The Puzzle of Putting Video Games in a Museum

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At some point in my childhood, I persuaded my parents to buy me a computer game at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Obsessed, like many kids, with ancient Egypt, I’d spent the day marvelling at scarabs, sarcophagi, and ivory game pieces with canine heads. My favorite spot was the Temple of Dendur, where you could actually go inside the narrow chamber etched with hieroglyphs. In the gift shop, I spotted “Nile: An Ancient Egyptian Quest”—a three-disk “edutainment,” co-produced by the museum and scored by Brian Eno, which invited me to bring the enchantment home. Soon, in defiance of the twelve-and-up rating, I was wandering the tombs of Giza with a talking jackal, searching for grave goods to nourish the souls of kings. My heart pounded when a papyrus clicked open to reveal a gorgeously animated creation myth. “In the beginning, stranger, there were no beginnings,” a voice from nu, the lifeless waters of chaos, said. I had nightmares for weeks.

It was my first intimation that video games could be a form of aesthetic experience. Overnight, an activity I’d associated with Scrooge McDuck pogo-sticking on the moon had unsettled my reality, prompting questions like “What happens after death?” and “How do we know that there’s only one God?” Like many millennials, I came to owe a disproportionate share of my early cultural education to games, which introduced me to Bach’s violin concertos (Civilization IV), “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam” (Titanic: Adventure Out of Time), Pure Land Buddhism (Cosmology of Kyoto), and the medieval Spanish epic “El Cantar de Mio Cid” (Age of Empires II).

The irony is that all this began at the Met. Until recently, art museums have strenuously ignored video games, consigning them to a purgatory once occupied by photography, fashion, film, and the decorative arts. “No video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form,” Roger Ebert declared a dozen years ago. Nintendo’s legendary director Shigeru Miyamoto agreed, insisting that he made not art works but “products.” The art world, for its part, saw games as raw material, celebrating artists who remixed them—like Cory Arcangel, who exhibited a hacked version of Super Mario Brothers called “Super Mario Clouds” at the 2004 Whitney Biennial—while slighting the original works as mindless entertainment.

Then, in the twenty-tens, the cordon sanitaire began to break down. A generation raised on games began to erase their subcultural stigma, while the spread of accessible development tools spurred an indie renaissance. Universities, film festivals, and galleries began devoting serious attention to the medium, and particularly to designers who used the intimacy of interactive narratives to explore themes like grief, climate change, statelessness, and sexuality. MOMA acquired its first games in 2012, the same year that the Smithsonian mounted a travelling games exhibition. Soon, the question was no longer whether video games belonged in art museums, but whether curators had the imagination to represent complex virtual worlds in “meatspace.”

Now, after ten years in the pipe, games have emerged, Mario-like, into modern art’s innermost sanctum—or at least a modest gallery next to the lobby at MOMA, which is exhibiting its collection, of thirty-five games, in a free show called “Never Alone.” The selection includes mass phenomena like Eve Online and Minecraft, critical darlings like The Stanley Parable and This War of Mine, and offbeat experiments like Everything Is Going to be OK, a depression diary in the form of a glitchy operating system. Interspersed with the games are a bevy of more utilitarian acquisitions: accessibility devices, a computer created by the early-two-thousands initiative One Laptop Per Child, and even symbols like “@.”

What ties it all together is a slightly pixelated notion of interconnectedness. “Whether Zoom video calls or Fortnite battles royal,” Glenn Lowry, MOMA’s director, writes in the catalogue’s foreword, digital interaction served as a “social adhesive” during the pandemic, “when so much threatened to pull us apart.” Paola Antonelli, the exhibition’s lead curator, has explained its deeper rationale in interviews, saying that she wanted to consider games “not as art, not as film” but as a “crystal-clear example of interaction design . . . like New York’s MetroCard machines.” Games, in other words, cannot be judged solely in terms of their scores, stories, scenery, and other constituent arts. If we want to understand what makes them unique, we must study their mechanics.

Eleven of the games are playable in the gallery, allowing visitors to sample diverse modes of interaction. Pac-Man serves as a kind of Newtonian baseline, but others propose radical departures in the expected relationship between player and world. Flower invites us to guide an invisible breeze over a blossoming meadow; Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, a significantly more stressful experience, involves using a hammer to propel a man stuck in a cauldron over a mountain. The emphasis on controls extends to the physical devices on display, which include a “speculative” (i.e., nonfunctional) gadget that purports to visualize flavors and a distraction-free online-news ticker for cloistered English nuns. Games, in this mix, are reimagined as interfaces emancipated from utility—an art for art’s sake of the appliance.

