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Select, Start: Explore the World of Video Games at Franklin Institute’s ‘Game Masters’ Exhibit

From the nostalgic to the cutting edge, there’s something for all levels of gamers at this massive interactive exhibit.

This weekend, the Franklin Institute unveils a new interactive exhibit celebrating five decades of video game evolution. The 14,000-square-foot “Game Masters: The Exhibition” features more than 100 playable games, from Pac-Man to Minecraft and everything in between, and runs from March 31 through September 3.


This is one of the museum’s largest exhibits to date, and truly has something for everyone at all ages and levels, from the casual gamer to the aspiring developer.

Old School Games!

The exhibit is split up into three sections. The first, “Arcade Heroes,” celebrates the origins of video games, with nine groundbreaking designers profiled through 20 original arcade cabinets. We’re talking Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong — you get the picture.


It’s like stepping back in time to a 1980s arcade (complete with a totally rad 80s soundtrack!), no quarters required!

Relive Your Childhood (and College Years), and Share Some Current Favorites

Photography courtesy of Mark Ashkanasy

The next section, “Game Changers,” bridges the gap between the origins of video games and today, highlighting 13 influential designers who shaped the industry as we know it today.


This spans from early console games like Sonic the Hedgehog all the way to more recent platforms like computer games (think SimCity), and newer consoles like XBOX and Wii.


A slight caveat here: you’ll notice some powerhouse favorites are conspicuously missing. Due to some licensing issues with Nintendo, you won’t find Pokémon or even Mario (except for a Question Box you can jump up to hit, that’s totally just a box with a question mark on it, what are you talking about?), but there will be plenty to fill that void.


Your kids will of course recognize LEGO Star Wars (and Harry Potter, and Batman), and will like the little lounge setup where they can get comfortable and play to their hearts’ content. And they can also hop aboard older Sega brand arcade set-ups like Out Run and Hang-On.


In addition to all the playable games, you can watch interviews with the developers, and look at concept art and notes that became the games we see today.

Get Ready to Perform!

Photography courtesy of Mark Ashkanasy

The exhibit continues past the main room, so don’t leave after the LEGO room: follow the ramp up to a second room for more interactive adventures.


There, you’ll find some large scale interactive musical experiences that are definitely going to be popular (expect wait times).


Step inside the Rock Band 3 booth and form a four-piece band with a microphone, drum kit, two guitars, and a whole playlist of songs to select. Or you can step into the karaoke booth and unleash your SingStar.


Or if you really want to dance like no one’s watching (even though everyone will totally be watching), try your skills on the dance stage, in a large-scale version of Dance Central 3.

Play “The Indies”

The third set of developers highlighted in the exhibit are independent developers that are currently producing some popular and innovative games. Your kids will definitely recognize these games, which include present-day favorites like Minecraft and Angry Birds.

Learn and Do

If at this point your eyes have glazed over from all the screens, but you don’t want to leave the world of gaming, step into the 1,200-square-foot programming space, which has daily hands-on programming that combines fun activities with scientific content.


You can learn the basics of coding with programmable robots called Spheros — even my preschooler loved drawing a path for the little ball-shaped robot to follow on the iPad and then watching it execute it. Or learn the basics of circuitry by making game buttons out of Play-Doh — also a favorite for the little ones.


There are also activities to test your reaction speed and physical abilities. The flashiest piece of this section is definitely life-size Tetris, made up of giant blocks you can manipulate to play the game.


For older kids who want to delve deeper into game development, come on select Saturdays beginning May 12 for “Programming from Scratch,” which is a beginners’ coding workshop (using Scratch, naturally) for kids ages 10-13. This workshop will be $20 for members, or $35 for non-members.

Adults Only

In addition to all the family-friendly activities planned, the Franklin Institute also has some special nights planned just for grown-ups this summer. So line up some babysitting and make some plans!


On June 5, come after hours for exhibit access, a cash bar, and screening of the 1983 gaming film War Games. Then on July 3, come back for another movie night: this time 1982’s Tron.


There will also be a special Science After Hours on June 26 called “8-Bit,” which will let you explore your favorite video games, discover how current games are bridging the gap between science and education, and enjoy some adult beverages while you’re at it.

Game Masters: The Exhibition” runs from March 31 — September 3 at the Franklin Institute, at 222 North 20th Street in Philadelphia. The exhibit is open from 9:30 am — 5:00 pm daily, and will also have evening hours, remaining open from 5 — 8 pm on Thursdays — Saturdays through July 4 and then daily from July 5 — September 3.


Tickets are $30 for adults and $26 for kids ages 3-11, but if you come during the evening hours, that drops down to $20 for adults and $15 for kids. Members pay just $9 for adults and $8 for kids.


Lead photograph by Laura Swartz.

Contributing Writer