“I’m here for the video game thing,” I confidently stated to the woman inside the film entrance at the Museum Of Modern Art on 53rd Street. Despite my ineloquence, she understood and handed me a press pass. Historically, MOMA’s shows have not been terribly interested in games, but 14 titles—dating from Pac-Man (1980) through Canabalt (2009)—have now been chosen as part of the museum’s Architecture & Design installation, and the museum unveiled the exhibit at an event last week. All I really knew about the whole thing when I walked in, beside the 14 selections, is what I learned from senior curator Paola Antonelli’s recent appearance on The Colbert Report:
Colbert: What are we now? Are we modern? Are we postmodern? Or are we pre-future?
Antonelli: We are post-post-post modern, present, pre-future, but a little bit of future today, with history that comes with us.
Colbert: Wow. This is a complicated artistic time to live in.
It is indeed. Fortunately, Antonelli was on hand to elaborate a little on the history of and motivations for the gaming additions. “It was all brand new for us, because of course, there have been museums that have been acquiring video games forever, but these museums have a definitive territory that we don’t have,” she told me. As they set about establishing their own criteria, Antonelli and her team consulted everyone from Chris Melissinos, the curator of “The Art Of Video Games” installation at the Smithsonian, to the game enthusiasts in MOMA’s own IT department.
The list of MOMA’s targeted games was eventually whittled down to 40, and 14 of these were chosen for the current display. “What they have in common is that they are all very interesting spatially and in how space is used, how time is used, behaviors that are designed through space and time. And altogether this ability to give us an experience we have not had before, and one we could not have in the real world,” Antonelli explained.
But there are interesting real-world connections to be found. Video games are but one part of the installation. There are the regular design fetish objects—lamps, chairs and the like—but also things that defy easy description. One of these, “Mine Kafon wind-powered deminer,” resembles a large steel-plated dandelion. The idea behind artist Massoud Hassani’s creation is that the wind-powered ball can roll over minefields and safely and cheaply explode hidden mines. Its design brings to mind the adhesive adventures of the little Prince in Keita Takahashi’s 2004 game Katamari Damacy, on display not 10 feet away. In that game, the player rolls around fantastical landscapes, absorbing structures and increasing mass to the point of becoming a celestial body.
Most of the games are playable, and from what I could see, Portal (2007) was the most popular among the press. This was a little puzzling, since I suspect most of us have a version of that particular game sitting in our living room. Instead of waiting in line to play something I already knew, I stared at Dwarf Fortress (2006) for a good 15 minutes, a game I was aware of but had never seen (or played) in person. According to the information provided, the game’s designer Tarn Adams made the game using American Standard Code For Information Interchange (ASCII), a ubiquitous text encoding scheme that is apparently the preferred computer design language of visionary lunatics.
The game tasks the player with building an underground dwarf city, and popular consensus is that is has one of the more steep learning curves of any game in history. (Peter Tyson wrote a guidebook of sorts, called Getting Started With Dwarf Fortress: Learn To Play The Most Complex Video Game Ever Made). Each time you play, the world is randomly generated from scratch, and the development is open-ended and ongoing. Just staring at the game’s interface is like looking directly into the Matrix. The implications are terrifying.
Human constructions are also well-represented. SimCity 2000 (1994) sits next to a tiled wall of SimCity-scapes, a monument to the cultural significance of virtual urban development and reticulating splines.
Many of us who love games also love to complain about the derivative interfaces and uninspired architecture that make us hate these same games. Imitation is the sincerest, most infuriating form of flattery. Sometimes, especially after blasting the zillionth bad guy or being robbed of the chance to stop for a second and think a puzzle through, it’s enough to make us question our choice of leisure activity. The biggest takeaway from the games of “Applied Design,” for me, was being reminded how limitless and raw game design really is. Tetris almost won the Cold War for the Soviets. Myst boasted no weapons, but it had puzzles so entrancingly difficult that it would struggle to get made today. Jenova Chen’s Flow led to the eventual creation of Journey, which is not featured at the Museum but embodies so much of the medium’s possibilities. When it comes to “interactive design,” chairs have evolved over thousands of years. Games have only had decades, and this show proves they have already evolved in remarkable ways.
After de-mesmerizing myself from Dwarf Fortress, I made to leave. The escalator was out of order, and as I was without my Portal gun, I took the stairs. Once outside the museum, I headed over to the UNIQLO superstore around the corner from the museum to pick up some socks. In the window was a cardboard cutout of Raiden, the androgynous cyborg ninja guy of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, shilling for the Japanese clothing and apparel giant. Definitely pre-future future, but it would seem that not every game belongs in a museum.