How Does a Video-Game End Up in the MoMA?

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Curators have strict guidelines for which games will make it into its interactive design exhibition.

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NAMCO BANDAI Games

Pong in the Museum of Modern Art?

What's next? Pac-Man? Donkey Kong? Tetris?

Exactly, and many more.

Those titles represent four of the 40 games that were either recently acquired or are on the wish list to be included in MoMA's Architecture and Design permanent collection. The first stage of this acquisition, headed by Senior Design Curator Paola Antonelli, has been in the works for well over a year, and there were a few years of philosophical debates leading to that. In March 2013 the initial selection of 13 games will be installed in the Philip Johnson Galleries, featuring Pac-Man (1980), Tetris (1984), Another World (1991), Myst (1993), SimCity 2000 (1994), Vib-Ribbon (1999), The Sims (2000), Katamari Damacy (2004), EVE Online (2003), Dwarf Fortress (2006), Portal (2007), flOw (2006), Passage (2008), and Canabalt (2009). Over the next few years, the museum hopes to obtain Spacewar!, Snake, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Super Mario 64, and more.

"We dedicated a lot of discussion to games like Super Mario, Tetris, and even Pac-Man before we decided which version to focus on." Right.

MoMA is not transforming into a moderne video arcade per se. Rather, these acquisitions make up one of many recent curatorial initiatives seeking to preserve some of the there-one-year-gone-the-next design forms of the late 20th and early 21st century, from KidRobot's Munny toy to the ubiquitous @ sign. Although some might caution that MoMA is opening a can of interactive worms, given intellectual property issues and playback device concerns, the institution's current generation of curators see these games' inclusion as essential to the museum's purpose.

"No can of worms at all!" Antonelli said in an email to me. "A cornucopia of delights, a Pandora's box of new procedural and curatorial issues. Just what we need to advance the museum's mission in time. The [reason] is very simple: Design is about life, and curating design in a place like MoMA, where the integration of art and life is seen as central to the mission, means taking into account also new forms of design. In this case, interaction."

Interactive devices are routinely used in museums in general and MoMA in particular, but usually as a means of communicating information: They are a frame, not the art itself. So this transformative step, like other boundary-pushing decisions throughout MoMA's history, affords video games the same object status and scholarly import as films, posters, and most recently, metal type fonts. Whether they are art or artifact is not the issue. The question is their level of importance in our cultural development.

To be considered for the Architecture and Design collection, the essential criteria are historical and cultural relevance, aesthetics, functional and structural soundness, innovative ideas in technology and behavior, and a successful synthesis of materials and techniques in achieving the goal set by the initial program. "This is as true for a stool and a helicopter," Antonelli said, "as it is for an interface or a video game—where the programming language takes the place of the wood or plastics, and the quality of the interaction translates in the digital world what the synthesis of form and function represent in the physical one."

The games in MoMA's sights were developed from 1962 up to 2011, and were selected after what Antonelli called "a long, serious, team process" with curatorial assistants Kate Carmody and Paul Galloway in conjunction with several experts. Although a game's popularity was not the deciding factor for inclusion, "it certainly strengthens the appeal of a game for the collection—after the other interaction design criteria are met," Antonelli said.

How will these games fit in at the gallery? To minimize nostalgic associations but retain what Antonelli called their "focused interaction design experience," the museum will remove the original arcade cabinets but keep much of the hardware, replacing old screens with new ones of the same size, and including controllers that mimic the functionality and haptic experience of the original ones. Individual game soundtracks will be piped in through headphones. "For scholars, we hope to be able to preserve the original code, along with the coders' original annotations, and other support materials," she said.

The big challenge: Which version to acquire? With the ever-accelerating rise of new technologies, original iterations of earlier games have a goofy innocence. But questions of old-versus-new aren't relevant to the curators. "We are interested in the iteration that is the most successful example of interaction design," Antonelli said. "It might not necessarily be the first. We dedicated a lot of discussion to games like Super Mario, Tetris, and even Pac-Man before we decided which version to focus on." Right. I picture the curators on the couch playing each game for hours on end, just like the rest of us.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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