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Video games at the Museum of Modern Art

A few weekends back, I went to New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with some friends, one of whom was a studio art major (this is important later). Part of the decision to go was based on the presence of an exhibit that featured video games!

Upon entering the museum, we stumbled upon Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box. That was cool. We wandered a bit before asking a staff member about the video game exhibit, met with a curt reply of "It's not just about video games, you know." She seemed very set on making it clear.


Modern, abstract, or generally "unusual" art is often not very interesting to me. But, thanks to my knowledgeable friend, I discovered context can make it interesting. Take Picasso's work: he strove to capture both what is seen and not seen. For example, check the image here. The woman is painted in profile, but you can see her other eye, a part of her that would normally be missed in a painting from that angle. Picasso strove to capture a part of his subject that is otherwise missed in "normal" art.

Other artists, like Jackson Pollock, are harder for me to appreciate, even with context... there is a place in art history for the kind of statements made by Pollock and his ilk. I am not interested in it. Some such pieces are presented in such a way that you can only imagine the artist finishing his piece, holding it up to an audience, and shouting, "Ahaha! Isn't it clever? Isn't it art?" Presentations like Tilda Swinton in a box. Or a bunny made out of bunny poop.

Disclaimer: I am clearly no expert. I have not read many remarks from curators and their true intention with this exhibit — I have only my observations to go upon.

Video games. At MoMA. It's true, it wasn't about just video games, as the woman suggested. I actually had a lot of trouble trying to figure out what exactly the museum was trying to accomplish with that collection. Are these games presented to show off their inherent artistic quality, or are they presented as a means for the viewer to "discover" the art in them?

The fourteen games on display were rather hard to predict. Here's the list:

  • Pac-Man (1980)
  • Tetris (1984)
  • Another World (1991)
  • Myst (1993)
  • SimCity 2000 (1994)
  • vib-ribbon (1999)
  • The Sims (2000)
  • Katamari Damacy (2004)
  • EVE Online (2003)
  • Dwarf Fortress (2006)
  • Portal (2007)
  • flOw (2006)
  • Passage (2008)
  • Canabalt (2009)

Fairly peculiar, right? Some are critically acclaimed, some are common subjects in the old "games are art" discussion, and others seem out of left field. The Smithsonian had a video game exhibit last year that I also visited. Its games were chosen by popular vote online, and covered a wide range from classics to art games to the critically acclaimed. It's hard to imagine what was behind MoMA's selection, but we do know that it's incomplete — it will be 40 games strong when completed.

Sim City wall

Most of the games were presented on a small screen on a wall, sometimes without sound or a means to play the game. Some of the setups were broken (notably Katamari Damacy, which I was momentarily excited to play again). What is the point of watching video footage of Dwarf Fortress? A casual viewer who knew little about the games, can't see anything of the full package. They can only appreciate a rough visual representation of snippets of a game.

Mixed among the games were examples of applied design, often more about their visual design than their usage. In fact, the games had been added to an existing exhibit called "Applied Design." Hmmm...

That woman who directed us to the exhibit had the tone and presence of a strict teacher, or a judgmental elder. I may be over-interpreting her words, but I felt almost as though my interest in video games in this hallowed art place was somehow offensive to her. Why should it be?

My interaction with this exhibit comes colored with my experiences with the discussion of games and years of trying to find validation for what I consider to be a valuable creative industry. I have an impression that "outsiders" to the world of games look down upon them like a disapproving parent. With that background, this staff member, and the rather poor presentation of the games, I can only assume the exhibit organizer does not respect video games as artistic enterprises.

"Are video games art?"

Yeah, no shit, they're art. Anyone who's bothered to take the time to understand what a video game is can see that it's the end result of some creative enterprise.

My friend with experience as an artist and art appreciator helped to provide some words for the frustration of this exhibit. He explained this presentation was about video games as application art. Modern art has gone through a lot in its history. At a point, around the time of Warhol and the photo-op movement (where hyper realistic paintings were made using photos as reference), the line between "fine high art" and business/commercial ("application") art was blurred. Warhol and others of this period exposed that gray area and said, "Everything is art."

He continued his explanation by expressing frustration at MoMA beating this dead horse with the exhibit. It's the same frustration I find in people asking the question "Are video games art?" How many times does the question need to be asked?

Granted, a museum attempts to capture the history of art in a meaningful way, and the notion that "everything is art," does indeed belong in this place. Except, video games are not a part of that history. They have their own, unique history, and it's been ignored by this exhibit.

I didn't think much of the Smithsonian exhibit, either. But now, looking back, comparing it to MoMA's, it's easy to see it was far more effective. There, games were the only star of the presentation. Their history was explained, though briefly, and gameplay and sound design were not neglected.

To truly capture a game in a museum setting is probably impossible. A game, like a movie, or a book, should be appreciated as a whole. There's no realistic way to present that whole to a museum crowd. MoMA's own article on the exhibit seems to have all the best intentions... and yet execution has fallen short.

Bunny poop

MoMA is building games into permanent exhibits, and that's probably a good thing, even with poor presentation. The medium is gaining exposure. Maybe this is just a rough first step toward the kind of recognition films enjoy. Perhaps this exhibit will be help change the "outsider" perspective on games, and the games as art question won't need asking again. The prestige of the museum alone must account for something. In any case, these games joins a happy list of other triumphs such as "all that paint" by Jackson Pollock and "blank canvas" by someone I don't know, and "Bunny Dropping Bunny," by a mad genius.

For more reading on this exhibit, also check out Polygon's write-up, which acknowledges more of the curators' goals.