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Culture Clash: How Video Games Are Crashing the Museum Party
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Culture Clash: How Video Games Are Crashing the Museum Party


May 22, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

One of the ironies of winning an argument is that it leads to an even greater number of questions. The National Endowment for the Arts sided with the righteous in agreeing to consider video game projects for funding. It's true, we've won. Games are art. Now what do we do with them?

If games are art, does it make sense to present them in a museum? And if so, how exactly?

The most basic function of a museum has been to preserve things -- be it history, culture, art, or things that combine all three. With video games, this simple task can become massively challenging in a number of unique ways.

"It can be very complicated, because the original medium or hardware are no longer accessible or in the case of more modern games there might have been numerous revisions or patches, or in the case of online games the fact that the game really existed on a server somewhere," said Henry Lowood, curator for History of Science and Technology Collections at Stanford, one of the world's biggest video game archives.

"The main problem we've had so far is because of formats -- the media on which the game exists. Almost every solution we're talking about nowadays involves extracting the content from that medium -- so it would be like the installation package that was on the disc, or cassette tapes or cartridges -- and moving it onto another medium that we can store on a long-term basis."

Lowood and his staff seek out old cartridges, floppy disks, compact discs, tape-based games and attempt to extract the data exactly as it was recorded. It's then transferred to a storage server for posterity. "To do that work of the data extraction we have a forensic workstation -- to my knowledge it's one of only three in the world that are used in research libraries," Lowood said. "There are two libraries in the US -- Emory and Stanford -- that have forensic workstations. So we do the whole business with write blocking to make sure that nothing is changed."

In cases where games are damaged or data has been corrupted, Lowood and his team will sometimes hire data recovery specialists to see if they can salvage things. In other cases, there may be a need to simply recreate data from scratch.

"The strategy of 'recreation' has been developed most strongly in the area of new media art and digital art with museums," Lowood said. "There have been installations in the past that were set up and you can't really install things in the way they were in the past. It's impossible. Let's say someone did something in 1989 that involved drawing data from a stock market feed. You're not going to be able to do the same stuff that they did. The technology is different, the stock data is different."

"So there's a group that's been working on new media art that's developed an approach to that. They use a questionnaire with the artist to learn what the artist's intentions were, what kind of equipment they used. They basically put together a package so that in the future somebody could recreate that exhibit. What you preserve is more about information about the artist's intentions, photographs of what it looked like, or video."

If the idea of preserving video games as cultural and historical artifacts is uncontroversial, the question of whether or not video games should be treated as museum-worthy works of art is less straightforward.

I asked Frank Lantz, Zynga New York creative director and Interactive Telecommunications professor at NYU's Tisch School, if Doom belongs in a museum. He compared it to heavy metal. In the same way that bands like Black Sabbath intended their works to live in the world of everyday people, to place them in a museum would be "silly," a curator co-opting the intent of the artist. In the same way, most video game developers have intended their works to be enjoyed in the living room or the arcade, and not the white cube of the museum.

But even so, there is a real history of games and digital interactions that intended to be art. In 1966 Robert Rauschenberg combined digital art, music, and physical gameplay in "Open Score." The interactive artwork was a kind of tennis game meant to be played in a dark room. The only light was to come from the racquets held by each player and the balls they'd hit back and forth. Every time a player hit a ball a musical note would be emitted over a sound system and so the traditional form of two people competing was transformed into an abstract collaboration of color and sound.


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