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Culture Clash: How Video Games Are Crashing the Museum Party

May 22, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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."

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William Leu
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"I asked Frank Lantz,..., 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."

I would argue that very few historical things in a museum were "intended" to be in a museum upon creation. It seems like that's warping the question and ignoring/deferring it.

Vin St John
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I think it's just conflating "art galleries" with "museums." Paintings seem perfectly at home in both because you peruse a museum the same way you peruse an art gallery. You don't experience most video games the same way you experience a painting, so even a game explicitly created for the sake of being an "art game" wouldn't necessarily be a perfect fit for a museum.

But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't try to make it work! I can imagine having a lot of fun in a video game museum and I think the history is something worth preserving.

Kelvin Bonilla
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I agree with a mentality shift.
Games by nature are abstract things. There's no item called a game. There's a ball you can play a game with, and there's a data disk that has content which you can play a game with, but none of these things are the game itself.

The closest thing to a museum standard nowadays would be displaying hardware, which fits nicely in the current museum scheme. When it comes to video games, which is software, I think we have yet to evolve in this space...

There are many first steps we can take, all of which are nowhere near what we're looking for, but I think we need to take that first step even if the next one is completely arbitrarily related to the former.

My idea of the first step would just be to display gameplay footage along with the hardware display being the container of said game. Not where we want to be, but again... The first step.

Greg Lastowka
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Was just thinking about this over at Terra Nova. Lots to ponder.

Andy Lundell
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This article is interesting, but I wonder if it doesn't contain a basic misconception of what people get out of museums.

While I'm sure it's worthwhile for a Museum's closed archives to have every bit of content related to a historic game like WoW or Everquest, there's really no need for them to recreate the entire experience for museum-goers.

No one is going to sit at a museum, (in real space, or virtually from home) and play WoW for the days or weeks it takes to get a true understanding of the social space you're worried about losing.

What a museum-goer would want to do is log in, and have a five minute experience that best encapsulates the overall experience. This could be accomplished by using the real historic client-software, but using a modified server that let's people jump into already-established characters and play, perhaps, a single raid. In such a limited scope the social aspect could be emulated with a combination of interacting with other museum-goers, clever AIs, and a couple of museum interns playing the parts of the other players.

This is pretty consistent with how interactive museum experiences operate now. If I go to historic Plymouth Plantation, I can go talk to the blacksmith and watch him work. I don't get to see every last thing the blacksmith does for the community. I watch him make ONE of whatever he's doing today, and then I move on to the next exhibit.

Helen Stuckey
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Videogames create lots of challenges for museums and galleries which have traditionally been object focused and based on a singular sense of authority. Videogames are also profoundly changing our understanding of what art is - creating a new paradigm shift such as those that occurred with the arrival of photography and film. They are the seminal native digital art form of the networked era. The museum and the galleries need to understand videogames is also in part about their need to understand their own future and remain culturally relevant in the digital age.

Roger Klado
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Curated films that I have experienced as a success have simply presented films in the proper context with a minimal discussion before and after so as not to ruin the experience of a film carried with the added excitement of a theatre audience's hysteria.
I am not sure but I can't remember any museum that does not have an auditorium that could not handle a cinematic exhibition?
except maybe the Gugenheim. I am willing to be that the original shape now has an adjoining supporting structure?

If anything...
u would think digital projection and preservation has reached maturity just in time to save alot of cinema and videogame source?
( every curated film I have been to in the 80's and 90's suffered horribly! )
with all the ROM projects out there I find it hard to believe that the video game experience represents the same tragic loss like that portrayed in "HUGO".

I do not think a strict coin-op Arcade experience is needed for preservation sake the same way celluloid should be traded-in for Digital Projection.
As long as the fidelity of those lost Melies films still had the original fidelity ( or better! ) than the curator has served their purpose.

Hopefully, videogames are not actually the final and only development that evolves out of the immersive realtime digital experience. In which case, I imagine the majority worth saving will be in the future. And therefore safe?

( unless 300 years from now a curator tries to open a rare copy of Diablo III only to discover it is truly lost forever cause it needs some esoteric online connection that no longer exists to run )

I assume that virtual will not seem as tacky as the first immature steps and the language of a new art is still in it "Edison/Muybridge" stage of development. It would be a shame if other experience's are not explored in addition to gameplay ( although that is not a popular opinion )The same way representing illustration as a "graphic novel" will always be handicapped with the assumption of a "comic" book. And "animation" is still sometimes considered reduced... as a "cartoon". Already, there have been narrative beautiful advances past the original sin of the quicktime event whose interactivity carries the experience of "story" in realtime without any stereotypical gameplay mechanics needed as an replacement crutch for interaction. Even without classic narratives a game like Esther is beginning to proove that added fidelity
( that the current trendyness of li fi seems to be rallying against as production costs rise ) that narrative is simply experienced by freely going through a sensitively rendered environment where immersion actually paints the final story better than multiplayer diversions and button mashing masturbation.

If we are actually just starting, the best thing curators could probably do is document the present.
I am surprised how little is known by the upcoming crop of artists for instance who are extremly talented with the benefit of mature practices and at the same time very insecure and whimpy at their blind acceptance of current methods and rules. Where most of the battles, theories, and practices were far from written in stone as they evolved and depending how badly you suffered in your CG field represented hard fought battles against miserable practices.

In the search for old videogame digital preservation I sure would appreciate another chance behind a Magnavox Odessey 2
( fancy! it actually had a keyboard )
And I have a horrible fear that all the Gotlieb Reactor coin-ops have been scraped! :(
sure wish I had a flac/mp3 of the Reactor guitar riff audio theme
( not to mention High Score in 3 states )

As far as bringing in exhibition dollars...I am willing to bet a prestigious institution like MOMA, the National Gallery or the Louvre could handle pretty awesome LAN parties.