Although several peer institutions have exhibited games, MOMA is one of very few art museums to build them into its permanent collection, a process that isn’t quite as simple as waiting for the next sale on Steam. “We establish a relationship with the production company, we make sure we’ll have the right to migrate the game and emulate it ourselves,” Antonelli has explained. “It’s a really big scaffold.” In many cases, MOMA has acquired not only games but also their original hardware platforms—and, whenever possible, their source code, which is often quite challenging to obtain. Mario, for instance, was excluded from the collection by Nintendo’s contractual hardball, and another was omitted because nobody could determine who owned its copyright. These efforts are largely invisible to visitors, but they insure that games, notoriously difficult to preserve, will remain available to future generations.

“Never Alone” conveys its seriousness through a clinical atmosphere that suggests that games have come to MOMA to be embalmed and dissected. With its mint-green walls and featureless play terminals, the exhibition is vaguely reminiscent of a dentist’s office. You won’t find much in the way of manuals, concept art, or other paraphernalia; the two dozen games that can’t be played feature mostly as silent clips in video montages. The justification for this austerity is a kind of cleansing formalism, which attempts to illuminate the medium’s kinship with more respectable forms of design. “My idea was to avoid nostalgia,” Antonelli has said. “I dreamed of focusing on the behaviors between the person and the machine with no environmental interference.”

It’s an understandable overcorrection. One of the earliest art-museum shows about games, at the Barbican in London, in 2002, resembled an enormous arcade, interspersing more than a hundred playable titles with whimsical installations such as a Space Invaders variant that allowed visitors to gun down sentences from Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” Later exhibitions, at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Grand Palais, in Paris, took a similar approach, filling their galleries with vintage consoles and images of characters from popular franchises. The appeal to nostalgia neither impressed gamers nor swayed skeptics. “Museums will one day bring the same intellectual attention to the substantive meaning of video game exhibitions as they do for, say, painting,” the Times wrote in a review of the Smithsonian show. “Not yet.”

MOMA was right to ditch the patronizing view of games as a quirky pop-culture phenomenon. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that letting visitors toy with a few decontextualized classics is a better strategy. Games are time-intensive, endlessly variable experiences. You can no more really “play” one in a gallery than read an entire novel while standing in line at the supermarket. “Never Alone,” though, expects newcomers to grasp enormous projects like SimCity and Minecraft in just a few minutes, with other visitors breathing down their necks. Elsewhere, the show throws up its hands: Dwarf Fortress, one of the most complex society simulations ever made, appears only in a montage and as a wall-mounted screenshot.

The exhibition catalogue suggests that one reason for classifying games as “interaction design” is that the category is “well established in the Museum’s history.” Design, in other words, is not necessarily where games belong, but where they’ve found institutional asylum. I left unconvinced that video games are interesting for what they share with icons and MetroCard machines, rather than song or sculpture. If they’re worth exhibiting at all, surely it’s as expressive artifacts—interfaces, not just between bodies and virtual systems but between people and their worlds.

Can there be any reconciliation between game and frame, the black box and the white cube? The problem brings to mind a recurring image from the classic adventure Super Mario 64. Mario wanders a haunted castle trying to leap into magic paintings, which often knock him flat on his ass. So it has been with games, denied art-world prestige not only by snobbery but also by their own unruliness. Games are too subjective, serendipitous, technologically impenetrable, and big to sit calmly in three dimensions. Pixels and oil don’t mix. And yet Mario does, eventually, make it to the other side of the canvas.

A spectacular breakthrough in exhibiting games occurred at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, in 2018. “Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt” was aggressively contemporary, showcasing everything from big studio hits like The Last of Us, recently adapted by HBO, to provocative indie experiments about gun violence, gay saunas, and the injustices of the smartphone supply chain. Here was proof that games were as worldly as any other medium—and, what’s more, uniquely suited to reflect on systems, bodies, choice, and chance. “I want to hear about the cultural, and the personal, and the niche,” Marie Foulston, who organized the exhibition, said of her approach. “Pac-Man and Mario should not be the only ambassadors.”

The V.& A. took its cues from shows about theatre and architecture, displaying parts and plans in lieu of the uncontainable whole. Playing was, literally, an afterthought; there was a small arcade at the end, but the main attraction was a sprawl of drawings and diaries, short films and code visualizations, arrayed in a spacious hall of immersive displays. “Games are operas made out of bridges,” a quote near the entrance declared, and the exhibition worked hard to balance engineering and artistry. A section on No Man’s Sky, a space-exploration game celebrated for its limitless universe, featured a video installation detailing its algorithmic generation of alien fauna. Kentucky Route Zero, a magical-realist adventure set on a subterranean highway, was paired with an uncanny forest tableau by René Magritte.

