Please Do Not Touch The Video Games

We talked to Ian Bogost about what MoMA’s recent game acquisitions really mean.

By: Jason Johnson

Filed Under: Culture Feature Industry

The delicate truce over the specious “Are Video Games Art?” debate was shattered last month when The Museum of Modern of Art, the New York art institution home to Malevichs and Warhols and Cézannes, came out swinging for the playful medium, saying it would acquire forty games for display in their architecture and design collection. As we know all too well, them’s fighting words. . . on the internet anyway. Wired and The Guardian opined. There was a brief but bright flare up of yeas and nays. Then, both sides quickly realized they were flogging the same dead pony. Nothing much had changed.

Though few seemed to have noticed, the move had little to do with art with a capital A. Technically speaking, MoMA gave recognition to a fact that’s hard for anyone to deny: video games are fascinating pieces of design. According to Ian Bogost, games academic and FarmVille spoofer, “the MoMA’s collection is situated in the design context, not the art context. That’s an important point, and one that should be taken into account in our reactions, whatever those may be.” By placing games among a broad collection of designed objects, from the ice cream cone to Bauhaus chairs to the “@” sign, the institution stepped around the art issue (aside from a glib comment on their blog: Hey, games are art! but…).

In any case, the medium is getting due props, and good things should come of it. Bogost, who knows a thing or two about games, art, and games as art, insists that the real value of MoMA’s hat-tip towards the gaming world comes in the form of curation––that is, in how they choose to present the silvering medium to museum-goers. “From a museum’s perspective, curation itself is a form of creativity,” he says. “Presenting archival materials in a way that is both coherent and makes a statement says something itself. This is what we should be expecting the art historical community to do with video games.”

The right question isn’t if games have made it, Bogost points out, but “what can curators bring to our understanding and appreciation of games?” Apparently, something. Unlike The Smithsonian’s recent The Art of Video Games exhibit, which played it safe by sampling a collection of favorites à la cart (choosing four titles apiece from each major platform, spanning from ColecoVision to modern PCs), MoMA’s curators took a legitimate angle, sizing up prospects through the fundamental concepts of behavior, aesthetics, space, and time. Animal Crossing made the list, cited for using a day and night cycle that’s true to life. flOw is there because, among other things, it’s pleasing to the eye.

There is a fair share of no-brainers among MoMA’s first forty. Obviously, you have your classics like Tetris and Pong, but the curation also makes bold moves. Katamari Damacy, vib-ribbon, Core War, Grim Fandango, Another World, and NetHack are, to varying degrees, unexpected inclusions. Then, there are anomalies, like Dwarf Fortress, “an extremely esoteric and inaccessible game that has never had a commercial life,” according to Bogost, as well as Eve Online, “a truly weird and perverse virtual world.” The list is also notable for what’s not on it: first-person shooters and gratuitous violence of any kind.

It’s ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that the only “art games” that made the cut are Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a metaphorical panorama known for moving people to tears, and possibly flOw. The takeaway is that the games the gaming community values as artistic, for whatever reason, aren’t as appealing to museum-folk, neither as designed things nor high art stuff. Bogost’s advice for the game maker who wants to be taken seriously by the art world, “which is a debatable goal, to be sure,” he adds, is that they should “work with those institutions and their constituencies on new works that take the museum seriously in its own right, not just as an outsourced archival or cultural validation service.”

He should know. Bogost’s own interactive installation Simony, currently on display at The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, is a grandiose, red-carpeted take on the classic electronic toy Simon. Constructed inside a three-story atrium, the installation is somewhere between an Olympic podium and a communion table––a towering platform with scarlet stairs and convenient handrails leading to a lectern at the top. There are wall scrolls with art inspired by Medieval manuscripts and words written in Latin. It looks more like a Catholic altar than a video game.

“The thing about Simony is that it isn’t a game that happened to be later installed in a museum,” Bogost says, “but that was explicitly designed from the ground up for a very specific gallery in a very specific museum.” Even so, it’s available for anyone to play on the App Store. The way it works is that the top ten players will get to stand on the platform. Quite sarcastically, the catch is that the winners will be those who spent the most money on upgrades through in-app purchases. And the reward? They get to decide how the museum blows the game’s proceeds. In other words, it’s an artwork that gives back––a gamified patron to the arts. Considering that, the project has more in common with performance art, which sometimes invites the audience to participate, than it does with kicking back on the couch, eating popcorn, and playing a critically-lauded game.

While we’ll likely find more and more video games in galleries as art, the ones that belong there, like Simony, will have mutated to the museum space, and have tenuous likeness to the games we know and love. “One of the themes of Simony is the relationship between the public and the art world via the museum as a mediator,” says Bogost, acknowledging that culture, even gaming culture, has a say-so in what ultimately counts as art. “But, more so, it’s a game designed and built for a specific institutional context, with tentacles dangling out into the broader world.”

Filed Under: Culture Feature Industry

About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.

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