Culture Clash: How Video Games Are Crashing the Museum Party

By Michael Thomsen

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.


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."


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.

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