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MoMA’s Uneasy Foray into Video Game Collection and Display

As some already know, MoMA’s design department has recently gotten into the role of acquiring video games as part of their permanent collection, a move that was of great interest to me as a gamer and someone who devotes much of a lot of my scholarship to video games. It so happens that last semester my girlfriend interned in MoMA’s architecture and design department and, as a perk, she was able to bring me along for an intimate, after-hours tour that included the exhibit of the recently acquired video games—a tour made particularly unique[1] because it was led by the senior curators themselves. In the exhibit, the 14 games are displayed with very minimal fanfare (aside from one wall covered in screenshots from Sim City 2000) and even the consoles are hidden behind a blank wall so that just the screens appear with a shelf underneath that holds a set of headphones, and, depending on the game, a controller.  About half of the games are playable while the other half run recorded demos of the games.  I had already read about the exhibit in the NYTimes and had gone to see it for myself, so now I was really excited to get to meet and talk to Paola Antonelli, a Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, who appears to have been the driving force behind the effort to start a video games collection.[2]

From my perspective, MoMA’s decision to begin acquiring and displaying games is another instance of the gatekeepers to high culture slowly aligning themselves with the increasingly accepted notion that video games should be talked about in the same category as other major forms of popular art. This should be a good thing.  For me, gaming still remains a guilty pleasure—a “guilt” that implies this layer of judgment projected on to those around me who still associate gaming with a juvenile pleasure for young males. Maybe it’s for this reason that my own avowed love video games actually makes me more self-conscious about justifying a scholarly engagement—it makes me feel like I have found a way to rationalize remaining a 13-year-old boy well into adulthood.  When MoMA or the Smithsonian starts including games in their collections I feel a little less judgment coming my way (and maybe my mom will be a little less embarrassed to tell her friends what I write scholarly articles about).  Yet, even as I am excited about MoMA’s and Ms. Antonelli’s efforts, I am also skeptical of the two main functions going on here: first, the idea of acquiring games into a permanent collection ostensibly for recognition and preservation and, second, the manner that these games are displayed. 

When I asked about the Smithsonian’s recent foray into exhibiting video games, Ms. Antonelli assured me that MoMA’s move to acquire games had nothing to do with the Smithsonian and that the only lessons MoMA had taken from that particular exhibit were cautionary.  For their part, the Smithsonian took a decidedly different approach to their exhibit.  The chief distinction may have been in the selection process: the Smithsonian was very proud of the fact that they had solicited advice from the public; MoMA, alternatively, conducted their selection behind closed doors albeit, as Ms. Antonelli stressed, with the help of certain outside experts such as writers for Killscreen. For the Smithsonian, it seems like the inclusion of video games was a way of pandering and getting a new audience to come to the museum.[3]  For MoMA and Ms. Antonelli, there seemed to be something at stake in the design department’s impetus to be the department to make the first inroads in collecting video games, a statement both within the museum and as a statement on behalf of the museum.[4]

As a film studies person, it should come as no surprise that I am somewhat ambivalent about the placement of video games in category of design, a category which already implies a usefulness of the art object.  As opposed to the Kantian ideal for the aesthetic object, the design object is one of purposiveness with a purpose. Still the design collection currently on display likes to blur the distinctions of purpose and use, as many of the objects displayed in MoMA’s design collection drift from any sense of purpose even as they are displayed next to well-designed, quotidian household items (by champion tests forge). For gamers, artistic merit and good design can be mutually exclusive.  There are artistic games that can be a disasters to play—take the EA’s new reboot of the SimCity which has been called “beautiful but broken[5]—and there are well designed games that do not seem to make much of an effort to be all that artistic.  Ms. Antonelli herself weighs in on the issue with the following from her blog post introducing the games to the collection: “Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe.”  Ms. Antonelli was particularly interested in thinking about video games as interfacing experiences which keep user’s navigation in mind.  The artistic merit is almost a bonus.

One of the important points that Ms. Antonelli kept stressing during our tour was the important work the design department was doing in making these games part of MoMA’s permanent collection. I’m sure this is a problem that film departments face as well with new, digital films; As the content that is being acquired and preserved becomes less and less material, the role of the museum as a place of preservation seems more and more absurd.  Because I found this to be a curious issue, I pressed Ms. Antonelli for further clarification of what it means to collect a game that essentially lacks any material form. Do they, I asked, collect the disks? the cartridges and corresponding platforms? a the code itself?  Her answer: all of the above but it is the original code itself that they are most interested in getting a copy of the original code if possible[6] (she explained that some companies had been more cooperative than others—*ahem* EA).  Yet it is the games themselves that are on display—not the (possibly) elegantly designed code which would be largely unreadable by the museum goer. This is what brings me to my second concern.

