Museum Of Modern Art Begins Collecting Video Games As Art: 2 Games Developed At MIT On Shortlist For Next Acquisitions

"Pac-Man." (1980) Tōru Iwatani of NAMCO LIMITED, now NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc. (Image courtesy of MoMA)
"Pac-Man." (1980) Tōru Iwatani of NAMCO LIMITED, now NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc. (Image courtesy of MoMA)

In a landmark move, New York’s Museum of Modern Art announced yesterday that it has begun acquiring video games for its collection.

“Are video games art?” writes Paola Antonelli, a senior curator in the museum’s department of architecture and design, at MoMA’s “Inside/Out” blog. “They sure are, 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.”

This declaration that video games are art—and, by implication, that the best ones can be transcendently meaningful experiences—is a major milestone in the recognition of the artistry of video games by the fine art world. But it’s not news to people who follow video games. Or who have been watching how more and more fine artworks borrow from or mimic the look of video games (like Cory Arcangel’s hacked “Super Mario Bros.” games).

The museum’s initial acquisitions—which MoMA plans to make available for play by visitors to the museum perhaps as soon as March 2013—are “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)
, and “Canabalt” (2009).

Two games developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology—“Spacewar!” (1962) and “Zork” (1979)—are on the short list of additional games the museum aims to acquire “over the next few years.”

I must pause here to say to Roger “video games can never be art” Ebert: byte me.  ; )

What makes MoMA’s move monumental is that when MoMA does something, other museums follow. See what happened when it began to try to collect performance art in recent years. Also, this makes the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art’s decision (which I noted in my review) to exclude video games from “This Will Have Been,” its landmark survey of art from the 1980s, look even more conservative.

That said, MoMA is following ground broken by the “Preserving Virtual Worlds” project, a joint effort by the University of Illinois, Stanford University, the University of Maryland, Rochester Institute of Technology and Linden Lab (the makers of “Second Life”) with funding by the Library of Congress in 2007. They began preserving a “digital game canon” and developing protocols for how to present and maintain games even as the technology that first supported them becomes obsolete. The project’s 2010 final report declared: “Computer games and interactive fiction form an essential part of our cultural heritage. These virtual worlds are unique forms of art, places for education, socializing, business and entertainment, and seem certain to play an increasing role in people’s lives. We hope that the research we report on … will help contribute to librarians’, archivists’ and curators’ efforts to insure that these virtual worlds remain living worlds.”

And Stanford University in California already has an archive of more than 22,000 games, a significant percentage of all the games produced from the early 1970s to 1993, that it acquired in the late 1990s.

This program aired on November 30, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Greg Cook Arts Reporter
Greg Cook was an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.



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