This story is over 5 years old
Tech by VICE

The Museum of Modern Art Is Playing Games

The museum recently added 14 games and game-y artifacts to its permanent collection. And it's about time.

by Colin Snyder
Mar 6 2013, 3:05pm

If you’ve been following the cultural plight of the videogame at all in the last eight years, you are surely aware of the art school sophomore and serpentine “what is art” argument instigated by Robert Ebert. The film critic has been known to kick up dirt from time to time--I'm thinking of that should-have-kept-my-mouth-shut retort to former thatgamecompany producer Kellee Santiago's, whose ill-fated TED Talk on “meritocracy and good sales" making "videogames objects of art” has infamously collided with Ebert. Small wonder, then, that videogame proponents continue to vilify and toss about misconstrued quotes of the film critic, unceremoniously shaking the man into a Snidely Whiplash caricature of himself.

While neither party seems to be on mark, it is true that champions of gaming have a real earnest interest in the rest of the world beginning to revere games as objects or artifacts with real purpose, that they are not wasting their time in their murder simulators and cow-clicking, coin collecting digital entertainment vein taps.

Take the Museum of Modern Art's recently acquiring 14 games and gaming-focused artifacts into its permanent collection. The exhibition is on display in the Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries at MoMA, and includes more than 30 years of gaming history, starting with Namco’s Pac-Man (1980) and capping off at Adam Saltsman’s Canabalt (2009).

And while we as videogamers have indeed fetishized art, it is now we who have been fetishized by it. As cultural relevancy washes over us like a soft golden light, it is with mixed feelings that I herald this triumph for gaming culture. First and foremost, being one of anti-Ebertian descent, I am grateful and honored to see my medium of choice peel back its oft-pornographic cultural perception amid the post-tragedy cultural witch hunts of the past six months, having narrowly survived that iron drum roll that swept over the American landscape in what became the first videogame book burning and presidential inquisition.

But just below my smile and tearful wonderment my devil-twin, himself an expatriate of the art world and a designer, the conflicted son of both Super Mario and F.T. Marinetti, emerges to play the prick to the parade MoMA deserves. It's half-celebration, half-vaccine shot--a simultaneous kiss and slap to MoMA’s first major foray into videogame curation.

Yea, games are objects of art and design.

Games are a stage by which all the senses are served, where all mediums can perform. Music, visuals, storytelling, cinematography, acting, animation, and any number of socio-political soapboxes can be explored through videogames, making them a virtual garden of creative exploration. If designed objects are by definition objects that must serve a purpose, then games fulfill this requirement by being interactive vessels, systems by which we can experiment with an author’s ideas. If by design we mean that things are meticulously planned out and refined, as opposed to the more expressive freedom of art, then this also applies to games.

But, why are they being displayed with furniture and typography and tools?

Why does MoMA's installation, titled Applied Design, contain these strange objects? There’s a vase made of bee’s wax. There are aesthetically beautiful lamps and household objects. There’s a desk that will protect school children from collapsing roofs in an earthquake. There’s a giant ball made of bamboo used to detonate landmines in war-torn areas. There’s the ampersat, or “@” symbol. There’s infographics for data usage in the modern age.

I will concede this point to Kate Carmody, the installation's curatorial assistant, who answered some of my questions last Friday during an early peek at the show. She told me their intention is for people to recognize all of these items as objects of design, perhaps more transformative thinking for those of us outside of gaming.

Either way, I think this is an interesting pairing, perhaps because both objects appeal to different crowds. As such, maybe industrial designers will consider the videogame to hold something of interest to them. I'd hope game designers would continue to look to other mediums for inspiration for their work. For certain gamemakers to further divorce themselves from the bowels of Hollywood blockbusters and instead investigate the medium with more freedom and creativity could have a dramatic effect on the legacy of their games. Perhaps they, too, will be included in the MoMA collection, as they plan to acquire more games soon.

Yea, the games are great.

This selection of games is superb. I am extremely happy with the games that are on display, with historic entries like PacMan and Tetris, marred with the more authorial and exploratory indie games of the recent past, like Dwarf Fortress, Passage, and Canabalt. This cut of the medium is a welcome and honest account of the many forms videogames have taken.

