When Video Games Came to the Museum
A decade ago, MoMA acquired 14 video games—and kicked off a new era for the collection. Today there are 36, and many are in the exhibition Never Alone.
Paola Antonelli, Paul Galloway
Nov 3, 2022
This article, presented on the occasion of the exhibition Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Design, reprints a pair of posts that originally appeared on Inside/Out: A MoMA/MoMA PS1 Blog on November 29, 2012, and June 28, 2013, by Paola Antonelli and Paul Galloway, respectively.
Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters
November 29, 2012
Adam Saltsman, Daniel Baranowsky. Canabalt. 2009
Over the next few years, we would like to complete this initial selection with Spacewar! (1962), an assortment of games for the Magnavox Odyssey console (1972), Pong (1972), Snake (originally designed in the 1970s; the Nokia phone version dates from 1997), Space Invaders (1978), Asteroids (1979), Zork (1979), Tempest (1981), Donkey Kong (1981), Yars’ Revenge (1982), M.U.L.E. (1983), Core War (1984), Marble Madness (1984), Super Mario Bros. (1985), The Legend of Zelda (1986), NetHack (1987), Street Fighter II (1991), Chrono Trigger (1995), Super Mario 64 (1996), Grim Fandango (1998), Animal Crossing (2001), and Minecraft (2011).
Masaya Matsuura. Vib-Ribbon. 1997–99
As with all other design objects in MoMA’s collection, from posters to chairs to cars to fonts, curators seek a combination of historical and cultural relevance, aesthetic expression, functional and structural soundness, innovative approaches to technology and behavior, and a successful synthesis of materials and techniques in achieving the goal set by the initial program. This is as true for a stool or a helicopter as it is for an interface or a video game, in which the programming language takes the place of the wood or plastics, and the quality of the interaction translates in the digital world what the synthesis of form and function represent in the physical one. Because of the tight filter we apply to any category of objects in MoMA’s collection, our selection does not include some immensely popular video games that might have seemed like no-brainers to video game historians. Among the central interaction design traits that we have privileged are:
Visual intention is an important consideration, especially when it comes to the selection of design for an art museum collection. As in other forms of design, formal elegance has different manifestations that vary according to the technology available. The dry and pixilated grace of early games like M.U.L.E. and Tempest can thus be compared to the fluid seamlessness of flOw and Vib-Ribbon. Just like in the real world, particularly inventive and innovative designers have excelled at using technology’s limitations to enhance a game’s identity—for instance in Yars’ Revenge.
Jenova (Xinghan) Chen, Nick Clark. flOw. 2007
The space in which the game exists and evolves—built with code rather than brick and mortar—is an architecture that is planned, designed, and constructed according to a precise program, sometimes pushing technology to its limits in order to create brand new degrees of expressive and spatial freedom. As in reality, this space can be occupied individually or in groups. Unlike physical constructs, however, video games can defy spatial logic and gravity, and provide brand new experiences like teleportation and ubiquity.
How long is the experience? Is it a quick five minutes, as in Passage? Or will it entail several painstaking years of bliss, as in Dwarf Fortress? And whose time is it anyway, the real world’s or the game’s own, as in Animal Crossing? Interaction design is quintessentially dynamic, and the way in which the dimension of time is expressed and incorporated into the game—through linear or multi-level progressions, burning time crushing obstacles and seeking rewards and goals, or simply wasting it—is a crucial design choice.
Jason Rohrer. Passage. 2007
In other cases, when the game is too complex or too time consuming to be experienced as an interactive display in the galleries, we will create a video akin to a demo, in which the concept and characters of the game are laid out.
Finally, some of the games we have acquired (for instance, Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online) take years and millions of people to manifest fully. To convey their experience, we will work with players and designers to create guided tours of these alternate worlds, so the visitor can begin to appreciate the extent and possibilities of the complex gameplay.
Allan Alcorn. Pong. 1972
Video Games: Seven More Building Blocks in MoMA’s Collection
June 28, 2013
Quite a lot has happened since we announced the first 14 video games to enter the MoMA collection, seven months ago. MoMA Architecture and Design curator Paola Antonelli charmed Stephen Colbert, the exhibition Applied Design (featuring the games) opened to the public, and a heady debate raged regarding MoMA’s move into this field. (For more on this, watch Paola’s recent TED talk.) While all this was occurring, we continued the work of acquiring more games from our wish list.