The idea of how to display a video game is a really hard problem to figure out.  The primary problem is that games are usually long, far too long to allow people to sit and complete. Some games are open to play while others are displayed solely as monitors with recorded, non-playable demos.[7] The demos do not appear to be edited all that much and so they show a real-time gaming experience (not just the highlights). For the playable games, some of them are short and demonstrate most of what is interesting about them immediately (Flow, Passage) while others are a little bit more problematic to display in this manner.  That is for say, Portal, no one is going to sit there for a few hours and play through the story.  Consequently, the game seems to be consistently stuck on the first couple of rooms which really fails to showcase Portal’s amazing design or its artistic merit.  If they are trying to demonstrate something to the audience, they might as well have just shown the game’s trailer on a loop next to the game (in the same way that they have videos of the earthquake table undergoing a ton of weight or the video of the bee vase being made).  This would at least begin to show the non-initiated what is worthwhile about this game so one doesn’t dismiss it[8].

It seems that one reason MoMA’s design department was able to make a claim on video games is that that games do not make the same ontological claims as the supposed indexical photographic film.  As computer graphics images (or hand drawn images), games are built from the ground-up and do not include any found-objects (disregarding games that take real images are mapped onto or into gaming environments and objects).  This same logic could allow the design department to include most of animation history into its purview as well.  How would the design department display Toy Story or Snow White?  They would probably show the process of design, right? Concept drawings, wire frame animations, animation cells, real-world inspirations etc. Imagine the absurdity of showing the films in their entirety on a loop, displayed in a bright room along a wall with six other screens.

I guess I have no problem with the design department (as opposed to a film or, maybe one day a dedicated video game department) being the ones in charge of collecting games with meritorious design much in the same way that I am glad that they collect beautifully designed film posters.  However, the games are not being displayed as objects of design as the Pixar films were some years back.  The video games are displayed pretty close to how they are displayed on playable screens at a local Best Buy, with just about as much context too.  My preference is that if they were going to be displayed in this manner that the games should be displayed in a similar manner to MoMA’s library of films, some of which can be viewed like the MoMA media lounge, in individual pods for people to play for extended periods of time. If it was up to me, the collection on the whole should probably treated more like a library collection.

Ms. Antonelli’s stated intention to avoid violent games for the collection seems to exactly illustrate the problem.  While it makes sense to avoid displaying violent games for an exhibition (based a curator’s own convictions), it makes no sense for a collection or library to avoid such material.  Imagine if the film department had avoided violent or objectionable films for their collection.[9] Maybe I am asking too much of a program that is just getting off the ground.  Yet, as someone with a bit of a stake in the matter, I’d hope that it gets off the ground in the right direction.  If the design department is going to be the department at MoMA to begin a video games collection (and, indirectly, to lend an air of legitimacy to my scholarly work), I sincerely hope they reevaluate what the goals of their collection are and how they choose to exhibit games in the future.

[1] As it turns out, one can also join a donor group to pay for this same opportunity.  We happened to be on a tour with some MoMA patrons who definitely looked the part, as if they were trying to project some ideal of the stuffy, NYC aesthete.  Without being exhaustive, I will say there were elbow patches, bow ties and one prominent ascot—none which were worn with the slightest indication of irony.

[2] I had also recently seen her on The Colbert Report where she seemed quite charming (or maybe just accented—its hard to tell which).

[3] Ms. Antonelli herself has written about the process of deciding on the first 14 games selected for the collection, a collection which she promises will continue growing as time goes on.

[4] It would not surprise me to find out that MoMA has the same interdepartmental territorial battles around the placement of video games in both cultural institutions like museums and in the academy.  Fairly disparate disciplines have either implicitly or explicitly made the case for providing the most fitting home for whatever “video game studies” might be.  Tellingly, the appendix of the 2009 anthology Video Game Theory Reader 2 (written by a film studies scholar) is dedicated solely to the project of listing various disciplinary approaches along with short explanatory blurbs by respective academic proponents.

[5] The documentation of what makes the game broken has been pretty great.  A nice article summing it up can be found here:

[6] I failed to ask what form this code comes in—I would love to imagine that it comes on a the old continuous stationery, you know the ones with the thin paper and perforated, hole filled sides

[7] I specifically asked Ms. Antonelli about the origin of these recorded, non-playable demos.  As it turns out, my hunch was correct and the recorded games were taken—with permission—from uploaded YouTube videos of people playing the game.  The trend of people watching other people play through games is a spectatorial issue that fascinates me as a film person but that is an article for another time.

[8] I heard one person say aloud about Portal after a minute of trying to figure it out: “oh, this is a shooting game”

[9] Okay, I realize that pornography is not included.  This is, again, an article for another time.