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Prince George's arcade fan to donate video game to museum

By Daniel Leaderman
The Gazette
Thursday, August 5, 2010; PG17

Mount Rainier's Joe Brewer always has considered the old arcade video games -- games such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong -- to be a kind of art form.

"The decals, the different paint jobs -- each one's unique and different," said Brewer, 30, whose hobby is restoring old video games.

He has collected 14 vintage, coin-operated games in his home. When the games are turned on, his basement glows, bleeps and buzzes like a real arcade.

Now, Brewer is giving up one of his games to help secure its place in video game history.

Brewer will donate one of his machines -- a restored Deluxe Space Invaders unit -- to the International Video Game Hall of Fame in Ottumwa, Iowa, in early August. The nonprofit organization is working to build a permanent museum commemorating the important people, games and events in the history of video games.

Brewer said his love of the video games dates to his childhood, when he spent frequent afternoons working through a roll of quarters at an arcade in Greenbelt.

"I was never very good at any of the games," Brewer said. "I never had any of the high scores."

But fond memories of the games stuck with him and, while driving with his wife in October 2008, he noticed a laundromat that was throwing away a broken Ms. Pac-Man arcade game. He told his wife, Stephanie, that he wanted to go back and get it.

"I really didn't want to bring it home, but I decided it would be something fun for him to do," she said with a laugh.

Brewer got the game working again simply by tightening a few wires.

"I even made a profit, because there was $5 in quarters inside," he said.

He spent six months and about $400 restoring the machine to its original condition, which included installing a new monitor and repainting the outside designs to match the original colors.

"That started the obsession," he said.

Brewer, who works as a code enforcement inspector for the city of Hyattsville, has found most of his subsequent machines on Craigslist, trying not to pay more than $150 to $200 per machine. He's been able to restore some and sell them for as much as $500.

"I never spend more than I know I can get back out of it," Brewer said.

Some collectors will pay as much as $3,000 for an arcade machine, he said, though no standardized price guide exists for the games, which makes the market unpredictable.

As Brewer's collection grew to include Donkey Kong, Centipede and other machines, so did his wife's appreciation for the games.

"I have a lot of the high scores," she said.

The Brewers occasionally invite friends to visit and play the games. Even Brewer's mother, who was skeptical of the hobby at first, finds time to play when she comes to visit, Stephanie Brewer said.

Brewer said he still hopes to find a Q-Bert machine and a hard-to-find game called Budweiser Tapper.

His donation to the International Video Game Hall of Fame, which launched in August 2009, is part of the organization's campaign to collect one copy each of the almost 4,500 coin-operated arcade games ever produced, said Walter Day, who is on the hall of fame's board of directors.

Day, the former owner of the Twin Galaxies Video Arcade Parlor in Ottumwa, created the Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard in 1982 after discovering no one was keeping a record of the high scores on video games around the world.

The scoreboard brought many top players to the city to compete and later that year Ottumwa's mayor declared it the Video Game Capital of the World.

Brewer contacted Day after seeing his appearance in the 2007 video-game documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" and reading about the hall of fame and the preservation campaign on the Internet.

"All these things are valuable icons in the tapestry of pop cultural history," Day said. "Video game collectors are all, in their own way, curators of their own little museums . . . doing historical preservation work in the name of personal hobby."

Brewer said he sees the game machines as artifacts, relics from a time when video arcades were social-gathering places.

"It was where friends met up and hung out when you were growing up," Brewer said. "There's not really a place like that anymore."

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