The State of Games at MoMA 4 Years Later (Part Two)

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The State of Games at MoMA 4 Years Later (Part Two)

Four years ago, the Museum of Modern Art announced they were expanding their design collection with the acquisition of 14 videogames, “for starters.” I had the chance to talk with Michelle Millar Fisher, curatorial assistant, and Paul Galloway, collections specialist in the Architecture and Design department about the many facets of MoMA’s foray into videogame collection. Yesterday we looked at the backlash against MoMA’s new acquisitions and what Fisher and Galloway made of this backlash, and discussed MoMA’s evolving viewpoints on acquiring violent videogames. Today we talk about how they selected the games in the collection and how they present them in the musuem.

Establishing The Videogame Canon

At the beginning of MoMA’s project to acquire videogames, the Architecture and Design department at MoMA established a set of criteria that prospective games would have to engage with in order to be considered for acquisition. These criteria include behavior, space, time and aesthetics, the details of which were outlined in a blog post written by Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the department of Architecture and Design. In this post, Antonelli writes, “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.”

This whole idea of deciding what should be included in a museum’s collection brings with it questions about what kind of a narrative these acquisitions will tell about the videogame landscape. These types of questions are often fraught with political controversy: in 1989, a group of feminist art activists known as the Guerrilla Girls published a poster asking “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”, which noted that “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”

Therefore, when a cultural institution like MoMA decides to create a set of guidelines that determine what types of games can and cannot be acquired, inevitably, MoMA places value judgments on the games that they acquire and on the ones that they do not.

Since videogames are a new medium—historically speaking, that is—I asked Galloway and Fisher about how they view their roles as (for lack of a better term) gatekeepers, to some degree determining what is and what is not legitimized by one of the art world’s biggest and most authoritative institutions.

Fisher, who teaches museology, says that she is “never unaware of the fact that whatever, not just MoMA does, but anyone does, is loaded, so freighted with [the responsibility of taking part in canon-making.] Whether we think of it or not, we are, we are doing this and so this is why we have really strong conversations about reassessing whether or not we have first-person shooter games in the collection, for example…I actually definitely feel both very excited but also a huge sense of responsibility because anything [MoMA collects] does really influence the ways that people will look back on it in years to come. And that’s why there was, from the ‘80s onward, a critical reassessment of women in the canon in art history…When you collect, you make choices, and those choices are historical.”

But Galloway says that the conversation about museums as places of institutional validation doesn’t necessarily carry the same weight when applied to videogame developers, mostly because they don’t really need the validation in the first place. He says that “the game industry is doing just fine without us…For an artist, being exhibited at MoMA is, like, a huge career defining thing. For a videogame, it doesn’t really make much difference to Sony if we acquire one of their games. It’s not really going to do much for them.”

moma_flow.jpg flOw

Ostensibly, that largely comes down to the fact that the goal of a studio like Naughty Dog is very different from the goal of a sculptor. That’s not to say, however, that the significance of MoMA acquiring a game like flOw is lost on these companies. Galloway says that most developers are thrilled about having their games exhibited at MoMA.

“From the second you talk to them, they’re like, ‘Yeah!’, they’re really into it. And it’s everything from small studios like thatgamecompany who immediately get it to giant companies like Valve—there was never one resistance at Valve—they were, like, immediately into it. [Co-founder of Valve] Gabe Newell was on board, everybody was there, like, ‘Yeah, this is great!’”

It’s not always that simple, though. Attempting to acquire videogames meant that Galloway had to navigate the corporate structure of some massive companies. He says that “when you talk about a ginormous company like Sony, we had to get through kind of the layers of an enormous enormous enterprise like that, but once you get to the right people, people are always jazzed. You get to the game designers they’re really excited, you get to the creative people, they’re always really excited. So the only challenge is just finding those people. They exist at Electronic Arts, at Sony, at Nintendo. At all of these places they all exist and it’s sometimes just navigating the corporate bureaucracy to get to them—and I have to say, I’m the one who’s done all the negotiations at these companies and we’ve been happy with every single one.”

