To that point, how would it be possible to recreate World of Warcraft for a museum in 50 years' time? Servers could be hosted and the game could be run, but this wouldn't begin to approximate the experience of its 10 million players, each with their own in-game histories. Treating games as self-contained creations short sells many of their most vibrant qualities, including both the possibility that the art in them owes as much to the individual players as it does to the creators. In the same way a high school theater performance of King Lear might be woefully unsatisfying, so too an exhibit of Counter-Strike with a bunch of lousy players.
"I think you're seeing that now; there's been a real emphasis on games as an art form in which artists create art," Lowood said. "There are certain artists who have reached that point and are accepted for that. What I find a little problematic is that much of the artistry of games is not necessarily in those kinds of traditional activities that we would traditionally call art. It's happening online, in tournaments, and all kinds of things, but those aren't museum spaces and it's hard for museums to deal with that. We're talking about things that maybe are a little more like sports or fan creativity, and I haven't really seen much from museums that deals with that aspect of games as an art form."
On approach that circumvents many of the issues is to create a new space designed to be about games in a flourishing communal setting. Babycastles has won a strong following of regulars in New York by treating the space more as an arcade than a museum. "This is a specific context for art, it's kind of more of a sharing space," co-founder Kunal Gupta said in a recent interview. "It's almost like a place to get together and show budding work."
Babycastles is major expansion on the idea of the arcade, however, treating cabinets and game displays as art objects and arranging the cabinets around rooms often decorated with playful and surreal objects that encourage attendees to feel like they've entered a magic circle where playful acting out is welcome.
Its shows are exuberant and youthful, neon paints and flashing lights recasting a room into something dreamy while DJs or chiptune bands play up-tempo dance music. It's a party, arcade, concert, museum, and exploratorium all in one. It's not hard to imagine this all-encompassing approach to one day change in tone and arrangement for more somber, bizarre, or serene content.
While Babycastles seems like an exciting reincarnation of some of the work of the Situationists and Dadaists, there is no reason to expect this approach to merge with museum exhibition nor win acceptance in the canon of art history. "If you pick up the average book on art history you will not necessarily read about these connections," Paul said. "I think [these new forms of art] have been successful but they have not necessarily been accepted in the art world."
"Part of it is the art market. New media art raises numerous questions regarding its collection and preservation, and there are many new initiatives working on answers. These issues are is certainly something that works against the art when it comes to its marketability.
"What exactly is it you're buying when it comes open networked play experience? For the art world it's hard to grapple with that. For collectors it's hard to put these pieces into their spaces or to deal with preservation issues, which is one of the reasons why new media art doesn't register on the radar of the art market yet."
Are we nearing a time when an art collector might want to buy a handmade installation of a game from Babycastles? We already have archivists and DIY historians who track down original copies of Atari and Nintendo cartridges at premium value.
We already have self-appointed aficionados who pay for weapon replicas and real-life Halo armor. And we already have brilliant artists like Mary Flanagan and Eddo Stern who use both the language and tools of video games to make emotionally powerful digital art. The NEA will now consider video game projects for funding. The Smithsonian has forcefully engaged with the idea of preserving the medium. The Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim, and the New York MoMA's PS1 gallery have all hosted exhibits that feature digital interaction as art.
All of these threads of our culture remain separate. Accepting the idea that they all deserve to be preserved and appreciated in their own right is a victory, but it's one that opens the door onto an exciting new series of questions.
The argument has changed. It's no longer about whether games can be shown in museums. They can. The harder questions are about why this one particular game deserves to be shown, and how best to capture its essential experience for our generation and those that will come after. In that question video games become very much like every other art form that precedes them, the only form of immortality you or I may share.