of “Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon.” Museum staffer Ethan Johnson provided additional research and curatorial assistance.
“We’re trying to tell video-game history, but also make it fun and playable,” said Lapetino, who is working on a book about “TRON.” “The idea is you’re not just going to come into the exhibit and read a bunch of cards on the wall — which is great, and we love that — but we also want people to be able to play through the history.”
Director Steven Lisberger’s “TRON” is considered groundbreaking for its special effects, which combined live-action footage, matte paintings, back-lit animation and computer graphics.
Interest in the film has remained steady in large part due to the success of the various futuristic games it spawned, starting with the original arcade game, designed in Chicago by Bally/Midway.
IT consultant Ron Perez visited the exhibition with his 14-year-old son. Upon returning to their Jefferson Park home, Perez said they watched “TRON,” which the late movie critic Roger Ebert praised as “a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish and fun” in his four-star review.
“It still blows me away how good that animation is 40 years later,” Perez said. “As a bonding moment between my son and me, I wanted to make sure he understood that it took a lot of work, and a lot of creativity, to make that movie. We talked about how engineers think, how creative people think, to make things happen on screen so that you believe you’re inside a computer game.”
In addition to geeking out about action figures riding the light cycles that inspired the name of the exhibition, visitors also can play many vintage arcade games that are part of the museum’s permanent collection, including Asteroids, Centipede, Pac-Man and Pole Position.
“There is a particular giddiness when some people walk through the door and see the arcade games,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how kids know about Space Invaders, but they recognize it, and they like it.”
The TRON exhibition has drawn many first-time attendees to the museum, including visitors from the West Coast, New York, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom.
Data scientist Alexander Horn was impressed and surprised by the exhibition.
“I wasn’t expecting to see all these games that are actually playable,” the West Loop resident said. “It took a long time for video games to have any cultural cachet. We had an Atari 2600 when I was growing up. Our grandparents got it for us, but they had no idea what it was.”
Every attendee is bound to learn something from the exhibition, whether they’re a “TRON” fanatic with a deep connection to the original film or a skeptic who has never uttered the catchphrase “Greetings, programs!”
The second floor of the museum houses some of the most important video games of the 20th century, such as Pong, Tetris and The Oregon Trail.
“This is a phenomenal [destination] for families because adults love the games of their youth, and they get to introduce them to their kids,” Kinkley said. “For most of the [arcade bars], you have to be 21 to get in, so kids today don’t have a whole lot of access to these types of original arcade games.”
The “TRON” exhibition at Chicago Gamespace has been extended to Aug. 27. Admission is $8 (ages 13+) and $5 for kids ages 5–12.
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