Jokingly, Fisher interjected that Galloway was putting “a very positive spin on the really hard work that [he has] to do.” Laughing, Galloway admitted that he is “happy with every single one except Nintendo. We got squashed by Nintendo.” He called them his “white whale,” saying that “Shigero Miyamoto wanted [MoMA acquisitions of Nintendo games] to happen and other people at the top of the company wanted it to happen, but the Nintendo lawyers were not interested.”

But Fisher notes that these kinds of legal squabbles illustrate another side to the debate that often goes unseen, explaining that “people say, like, ‘You have omitted this Nintendo title,’ and [we’re] like, ‘But we tried!’ And same with Apple, to get certain fonts. We tried and sometimes the negotiations just don’t work and so it’s not an omission, it’s just not possible.”

The Nature of Display

Most modern art museums, like MoMA, have an almost religious air about them. Its galleries are quiet, intended to be absorbed through personal and hushed self-reflection. Nobody would think to get too close to a Van Gogh, let alone touch its textured surface. So, how then, does a gallery that’s spent decades cultivating a culture of quiet reflection deal with the challenge of incorporating videogames, a medium that—by definition—must be dealt with hands-on to understand?

Fisher says that museums, in general, have experienced “a broader shift in terms of the way that [they] have allowed people to intervene” in recent years, but she has noticed that encountering something as interactive as videogames in a place like MoMA is uniquely thrilling for its visitors.

moma_passage.jpg Passage

“People come into the galleries and say, ‘Wow! We can touch this, this is amazing, this is so exciting,’ and there’s a real change in people’s behavior. And it even goes to people, like, trying to jump up on the consoles and pulling them off the walls.”

Galloway agrees, explaining that sometimes this newfound energy people find when they encounter videogames at MoMA leads to people regularly ripping controllers out from the walls. He says that visitors probably have “all this pent up energy… You see a ten-year-old kid who walks into our gallery, you can tell he’s been bored out of his mind the whole time and then he sees Minecraft on the wall and he’s like ‘[screams] It’s Minecraft!’’

On the other end of the spectrum, he says that you might “see old people that have probably never touched a videogame in their entire life” trying to figure out how to play. Galloway says that “we just sort of take [that] for granted—we pick up a controller and your hands immediately know what to do, but there’s actually a lot of people who’ve literally never handled a videogame controller in their life and they’re, like, looking at the joystick trying to figure out what is going on.”

Galloway says that trying to “satisfy the needs of this extremely broad range of constituents” has presented a number of challenges in terms of how to make videogames exciting and comprehensible for both avid gamers and newcomers alike. But Fisher loves the challenge from a curatorial standpoint, explaining that “museums should be places where you come in and can identify and so often, they’re not.” She explains that, demographically, museum attendance does not reflect the makeup of the United States, so “it’s a really wonderful thing to keep reassessing the canon, to keep reassessing the types of experiences people might want to have [when they enter a museum] to find some way to have those moments of identification, whether it’s with a painting, a sculpture, a videogame, whatever it is that you come across.”

Galloway agrees, saying that having videogames at MoMA has allowed them to create moments of connection for a wide variety of museum visitors, especially the aforementioned 10-year-old who loses his mind when he sees Minecraft. He praises a particular part of the exhibition where Minecraft sits directly adjacent to the Magnavox Odyssey, the first videogame home console.

“The juxtaposition of the two is just completely brilliant, because now you can take that kid—you’ve hooked him and you’ve engaged him—and then you take him through this chronology of the development of games in the ‘70s with the Odyssey, and then Pong, Tetris and Pac-Man...[such that] maybe somebody who’s interested in videogames but has a very narrow view of [them] is now aware of this kind of larger history of it and I think that’s…been very successful.”

Tim Mulkerin is a freelance writer from Tucson, AZ who just really wants to be a hype-man for Neil deGrasse Tyson in his inevitable rap-battle with B.o.B. You should say hi to him on Twitter.