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The Games People Played

Special Collections acquires vintage photographs of Bay Area arcades.

Photo: Ira Nowinski

Stanford's curator for the history of science and technology collections talks about how Steve Wozniak's elegant video game code provides insight into the design of the Apple I motherboard.

People now gather online in groups that span the planet to play video games with PlayStations, Xboxes and personal computers of network-straining power. But not so long ago, the way to share the experience was to encamp in front of game-machine cabinets at local arcades. That technologically formative and vividly nostalgic era was captured by longtime Bay Area photographer Ira Nowinski, who documented the scene from San Francisco to Santa Cruz in the early 1980s. He put together three small books of the photos—including this panoramic shot of an Atari Asteroids event at San Francisco's Exploratorium in 1981—for himself, a collector friend and the Stanford libraries. (Among the collections of his work at Stanford is a series of projects documenting the Jewish experience, including that of Soviet Jews in San Francisco.)

The photos are a vibrant reminder, says Henry Lowood, curator for the history of science and technology collections, "that social computing and multiplayer games have not always been virtual or networked." The humanness of the images, which tell tales of competition, adolescence and hair styles, enhances an extensive Stanford collection of game software and hardware stretching to the 1970s.

Among the central themes of Lowood's work is the preservation of information about elusively brief phases in recent technology and culture. Additionally, notes Zachary Baker, an assistant university librarian for collection development, there is equal reward in chronicling the evolution of video games and obtaining still more of Nowinski's photography.

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