After seeing the beautiful Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian in D.C. last spring, I was wondering which major US gallery would be the first to take the plunge and add video games to their permanent collection. The winner is the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. 14 video games from the past 32 years will have a permanent home in the Philip Johnson Galleries at MoMA starting in March 2013. This wing is focused on architecture and design. The selected video games back up that categorization. These are not the most influential or even the most artistic video games ever made. What they represent is innovation in interactive digital design.
The first 14 titles to enter MoMA are Pac-Man, Tetris, Another World, Myst, SimCity 2000, vib-ribbon, The Sims, Katamari Damacy, EVE Online, Dwarf Fortress, Portal, flOw, Passage, and Canabalt.
There are two really exciting elements to this story that are being glossed over in a lot of write-ups. The first is the presentation of the games. These are going to be original copies of the games displayed on the original consoles. That means computer games shown on computers, arcade games shown in arcade cabinets, and home console games shown on their home consoles. This collection is as much about celebrating the artistic design in video games as it is about preserving video games themselves.
The challenge of including a medium like video games in an art gallery is preservation. We know how to safely display a painting. You need good conservation framing, the right light, proper anchoring on the wall, and experienced technicians who know how to properly clean and restore the art work for generations to come. A statue, a drawing, even furniture and home decor can be handled with relative ease at this point by trained experts.
Video games pose a number of challenges. For starters, no one expected them to become as popular as they did. These were not machines designed for the ages. Console generations last anywhere from five to ten years, with overlap in between. Developers have to compete for a larger portion of the market share, so better versions of old consoles are constantly in development.
The games themselves aren't exactly in a long-lasting format, either. Cartridges and floppy discs from the early generations started to malfunction within months of play, resulting in the sale of cleaning kits and homegrown remedies like blowing on the exposed connection underneath. Newer media on CDs, DVD, and Blu-Ray is easily scratched if not handled with care. Restoring a broken cartridge or scratched up disc is a risky bet that doesn't always pay off.
The second big part of the story is the plan for the future. MoMA is not sitting on their laurels with 14 titles. These are just the first titles in a wishlist of 40 games they want for this collection. They're also looking at a whole new category of art for inclusion in the actual art galleries.
This is huge. MoMA is actively preserving the history of video games and making the attempt to elevate them to art. Considering people still fight about whether or not video installations and performance art really belong in traditional galleries, the video games as art debate is not going away anytime soon. What helps the case is prestigious art galleries inviting in curated exhibitions of games and adding titles to their actual displays and archives.
What do you think? What titles should make it into MoMA in the future? I'm pulling for Okami and Shadow of the Colossus, myself.