A GAMER'S PARADISE IN SOUTH ORANGE by Donny Levit
Chris Donnell’s basement “museum” chronicles decades of electronic gaming
South Orange resident Chris Donnell is comfortably seated on his basement couch next to his family’s brand new eight-week-old brindle-colored pug. Yoshi is crashed out next to Chris, while uttering a few satisfied pug sounds that alternate between snoring and sighing.
“She’s named after a genderless dinosaur,” says Chris, when asked how the pug’s name came about. “That’s part of the toadstool kingdom from the Super Mario series of games.”
Normally, one would simply delight at the random, quirky reference to a beloved video game woven into the pop culture Zeitgeist. But then, Chris can boast expertise in almost all video game nomenclature.
You probably have some sort of inkling by now that Chris is not your ordinary enthusiast. Off the top of his head, he’ll tell you that the Fairchild Channel F was the first cartridge-based console for home gaming. His personal gaming history harkens back to the Unisonic Tournament 2000, which pre-dates Atari. “My sister and I would play that all the time [growing up],” he says.
So what does one do with over 40 years of gaming experience? You acquire artifacts and found a video game museum in your house’s basement, of course. “There’s some differing naming conventions between my son and myself, but technically we voted and consider it Game Park at the South Orange Video Game Museum,” explains Chris, who sports the apropos Silverball Museum Arcade sweatshirt from the Asbury Park boardwalk venue. (Let’s call it GP@SOVGM for short.)
To be clear, the GP@SOVGM isn’t open to the general public. In addition to limitations due to the pandemic, the museum is a labor of love – and obsession – that has become a focal point for the Donnell’s friends and neighbors. In the future, that could possibly change should you show up with a beer offering from Four City Brewing Company in Orange – one of Chris’ favorite haunts.
No promises, of course.
The central installation of the museum is an impressive collection of 20 neatly laid out gaming consoles dating back to the 1970s and spanning up to the most recent releases. For the experts at home, you’ll find the Atari 2600, a Sega Genesis, a Nintendo 64, a PlayStation 2, an Xbox, a GameCube, a Wii U, as well some rarer consoles. “The hardest one to find was the Atari 5200. It wasn’t as popular as the others,” he says. “The controllers on the 5200 are a bit notorious for not working anymore because they had some thin components inside which tended to deteriorate over time and more or less need to be replaced.”
The shelves of consoles bookend a CRT TV – as in the cathode-ray tube televisions that pre-date the standard flat screens of today. “With the older game systems, there’s a certain fuzziness that can look a little more authentic on an older TV,” says Chris. “The Atari 2600 game on a proper TV from now can look really blocky. If you want to have the full museum experience, it’s good to have a CRT on hand.”
Five miniature replica cabinet arcade games line the opposite wall of the museum, including Space Invaders, Star Wars, Asteroids, Centipede, and of course, Vs. Super Mario Bros. But in this museum, quarters aren’t necessary.
And then there’s the massive display of cartridges, a treasure trove of games that give you a sense of Chris’ completionist predilections. “We’re going to try to get every Atari 2600 game that was ever published. There were a lot of third-party manufacturers. So it’s complicated to decide what you include and what you don’t include,” he says. In addition to scrubbing the Internet, Chris regularly haunts Digital Press, a video game shop in nearby Springfield.
While you could refer to Chris as the chief founder and curator, the video game museum is definitely a family affair.
“I guess you could call me the C.F.O. and the housekeeper of the museum,” says Wendy Donnell, whose wry sense of humor complements Chris rather well. “All the procurement has to be approved through me. And then I also vacuum.”
The couple’s son, Quinn, is a second grader at South Mountain Elementary School and perhaps surpasses Chris in his enthusiasm for Mario and Luigi. In addition, Quinn is in charge of signage, logos, and all rules and regulations involving the usage of the museum. He’s also set up shop at a desk for his virtual learning during the pandemic. Quinn and Chris have fashioned the museum into a combination workspace and schooling venue. Such is 2020.
In non-museum life, Chris is the head of technology at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an interdisciplinary design studio responsible for architectural projects such as the High Line in Manhattan and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Wendy is the editor of PC Magazine and the vice president of content at Ziff-Davis.
