With the advent of game consoles, there were many attempts to use the commonly available machinery in ways other than entertainment. Jaron Lanier, the developer and technology critic, worked with Bernie DeKoven on two art games, Moondust and Alien Garden, for the Commodore 64 and Atari 800, respectively. They were antecedents to Flower in some ways, purely aesthetic environments where the purpose was to build an emotional connection between the color, sound, and movement on screen rather than creating tension through wins and losses.
In the '90s, the internet emerged into the mainstream, and there was some crossover with game engines and the modding community. An art collective called Jodi modded popular games like Wolfenstein 3-D, Quake, and Max Payne to make them hallucinatory experiences that were almost impossible to play in any traditional, competitive way.
Mary Flanagan also emerged from the internet art movement, using the Unreal Engine to build a nightmarish trip through a burning home in "Domestic." Another of her works, "XYZ", used an NES controller to move poetic text fragments across a screen mounted in a gallery, creating a play experience around the vagaries between spacial form and textual meaning.
"Probably in the last year or two we've reached a point where art museums fully realize that games, virtual worlds, interactive software, networked software, all of these things are an important part of contemporary art and belong in the museum," Lowood said.
"I teach a class on curation in new digital media and most of the students I get in my class are planning to go into careers at museums. So the next question is, how do you do that? How do you change the white cube into something that's appropriate for this new medium?"
In the past, museums had the relatively clear task of acquiring and preserving an artist's work, then presenting it as an object displayed in a room. With video games, this model of the museum will face some significant challenges, the most basic of which is player involvement.
"I don't think it makes much sense to present games as a didactic display," Christiane Paul, adjunct curator of New Media Arts at The Whitney Museum and associate professor at The New School, said.
"But if you allow visitors to interact, then you face the challenge of presenting single-user works in a public space that is, by nature, multi-user. Unless this was a multiplayer game and a whole group of people could engage in the experience together, it would create scenarios where most people are watching and only a few of them are playing. On the other hand, people often are engaged by watching gameplay, and feel less intimidated to take over the controls themselves."
One potential approach to this issue is by treating the entire space as an environment for play, making museumgoers participants instead of observers. This idea goes back a hundred years, to when the Dadaists began thinking of art as a form of subversion that should exist outside the austere limits of the museum. The group was famous for its attention to performance art, using public demonstrations, poetry readings of incoherent sounds, and the social provocation of Duchamp's crossdressing with his character Rrose Sélavy. In the '50s, the Situationists, the most famous of which was Guy Debord, advocated a theory of society as a series of meaningful and psychologically coercive circumstances.
"I think the potential is really exciting and I think there remains a lot of work to be done in that field," Paul said. "But there's also a long history for that kind of intervention. I think that today's games and play in public space and locative media are redefining these older practices of the Situationists or Fluxus and building on them and that's very exciting, but I wouldn't say that play in public space this is a completely new development."
While this might all sound heavily theoretical, many of these issues and possible approaches affect the way video games are already being shown in museum spaces. The Smithsonian is hosting The Art of the Video Game exhibit with a terrific array of games from the 1970s onward.
Yet how would you present Doom in a museum, exactly? Would you play video of someone playing the game start to finish? Or else make it a playable for one museumgoer at a time? Would you favor single player over multiplayer? Which version of the game would you use? The original single level that was released as freeware? The level packs id later released? Because games can very easily evolve over time, they have to be treated both as individual creations and as unfolding historical events.
"One of the challenges is the distinction between single player and multiplayer games," Lowood said. "You probably could argue the experiences I'd have playing a single player game 50 years from now would be as valid as my experience playing it today. It might be different but it would be as valid. Just like I can read Shakespeare today and my experience would be very different from someone reading in England in the 17th century, but my experience would be equally valid."
"With a very complex multiplayer environment so much of what happens is emergent from the social interaction -- you can't even reduce it to gameplay, really -- it's a lot of complicated interactions among people."