I applaud the curators for choosing games that best represent various mechanics. There’s no Space Invaders or Bioshock here, but you will see Portal most excellently representing the shooter genre. Carmody put it best, saying, “We weren’t specifically looking at indie games, or blockbusters… What was most important to us was the behavior that’s inherent in the game--so what the designers are asking of the player, and what the player can respond with.”

And while MoMA intends to acquire 40 games in the next several years, my only qualm with their first 14 is the lack of representation of gaming’s most important asset as a medium: world building. A character-driven digital world, which can be best represented by the sandbox experiences of Grand Theft Auto III and its brethren, is noticeably absent.

It's an asset that arguably traces back to the Legend of Zelda series, to 1998’s open-world Ocarina of Time or the 1986 original. These games, which explore exploration itself, are sorely missed from the installation. Sure, EVE Online offers an entire universe to explore, but the Massive Multiplayer Online game is a vague canvas upon which the player fills in, and based on MoMA’s installation here, it is clear they are more interested in the network of users actively participating in this system. With some exceptions, I feel storytelling in games is a little under-represented here.

Nevertheless, Another World and Myst offer some form of this, and as such this is a minor complaint. The bold decision to include the most avant-garde of games, like Vib-ribbon and Katamari Damacy, and the many independent works that have come out in the last eight years, is to be commended. All of these games truly offer a breadth of different experiences, which cover a wide percentage of the gameplay we have created over the last four decades.

Additionally, this is an opportunity to experience several games in new ways. Of particular interest is the visual representation of the code in PacMan provided by Namco; Tetris, running in it’s original form, with graphics more akin to ASCII art; and the video demonstrations of SimCity 2000 and the Sims.

But, they’re interfaced poorly.

Why is Canabalt, a one-button game, given a tabletop with a mouse? When I placed my hand down to the flat surface, and grabbed the mouse, my wrist turned upward at an uncomfortable right angle. This has me asking: Why this scheme when a simple arcade one-button setup--a setup that MoMA displayed the same game with, constructed by teenagers, during 2011’s MoMA Teens exhibition under the watchful eyes of veteran game curators, Babycastles--would suffice?

Why is Tetris supposed to be played with giant, cumbersome, arrow buttons that feel more like Ralph Baer’s Simon than a computer keyboard, directional pad, or joystick? Why is PacMan, a game designed for a high torque joystick, given such unresponsive hardware? Why is Katamari Damacy, a Playstation 2 game, being played on a Playstation 3 and still being displayed in a construed aspect ratio?

I understand some of these issues come out of the way in which the game developers and publishers provided their work. But so many little issues like this make the games appear behind an opaque wall, as if one is not supposed to experience the games the way they were intended. Surely none of the designers planned to have their work displayed in a museum, but measures could have been taken to adapt these games to the environment much better.

I asked Carmody why the PS3 controller for flOw was dipped in rubber, a strange sarcophagus keeping me from interfacing with the familiarity of the controller.

“We’re very keen on having people focus on [the interaction] and so we wanted to experiment and show that these games could be divorced from their nostalgic memory, like arcade cabinets and consoles," she said. "This way visitors can focus on the space and the controller.”

I venture to guess many visitors aren’t going to notice this thick rubber coating as something alien, but for me I found it difficult to play some of the games that I was most familiar with. The PS3 controller for Katamari Damacy, however, remained undipped.

I recall the modernist typographer Beatrice Warde and her 1930 speech turned essay, "The Crystal Goblet” (.pdf), in which she compares typography to being an invisible, crystal-clear chalice through which words, the metaphorical wine here, are transmitted from author to reader, the antithesis to the gaudy and gilded goblet that displays its value over the substance it is meant to contain. Warde said that it is through this metaphor that one can identify whether or not someone is a wine connoisseur based on his or her choice of glassware.

If I could hazard to extend that metaphor to videogames--and by extension, to the design of the interfaces built for this installation by what is arguably America's biggest cathedral of modernism--MoMA has presented these games in a golden cup. A lavish, beautiful display that despite my reservations stands as a monument in gaming history, and that ultimately shows how unfamiliar the museum is with videogames, or at least with how one should experience them.

I say this reluctantly, as half of me is just grateful that videogames have been put in a cup at all. Accoutrement aside, the wine is vintage.

Colin Snyder is a videogame designer and critic. He also did these illustrations, with nods to Andy Warhol, Vincent VanGogh, Marcel Duchamp, and Giorgio de Chirico, respectively.