While Wendy doesn’t profess expertise in all things video game, her job certainly lends itself to familiarity with the gaming industry. “We cover gaming news and gaming reviews. It’s a big part of my job every day. And everybody on my staff is a gamer,” she says. “I think it is really cool to curate old technology. I work for a technology brand that was conceived in 1982.”
Although Chris began assembling the GP@SOVGM in October 2019, he’s been an avid collector for decades. Growing up in Phoenix, he and a close friend hit thrift stores in the late 90s. He also amassed a lot of his collection at electronics auctions. “You’d get a giant wheeled pallet for about $20 and we would put video games on it,” says Chris. “And you’d have to take the whole pallet. Sometimes there were weird things like gigantic terminal printers in there. I remember one sitting near my apartment door in Phoenix. It looked like a piece of art.”
While Chris moved to New York and eventually settled in South Orange in 2015, those stored items had an epic path as well. Through good friends, the items would travel from Phoenix to Atlanta. In 2019, Chris and Quinn made a specific trip down to Atlanta to cart it all up to the future museum.
Of course, the museum has been taking donations from local folks as well. Maplewood resident Jeremy Voss, a close friend of the Donnell family, donated a series of consoles and games to the museum. “This is the Jeremy Voss Xbox Collection,” says Chris.
In a separate interview, Jeremy concurred. “Listen, I’m happy to give Chris my junk. He’d be the first one to tell you that I should have my name on a plaque somewhere because at least three or four of the systems and 20 of the games that are in his museum came from me,” says Jeremy. “He and Wendy should at least name the bathroom after me.”
Jeremy recalls a very distinct childhood memory playing the infamous E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video game made for the Atari 2600. “It’s one of those games that I played to death,” he says. “It’s a famously terrible video game that was made in about five weeks by one dude. But when you’re 7 years old, you don’t know that. And because there was no Internet or gaming discussion forum, I had no one to tell me that. I just thought I was terrible at it, because I would get stuck in a pit and have no idea how to get out.”
Speaking of young gamers, Jeremy has bonded with his 7-year-old son over the Xbox and many other consoles. Henry, who’s a second grader at Seth Boyden Elementary School, is currently taking a deep dive into Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
“If games are a way for [Henry] to engage with part of his brain that ordinarily wouldn’t get activated, I’m all for that,” says Jeremy. “And I keep a careful eye over what he watches. I’m not going to play Grand Theft Auto with him. We don’t let him play Fortnite or anything that involves firing a gun.”
Jeremy credits his wife, author Katharine Houston-Voss, for indulging their proclivities. “Katharine will tell you that she’s a gaming widow,” he says. “I miss him,” responds Katharine. “But the alone time is priceless.”
So how does a video game museum feature its exhibitions during a pandemic? “We call it the museum annex,” says Chris, referring to the Donnells’ yard and area surrounding their garage. The museum now features a stash of small tube TVs that can make their way outside. “For most of the systems, we now have secondary power supplies and video cables stored in the closet,” says Chris. “If you want to take the Xbox outside, you can grab the appropriate power cable and video cable without having to disconnect all the power cables inside.”
The outdoors has also served as an opportunity for Quinn to have socially-distant playdates with his friends and neighbors. And Chris isn’t kidding around when he describes being able to customize the gaming experience.
“We had a kid from down the street and his mom had mentioned that he really likes racing cars. So we were able to set up three different systems with different racing games from over the years,” says Chris. “We had Burnout: Paradise on the PlayStation 3 and then Pole Position II. I brought out Enduro on the [Atari] 2600 and Mario Kart.”
What he doesn’t tell you is that the museum’s crowning achievement is an opportunity for Chris to show his generosity of spirit and passions in a way that gives his community well-deserved joyful engagement, which is especially important during these extremely stressful times.
So what’s next for GP@SOVGM? “We’re not a nonprofit organization with full accreditation of the Video Game Museums of America Society which – if there really were one – would probably be run by me,” he says with the hint of a devilish smile. “It’s an active museum. It’s somewhat a piece of performance art. Calling it a museum helps give you a focus on what to do with all this stuff.”
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident and grew up on a steady diet of Frogger and Space Invaders. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his indie rock show Under the Influence and his jazz show Kind of Pool on Bone Pool Radio.