There’s no denying the $70 billion video game industry is a business force. But unlike say, film, video games have struggled to gain artistic credibility. A new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is perhaps the biggest sign yet that the art and design establishment is accepting gaming into its fold. This embrace of gaming could bring new visitors into museums, adding to the next generation of visitors that cultural institutions must cultivate to stay healthy.
The latest exhibition to open in MoMA’s third floor design galleries showcases 14 video games, the first to enter MoMA’s collection. Most are playable, with joysticks, controllers and headphones to hear the action. The games are displayed minimally, on screens set inside gray walls. Attentive ears will recognize video game music piped into the gallery.
There are widely-popular titles like "Pac-Man" and "Tetris," as well as lesser-known works. The museum finds them aesthetically compelling, culturally relevant and innovative enough to be included along with Eames chairs and Frank Lloyd Wright windows.
"You move in time when you're in the screen," says senior curator Paola Antonelli, explaining in part why MoMA has added video games to its design collection. "And the combination of time and space is this sense of moving architecture."
The museum plans to acquire more titles, with a notable exception: violent games. Antonelli says that’s because the collection recognizes constructive design, not destruction.
She admits the art and design establishment has been slow to embrace gaming.
“It’s our fault,” Antonelli says. “We take a little while to catch up. But it’s about time and it’s a natural move.”
That move could bring some new visitors to the museum’s design floor, which can get overlooked by crowds on their way to the Van Gogh or Cézanne masterpieces upstairs.
MoMA joins the Smithsonian American Art Museum as another newcomer recognizing games. A recent exhibition from there is now touring the country. Museums are learning that exhibiting games is one way to get more young visitors through the door.
"They rely on donations and they rely on visitors,” says Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen, a thoughtful magazine covering games and gaming culture. He’s one of the people MoMA consulted as it built its collection. “What better way to get a new generation of people interested in the life of the museum than to start talking the language that they’re talking?"
The Museum of the Moving Image in New York is fluent in that language. Games have appeared alongside film and television exhibits there almost since the museum’s 1988 opening.
Its most recent exhibition covered five decades of video game history, a reminder that gaming goes back further than Nintendo, Atari or even Pong. On a recent visit, an enthusiastic and mostly 20-something crowd of visitors pumped tokens into games old and new inside a large room.
Younger visitors welcome video games in a museum. But many of the older people who actually run museums didn’t grow up gaming. Some perceive video games as mere youthful diversions. That’s part of why acceptance of video games by the cultural establishment has been slow.
Another difficulty video games have had gaining cultural credibility is one that impacts other design objects. To the extent that they are commercial products seeking a mass audience, some critics and curators believe games are commerce, not art.
“Get over it,” advises Carl Goodman, executive director of the Museum of the Moving Image. “For us, that’s the sweet spot, when a work can be tremendously influential and successful and also artistically relevant.”
At the recent Museum of the Moving Image exhibition, Meagan Burns blasted her way through the geometric landscapes of the fast-paced 1981 arcade game "Tempest." She’s a designer at a firm that creates websites and apps. For her, more museums taking gaming seriously means more opportunities for inspiration.
“It’s always great to kind of revisit the roots and explore different ways, how people have done it in the past and how we can kind of change it for now,” Burns says.
Film, architecture, and photography were once all outsiders looking in at an art world dominated by painting and sculpture. Like it or not, video games too are now inside the castle walls. How increased artistic credibility will change gaming remains to be seen.
“That battle about whether or not games are art is over,” Warren says. “But the challenge over the next decade will be to create the types of things that are worthy of a place in a museum.”