The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) last week announced that it is bolstering its collection of work with 14 videogames, and plans to acquire a further 26 over the next few years. And that’s just for starters. The games will join the likes of Hector Guimard’s Paris Metro entrances, the Rubik’s Cube, M&Ms and Apple’s first iPod in the museum’s Architecture & Design department.
The move recognises the design achievements behind each creation, of course, but despite MoMA’s savvy curatorial decision, the institution risks becoming a catalyst for yet another wave of awkward ‘are games art?’ blog posts. And it doesn’t exactly go out of its way to avoid that particular quagmire in the official announcement.
“Are video games art? They sure are,” it begins, worryingly, before switching to a more considered tack, “but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design — a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity.”
MoMA worked with scholars, digital conservation and legal experts, historians and critics to come up with its criteria and final list of games, and among the yardsticks the museum looked at for inclusion are the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, the ways in which the game manipulates or stimulates player behaviour, and even the elegance of its code.
That initial list of 14 games makes for convincing reading, too: Pac-Man, Tetris, Another World, Myst, SimCity 2000, Vib-Ribbon, The Sims, Katamari Damacy, Eve Online, Dwarf Fortress, Portal, flOw, Passage and Canabalt.
But the wishlist also extends to Spacewar!, a selection of Magnavox Odyssey games, Pong, Snake, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Zork, Tempest, Donkey Kong, Yars’ Revenge, M.U.L.E, Core War, Marble Madness, Super Mario Bros, The Legend Of Zelda, NetHack, Street Fighter II, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario 64, Grim Fandango, Animal Crossing, and, of course, Minecraft.
Art, design or otherwise, MoMA’s focused collection is an uncommonly informed and well-considered list. And their inclusion within MoMA’s hallowed walls, and the recognition of their cultural and historical relevance that is implied, is certainly a boon for videogames on the whole. But reactions to the move have been mixed. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones posted a blog last week titled Sorry MoMA, Videogames Are Not Art, in which he suggests that exhibiting Pac-Man and Tetris alongside work by Picasso and Van Gogh will mean “game over for any real understanding of art”.