Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Garden of Gamely Delights

So, have you heard? Video games are now, officially, art.

Katamari Damacy

The MoMA recently acquired a collection of fourteen video games which will be installed next March in the museum's Philip Johnson Galleries. The list includes Pac-Man (1980), Tetris (1984), SimCity 2000 (1994), The Sims (2000), Katamari Damacy (2004), and Portal (2007).


These fourteen games are just the beginning, however, as the MoMA intends to amass a collection of at least forty over the next few years. Their wishlist includes titles such as Donkey Kong (1981), Super Mario Bros. (1985), The Legend of Zelda (1985), Super Mario 64 (1996), Animal Crossing (2001), and Minecraft (2011).

On the question of whether video games are or aren't art, Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture and Design, says
They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects—from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior—that pertain to interaction design.

My first question when I read that the MoMA had added video games to their collection was how? Well, they obtained copies of the original software (cartridges/disks) and hardware (consoles/computers). They also intend to acquire the source code in the language in which these games were written in order to preserve them for the future, should the original technology become obsolete. This is amazing. Pac-Man will never be not playable.

Then there's the question of exhibition. Are they showing images? Videos? Well, video games are interactive, so... yep, they're letting you play them.

 If the duration of the game is short enough, the game itself could be made playable in its entirety. For instance, visitors were able to play Passage in its entirety in MoMA’s Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects exhibition not only because it took a mere five minutes, but also because the narrative and message of the game required the player to engage with it for the full length.
For games that take longer to play, but still require interaction for full appreciation, an interactive demonstration, in which the game can be played for a limited amount of time, will be the answer. In concert with programmers and designers, we will devise a way to play a game for a limited time and enable visitors to experience the game firsthand, without frustrations. 

For older games, they intend to use emulators, and for those that are too long or complex, they'll create videos resembling demos to lay out the game concepts and characters. For others that are more involved, like Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online, they'll create guided tours "so the visitor can begin to appreciate the extent and possibilities of the complex gameplay."


This is exciting, because it validates video games as an essential part of our culture to be synthesized and studied, not ignored. Personally, when I go to a museum, I like to ask myself a few questions about what I'm looking at. Let's take this painting, for instance:

The Lute Player, by Caravaggio

What if this painted world were real? What if this musician were a real person and I could speak to them? What if I could pick up that lute and play a few notes? This adds to the experience. I am willing my imagination to place me in the painting in order to enhance my comprehension of what is being depicted.

If you were to translate this to film, you would now watch somebody else - an actor - interact with this world. You would watch the character move on their own, play the instrument if they like or if it's written into the script. Now you get a sense of movement, of sound. There is an added layer of interaction because you are watching a story unfold in front of you, instead of just one image. There are ifs posited by the writers and thens provided by the actors.

When you play a video game, however, you are free to interact with the environment as you see fit. You posit the ifs and provide the thens. It's all up to you.

Take, for example, Commander Shepard's cabin on the Normandy from Mass Effect 2 3.

These are Shepard's personal living quarters, a place I'm sure many players barely even visit. Why? Because you don't have to. There are four conversations you can only have in Mass Effect 3 by going up there, but Mass Effect 2 lets you finish the game without ever actively setting foot in it. But you can go, if you wish. And you can interact with it.

To the left of this image, you can see a fish tank. You can fill it up with fish purchased in stores across the galaxy, and you have to feed them. If you forget to, the fish die, and you can then flush them out. You can also buy a so-called 'space hamster' and interact with it. You don't feed it or play with it, but pressing 'A' in front of its cage makes it come out of its home, sniff in your direction, and go 'eep.' There is a bathroom to the right, out of view in this image, and easy to miss, since its sliding door doesn't open unless you're standing directly in front of it. You can flush the toilet. You can also choose to play music by interacting with the bedside table. And which song to play, specifically. There are pianos in rooms throughout the game in Gears of War 3. If you walk up to them, you can interact and have your character - Marcus, Anya, etc. - play a note. There's an electric guitar you can fiddle around with in Bioshock.

My point is that video games are following a tradition in art making. In the Baroque era, we were supposed to be enraptured by the images we saw. Tears were supposed to spring up in our eyes when we walked into a church and saw an image of the Madonna and child, or Christ being crucified. The effect of Impressionist art depended on where you were standing. If you walked closer or farther away from a painting, you would literally see a different image. We were supposed to interact with these things. Let them affect us, because we couldn't rightly affect them. Video games, however, have become increasingly about us affecting them. Especially choice-based RPGs like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. The difference between Knights of the Old Republic and the Garden of Earthly Delights is that I get to partake in the creation of the first. Or at least in my experience of it. Depending on how you play, you may (***spoiler alert***) destroy the geth, massacre a Dalish clan, or lose Bastila Shan to the dark side.

Besides, look at these images and tell me this isn't art:

Mass Effect 3 
Prince of Persia
Dragon Age: Origins

Mass Effect 3 
Assassin's Creed II
Dragon Age: Origins
Mass Effect 2
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
Kingdom Hearts
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Shadow of the Colossus
Gears of War 2



  1. I hope they make a Limbo exhibit in the future. With like hidden bear traps and large boulders falling everywhere. It would be very dangerous, but exhilarating, lol.

    1. That would be slightly terrifying, which would be exactly the point. I approve, and would pay money to see it.