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It’s the battle of the 80s nerds, King Kong high.
This Friday night at 8 p.m., a Drexel University professor plans to challenge Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to a game of Pong. Two white rectangles batting a small white dot across a black screen. You can smell the cartridge melting in your Atari 2600 right now.
But this time, it’s bigger and badder. It’s Pong on the side of a 29-story, 437-foot high building, the Cira Centre. It’s King Pong.
The face-off is the culmination of a five-year dream for Frank Lee, an associate professor and co-founder of Drexel’s Game Design Program. He got the idea while driving into the city and seeing the Cira building, with its 1,525 multicolor LED lights blinking up and down.
“I’ve seen that building a million times, but for whatever reason, I suddenly saw Tetris shapes with those lights falling and rotating,” he said. “It just took a long time to make it happen.”
The game controllers will be at the Art Museum. The Cira Centre is about a half-mile away, across from Amtrak’s 30th Street Station.
Lee said one of the challenges about developing the program was to make sure it was played in real time, no lag between moving the controller and what appears on the building.
The biggest hurdle? Convincing folks that people would want to play Pong. Lee and Tech Week Co-founder Christopher Wink met with multiple officials across the city and at the building who said the game was old and no one would remember it.
Clearly, they underestimated the children of the 80s. Those of us who spent hours listening to that blink, blink, blink, blink and watching the dot zip by.
“Oh my god, it was my favorite game when I was growing up,” said Jerry Sweeney, the president and CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust, which built and owns the Cira Centre. Sweeney went to college at West Chester University and played the game at local bars.
He helped coordinate the venture and definitely plans on taking one of the two-minute player slots.
“I’m going to play for sure,” he said. “I hope I don’t embarrass myself.”
The 150 two-minute slots given away through a lottery are gone. There will be some stand-by tickets and raffle tickets for showing up with a used laptop to donate.
Right now it’s just the visual, but Lee was working on bringing in the classic sound effects (if you’ve forgotten, you can play the classic game here).
Wink, co-founder and editor of Technically Philly, a local technology news site, got involved in the fall when approached by Lee. He helped reach out to city officials at the mayor’s office and at the Philadelphia Art Museum, people he’d been covering as a reporter.
“We thought, why not. Rather than report on a great idea that’s not going to happen, why not find a way to get it to happen,” Wink said.
Operating on a “no-string” budget, Lee said programmers, technicians and graduate students worked on the project for free. It helped that he told them it’d be the coolest project they’d ever work on in Philly.
When the game starts on Friday night at 8 p.m., the office workers will pull down their shades and turn off the lights to really make the game pop on the building, Lee said.
“I want the people who play and who watch the event to feel the same sense of wonder that I did when I first put in the Pong and Space Invaders games,” Lee said. “I want them to feel that same excitement.”