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One Up! Museum of Modern Art Acquires Its First Classic Video Games as Art

by Kyle Chayka on November 29, 2012

Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” soon to be in MoMA’s collection (Image via forevergeek.com)

Hyperallergic has learned that through a quiet acquisition process undertaken over the past year led by architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art has brought 14 video games into its collection as a “new category” of artwork.

The initial group of games, which ranges from early icons like Pac-Man and Tetris to recent independent creations like thatgamecompany’s flOw and Jason Rohrer’s Passage. The full list, announced in a MoMA blog post this morning, is copied below.

  • Pac-Man (1980)
  • Tetris (1984)
  • Another World (1991)
  • Myst (1993)
  • SimCity 2000 (1994)
  • vib-ribbon (1999)
  • The Sims (2000)
  • Katamari Damacy (2004)
  • EVE Online (2003)
  • Dwarf Fortress (2006)
  • Portal (2007)
  • flOw (2006)
  • Passage (2008)
  • Canabalt (2009)

The games will be installed in the museum’s Philip Johnson galleries in March of 2013, so save up your arcade tokens. Those 14 are just the start, however. Antonelli hopes to bring another 40 games into the collection, a who’s-who list of video game history that includes Pong (1972), Space Invaders (1978), Donkey Kong (1981), and Super Mario Bros. (1985), all the way to Minecraft (2011), that recent phenomenon of sandbox play.

thatgamecompany’s “flOw” (Image via thatgamecompany.com)

MoMA’s acquisition seems to answer the question once and for all that video games are indeed art. Antonelli writes, “Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design,” outlining the approach they took to collecting the games. They define them as examples of “interaction design”; as such, the games will fall under the rubric of the museum’s architecture and design collection,  under which MoMA will “study, preserve, and exhibit video games.”

Antonelli writes that the museum had strict criteria for which games it would pursue. The games didn’t just have to be important culturally and historically, but accomplished aesthetically, achieving a “successful synthesis of materials and techniques.” The inclusion of games like the massive role-playing game Dwarf Fortress, with its austere ASCII visual style and super-engaged online fan community, and Keita Takahashi’s wacky Katamari Damacy, a surrealist epic, point to these requirements and underline MoMA’s intelligent process.

Antonelli explained to Hyperallergic why she decided to pursue acquiring video games:

Video games have been part of our life for decades and they are important examples of a synthesis of design, architecture, and applied art. We have been thinking of them for the collection for some time, it was just a matter of approach, research, and preparation.

The acquisitions also mark an important point for video games as a whole. As legitimate cultural artifacts, video games will have to be understood, analyzed, and conserved as a Renaissance painting might be. This includes “interviewing the designers at the time of acquisition and asking for comments and notes on their work,” as Antonelli describes, and working with programmers to create interactive emulations that preserve the workings of the game long past the lifespan of its platform or console.

This moment marks a big step for the Museum of Modern Art and video games alike, and is just the beginning of a long-awaited, long-deserved integration of games into the history of aesthetics.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    I wonder if this will impact the collector value of some of these games. Ha, ha. I don’t know if Final Fantasy 7 is on the list or not… but you can sell copies of that game for anywhere between $80 and $500 as it stands. ;p

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      I’m kind of surprised FFVII isn’t on the list, but maybe that’s more of a narrative piece of art than ‘architecture and design’

    • http://twitter.com/kriskerzman Kris Kerzman

      Wait … I can sell my copy of FFVII for that much? That would make up a slight percentage of the work pay I lost calling in sick so I could play it.

  • Isaac King

    While I appreciate what MOMA is doing, their criteria is very conservative. It is as if they are afraid that they will accidentally acquire something that is not art if they are not careful. Tetris is only more interesting than bejewled because of time. If they have Mario, then they should have Call of Duty. I think that by choosing something like flow, they are not challenging any of our expectations. It is art because it resembles what we expect from aesthetic design. Video games should be understood as art on their own terms, and it doesn’t look like MOMA or the Smithsonian will be the ones to do that.

  • Den Hickey

    Seriously? Video games ARE art? Not SOME are art or SOME CAN BE art, but they ARE art? Remember back when art had to actually mean something rather than just be pretty or popular to get into major museum collections?

    • http://www.facebook.com/ianaleksanderadams Ian Aleksander Adams

      lol

    • Duane Thomas

      what about puzzles? they’re interactive, they’re fun when you’re bored, you look at them and when you’re finished you can frame them and hang them on your wall. Especially ones with kittens. in baskets. on farms.

  • Matt Hunsberger

    Its always nice to see this sort of thing happen, but I feel tempted to point out that while Dwarf Fortress does have an incredibly active and friendly online community built around it, it is not in fact a massively multiplayer online game. That said, Dwarf Fortress is a monumental achievement and an excellent game, and to see that it has made this list has made me quite happy.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Hey Matt, good point, I edited the post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/blacvulture Jacqueline K Segura

    Why not add arcade cabinets as well.

    • punktoad

      Good question. Many arcade games are a “successful synthesis of materials and techniques.” Computer and arcade games can be exceptional examples of design. However, I don’t know that I would consider arcade games an artistic medium. I see computer games more like cinema, where the medium’s effects are selectively used to convey an experience that is otherwise difficult to imagine.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Sweet.Andrew Andrew Sweet

    Games are art, just like painting or photography is art. They’re a medium for a form of expression. There is good art and bad art, and what MOMA is trying to do is find the games that were innovative, creative, and have an aesthetic that stands out in the sea of games published each year. There are plenty of paintings that are extremely well made that aren’t considered quality art, and vice versa. I’m glad that MOMA is taking this step and glad to see that over time, games will be preserved as art.

  • Guest

    The how about sports? Sports are performance pieces. MoMA should include videos of sports highlights. Tiger, Kobe, Brady, Pacquiao, Silva, Andretti etc., aren’t just athletes providing entertainment. They’re artists expressing themselves in their chosen medium.

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