Are videogames art? MoMA makes its case with a new permanent collection

From Pac-Man to Dwarf Fortress, the museum records the development of the medium for posterity.

New Statesman
Would you call this modern art? A visual from the popular computer game Tetris (IMAGE: GdeFon)

New York’s MoMA has officially gone gamer, announcing last week that a permanent collection of video games will be housed in its Philip Johnson Galleries from March 2013.

The MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of the museum’s Department of Architecture and Design, announced the move in a blog post on 29 November, writing:

We are very proud to announce that MoMA has acquired a selection of 14 video games, the seedbed for an initial wish list of about 40 to be acquired in the near future, as well as for a new category of artworks in MoMA’s collection that we hope will grow in the future.

This initial collection will range from the ultra vintage, Pac-Man (1980), Tetris (1984), to mid-nineties virtual world classics like Myst (1993), SimCity (1994) and Another World (1991), to contemporary “indie” games and world-building  RPGs like Dwarf Fortress (2006), flOw (2006) and Canabalt (2009). The list was drawn up by MoMA curators with the advice of scholar, historian, critics and experts from the games industry.

An aesthetic through line can roughly be drawn across the selection, with attention to single-player narratives and visuals that (in the later inclusions) self-consciously hark back to a Windows 95 era. Antonelli identifies five “interaction design traits” that were prioritized in the curation of the wish list: behavior, aesthetics, space, and time.

As with all other design objects in MoMA’s collection, from posters to chairs to cars to fonts, curators seek a combination of historical and cultural relevance, aesthetic expression, functional and structural soundness, innovative approaches to technology and behavior, and a successful synthesis of materials and techniques in achieving the goal set by the initial program. This is as true for a stool or a helicopter as it is for an interface or a video game, in which the programming language takes the place of the wood or plastics, and the quality of the interaction translates in the digital world what the synthesis of form and function represent in the physical one. Because of the tight filter we apply to any category of objects in MoMA’s collection, our selection does not include some immensely popular video games that might have seemed like no-brainers to video game historians.

The MoMA now joins a host of venerable arts institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC and the Barbican, adding their vote of validation in the “games as art” debate. Reactions have been mixed -  the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones railed against the move on his blog on Friday with the terse headline: “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art”. He said:

Exhibiting Pac-Man and Tetris alongside Picasso and Van Gogh will mean game over for any real understanding of art.

The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one "owns" the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.

Others are more welcoming. Chris Melissinos, guest curator of the Smithsonian museum, told the Independent: “This decision indicates that video games have become an important cultural, artistic form of expression in society. It could become one of the most important forms of artistic expression.” Robert Purchese of Eurogamer.net calls it “a sign of change” in the “struggle” for games to be taken as seriously as art, films, or books.

Antonelli herself offers a nuanced defense of the museum's decision:

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. 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.

In order to develop an even stronger curatorial stance, over the past year and a half we have sought the advice of scholars, digital conservation and legal experts, historians, and critics, all of whom helped us refine not only the criteria and the wish list, but also the issues of acquisition, display, and conservation of digital artifacts that are made even more complex by the games’ interactive nature. This acquisition allows the Museum to study, preserve, and exhibit video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection.

She emphasises that the MoMA’s digital conservation team are working to obtain copies of the games in their original software format, acquiring the original source codes and presenting the games on original consoles, when possible. Visitor interaction in the form of “guided tours of these alternate worlds”, will also be available in the gallery space, “so the visitor can begin to appreciate the extent and possibilities of the complex gameplay.”