The result was a spry, sophisticated introduction. But it was still an introduction. Video games are now nearly as old as Pop art, and keeping up with them will require curators to reckon both with their particulars—eras, genres, designers, themes—and with their role in the world. So far, that effort has been led by smaller institutions. The Davis Museum at Wellesley College staged the first full-scale museum show devoted to the work of a single video-game creator, Jason Rohrer, in 2016. Two years later, Berlin’s Schwules Museum surveyed the form’s history of L.G.B.T.Q.+ representation. In “War Games,” which closed in May, London’s Imperial War Museum outlined a forty-year history of virtual violence, from first-person shooters to an interactive novel about the journeys of Syrian refugees. The show used real artifacts of conflict to undercut the allure of mass-market reënactments; one display noted that Xbox controllers have been used to fly drones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then, of course, there are institutions explicitly dedicated to video games, such as the Computerspielemuseum, in Berlin. (It even has period rooms, where vintage consoles can be appreciated in era-appropriate dens and adolescent bedrooms.) The problem, though, isn’t so much that video games lack institutions as that they have been severed from the broader study of culture. The form has shaped how millions see the world. There ought to be exhibitions on Myst and Surrealism; The Sims and interior design; Red Dead Redemption, Albert Bierstadt, and the American West.

Some exhibitions have made cautious steps in this direction. “Labyrinth,” a show at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum about the legendary home of the Minotaur, includes a video excerpt from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which guides viewers through an impressive recreation of the Palace of Knossos, in Crete. The digital ruin shares a gallery with antiquities from the real one, as well as interpretations of the myth from across eras, from a Renaissance etching to a video installation by the Turner Prize-winning artist Elizabeth Price.

But why look for games at the museum when you could do the reverse? Those playing Odyssey at home can toggle between its half-baked Illuminati narrative and a surprisingly elaborate “discovery tour,” with thirty guided explorations of ancient Greece. (The series has been lauded for its cityscapes, often created in consultation with historians.) You can follow Herodotus through the ruins of Knossos, or visit Athens to learn about the pre-Socratics from Aspasia, the famous philosopher and courtesan. One reason video games don’t “fit” in museums is that they, too, have curatorial ambitions, organizing diverse media into spaces unconstrained by concerns about budgets and floor space.

The form’s ambition to be immersive often relies on a certain secrecy about its workings. “Games are at pains not to exhibit themselves,” Pippin Barr, a Montreal-based game designer, told me. Barr’s series of playable exhibitions reverses this dynamic, slicing games up as a way of opening them to the imagination. “v r 3” (2017) exhibits forty-eight varieties of digital water, which are arranged in identical gray plinths inspired by Donald Judd’s “100 untitled works in mill aluminum.” The project satirizes the graphics fetishism of the video-game industry, where rendering water has long been a benchmark of technical sophistication. But it’s also an homage to the painstaking, often invisible work of artists and asset creators, whose names appear on the labels of each plinth. Some of the waters “flow” in cartoonish blocks, while others, bound for more violent worlds, roil and flash expensively. Each style implies a game around it, Barr explained, inviting viewers to make comparisons that get lost when entire works are simply dropped into a gallery.

Barr hopes to break down the “force field” that makes games “unapproachable, only to be played, not to be discussed or questioned or any of the interesting things that you do when you look at art,” he told me. (Later this year, he will publish a book on the subject, “The Stuff Games Are Made Of.”) Similar projects have been staged by Johnnemann Nordhagen, the creator of the “Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking”—a playable exhibition of lock-picking mini games—and Foulston, the curator of the V. & A. show. Foulston left the museum four years ago; despite her exhibition’s blockbuster success, her position was only temporary. Now a freelancer, she recently hosted a series of virtual tours focussed on level design and landscape, which were streamed on Twitch. When I spoke to her, she had a message for the world’s museums: “This medium is not waiting for you.”

Foulston still believes that museum exhibitions of games are indispensable. “The sense of ritual that you have when you go to a physical exhibition,” she told me, helps make visitors receptive to the form’s craftsmanship. Her latest project is a short film called “The Grannies,” which follows a group of players who discovered a glitch in the landscape of the popular Western Red Dead Online. As they journey beyond the game’s edge, its layers of artifice peel back—until, finally, they plunge into a shadowy ocean. Foulston could have released the film online, but opted to display it at a recent show at the ACMI in Melbourne. “This is what that world would look like if it was at scale,” she said.

“Games touch everyone,” Foulston told me, and ignoring them means excising a big part of contemporary culture. “Every time I talk about my work, the exact same thing comes back from people,” she went on. “They feel the need to say, ‘Oh, but I don’t play video games. I don’t know video games.’ . . . Do they say this to the medieval-embroidery curator?”

If art museums do make room for games, they may expand them in turn—as magnets of curiosity, sanctuaries of expression, and encyclopedias of human culture. The Temple of Dendur, which was saved from the Nile’s rising waters in the early nineteen-sixties, didn’t originally fit at the Met. A climate-controlled annex had to be built for it, and conservators were drafted to reassemble its fragments. What can be done for ancient temples weighing hundreds of tons can surely be done for today’s virtual basilicas, which deserve a place in the gallery at least as much as the ancient board game Senet, which mimicked a soul’s journey to the afterlife. Games, as the Egyptians knew, aren’t child’s play. ♦


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