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As definition of 'curator' evolves, traditional curation still crucial for games Exclusive

As definition of 'curator' evolves, traditional curation still crucial for games
November 11, 2014 | By Kris Graft

November 11, 2014 | By Kris Graft
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The word "curate" is thrown around a lot lately, especially since Valve Software deemed its 100 million users "curators." But before the democratization of "curation" in video games, there were the traditional curators; the ones who primarily curate for the sake of art, not commerce.

Today, a "curator" of video games might be thought as a person who digs up interesting games with the purpose of putting them in front of people who would like to try or buy them. That's a useful practice, especially with the amount of video games released every day, but it's not exactly the purpose of the curator in the traditional sense. The "true" video game curators have the crucial task of preserving video games, and making them relevant to society at large.

JP Dyson with the National Museum of Play at The Strong explains, "A curator is someone involved in the selection, collection, preservation, and interpretation of things (originally those were only physical objects but today they include digital objects such as downloadable games).

"Curation's purpose is to identify and preserve what is important and then share that knowledge back with society."

Preservation is a serious issue when it comes to video games. Game developers and studios typically do not take special care of artifacts that are relevant to the history of the medium, and so often, documentation, code, or even entire games are lost.

"A curator should be continually trying to determine what is most important to preserve," says Dyson, "seeking to acquire some representation of that, figuring out how to preserve what is collected (including information about the object), and then using those objects to share stories with other people about what is important and why these things matter."

The idea of sharing stories is a common theme among curators we spoke with. By sharing stories through curation, a curator is making an exhibit or collection relevant to the public. An exhibit should not exist solely for the curator; it's not supposed to be a hoarding of "cool stuff I like." Effective curation gives an exhibit cultural relevance, because without cultural relevance, what's the point?

"A curator is supposed to recognize the cultural implications of their work; to understand their position is a privileged one and that their work is in service to something else--whether that's a broader cultural objective, an artist, a public, or so on."

Oakland-based Museum of Digital Art and Entertainment (MADE) has hosted exhibits such as "Games You Can Frame," curated by Chris Wolf, which celebrates games that emulated art movements like impressionism and cubism. "The Art of Video Games" exhibit at The Smithsonian, curated by Chris Melissinos, explains how video games themselves are artistic.

Sarah Brin is behind exhibits including the "Ahhhcade," a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit whose theme was relaxation, centered on video games. The reason for the relaxation theme? It was located across the street from the often-hectic Game Developers Conference, and was intended to give people breathing room, some down time, and still be around games and game developers.

"It's a curator's job to be an interlocutor---to facilitate a conversation between someone making a thing and the general public," says Brin. "Of course there's a lot of careful thought that goes into this process, some of which is the process of choosing what goes into an exhibition.

"For better or for worse, this selection process is pretty much the primary factor in folks' distilled understandings of what curators do. The selection part is very important, but there's also more at stake. A curator is supposed to recognize the cultural implications of their work; to understand their position is a privileged one and that their work is in service to something else--whether that's a broader cultural objective, an artist, a public, or so on."

Wolf with Oakland's MADE museum adds that curation is an important way of recognizing video games as an art form.

"Just as curation is vital for any management of a traditional library or metropolitan art museum, so it is necessary for a games museum, if games are to be considered an authentic art medium," he says. "Not only does curation serve a means of categorizing and managing an archive, but when selecting a collection of archive items for a particular exhibition, careful selection of showcased items could determine whether or not the exhibition can be taken seriously by the general public."

So in the eyes of professional video game curators, curation isn't just about digging up neat games, but it's also about preservation, interpretation, and using one's knowledge as a curator to make a collection relevant to people.

Curators we spoke with are still adjusting to the loose use of the term "curator." For them, curation is about art, history, and making significant games relevant to peoples' lives. A curator's job serves less of a commercial function, and more of a cultural function wherein lies much responsibility.

"[Finding what products to try or buy] is not what we go to curators for," says Dyson. "Instead, we look to them to help us preserve, understand, and experience the most important objects of all time and the stories these objects can tell to us and future generations."


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