From left: Howard Scott Warshaw. Yars’ Revenge. 1982; George “Ed” Logg, Lyle Rains. Asteroids. 1979; Dave Theurer. Tempest. 1981
Today, we are thrilled to announce the addition of one gaming console and six more video games to our collection. These include works from the early pioneers Atari, Taito, and Ralph Baer, and from the comparatively young Mojang. The new additions are the Magnavox Odyssey (1972); Pong (1972); Space Invaders (1978); Asteroids (1979); Tempest (1981); Yars’ Revenge (1982); and Minecraft (2011).
Ralph Baer. Magnavox Odyssey. 1972
Ralph Baer’s Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game system and a masterpiece of engineering and industrial design, introduced electronic games to the American public. In the same year, a young and ambitious Nolan Bushnell founded Atari (where, by the way, an equally young and at least equally ambitious man named Steve Jobs first found employment). Atari rapidly became the most famous video game company in the world, and in an amazingly fertile period produced one seminal work after another. Concurrently, the already rich arcade culture of Japan was turned on its head with the release of Taito’s Space Invaders, a game that so captivated the Japanese public it led to a temporary nationwide shortage of 100-yen coins. When Space Invaders finally made it to the US, it conquered the arcade industry. The last work on our list is Mojang’s Minecraft, a fascinating game that combines multiple genres into one sprawling, unpredictable, and utterly addictive masterpiece.
Markus “Notch” Persson. Minecraft. 2011
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Ralph Baer’s place in the birth of the industry, as well as the significant roles Atari, Taito, and Mojang still play. The work of the designers of those early games became the building blocks of a new form of creative expression and design language; blocks upon which contemporary designers like Markus “Notch” Persson and his fellows at Mojang are building to make works that push the medium to wildly new, fascinating, and weird places.
In the infancy of this field a small number of visionaries laid the groundwork for where we are now: an industry of tremendous range and creative output. If I have learned anything in this process it’s that the early, seemingly simple games remain as vital and compelling today as they were when we played them in the cacophonous arcades or on the living room floors of our youth.
The team behind the 2012 acquisition stars MoMA Architecture and Design insiders Kate Carmody and Paul Galloway, but in preparing this research we have sought the advice of numerous people. We could not have done it without their contributions, and thank them wholeheartedly for their generosity, enthusiasm, and time. We will distinguish between RL (you know it, Real Life) and ML (MoMA Life). RL: Jamin Warren and Ryan Kuo of Kill Screen magazine; design philosopher and game author extraordinaire Kevin Slavin; and Chris Romero of the graduate program in museum studies at New York University. ML: Natalia Calvocoressi, Juliet Kinchin, Aidan O’Connor, and Mia Curran in Architecture and Design; in Graphics, Samuel Sherman; in Audio Visual, Aaron Louis, Mike Gibbons, Lucas Gonzalez, Aaron Harrow and Bjorn Quenemoen; in Information Technology, Matias Pacheco, Ryan Correira, and David Garfinkel; in Digital Media, Allegra Burnette, Shannon Darrough, David Hart, John Halderman, Spencer Kiser, and Dan Phiffer; in Conservation, Glenn Wharton and Peter Oleksik; in General Counsel, Henry Lanman; in Drawings, Christian Rattemeyer; at MoMA PS1, Peter Eleey; in Film, Rajendra Roy, Laurence Kardish, and Josh Siegel; in Media and Performance Art, Barbara London; and in Education, Calder Zwicky.
We also extend our great thanks to the game companies and designers who donated these important works to MoMA. Without their brave, forward-thinking participation, this project would not have been possible. A great thank you to Tarn Adams, CCP, Éric Chahi, Cyan Worlds, Electronic Arts, NAMCO BANDAI, NanaOn-Sha, Jason Rohrer, Adam Saltsman, Sony Computer Entertainment, The Tetris Company, thatgamecompany, Valve, and Will Wright.
Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Design, organized by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Paul Galloway, Collection Specialist, and Anna Burckhardt and Amanda Forment, Curatorial Assistants, Department of Architecture and Design, is on view at MoMA September 10, 2022–July 16, 2023.
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