While some critics have spent the past decade arguing over whether or not video games should be considered “art,” the Museum of Modern Arts in New York has amassed a spectacular collection.
Individual titles from MoMA’s collection of 36 games have occasionally been displayed for museum consumption, but its latest exhibition, titled Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Designsgives them unprecedented space and analysis. Never alone is about as interactive as a MoMA exhibit could get, with 10 playable games ranging from Pac man at Minecraft. The other 26 titles are represented through videos or other curated displays.
Visiting the exhibition, which is free and open to the public, is a quick exercise in synthesis. Senior Curator Paula Antonelli and Collections Specialist Paul Galloway have, with a small team, divided Never alone into three pillars: the input, the designer and the player. Each section contains both games and other interactive design elements (like Susan Kare’s sketchbook containing original Mac icons). The visitor is tasked with collecting experiences (i.e. playing games) and considering how each contributes to a larger discussion of interactive design through these categories.
All the glory of MoMA’s video game collection is to be imagined here. It’s just a taste, an invitation to come home and find out more.
Antonelli and Galloway spent many years working on the curation of MoMA’s video game collection, with Never alone the first time this collection has received the full gallery treatment. To input spoke with Antonelli and Galloway before the exhibition opened to learn more about translating the curation process to cover video games and how gaming has changed our lives for good.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How long have you been a commissioner Never alone? What was this process like?
ANTONELLI: It’s not really a question of making the exhibition but rather of constituting this collection; this exhibition is a presentation of a collection that has been in preparation for more than 10 years. When MoMA decides to start collecting a new category of objects, they do so very deliberately, we create a real case and argument for it. We started this in 2006, believe it or not we made the decision to collect movie titles, fonts and interactive designs. MoMA has been around since 1929 and our collections document the art of an era. As time passes, our collections must evolve with it.
GALLOWAY: We developed criteria for collecting video games that was really a kind of taxonomy for taking a game apart and looking at its constituent parts. Everything from player behavior, space shaping, time manipulation – because, of course, video games are a time-based medium – and aesthetics, which of course is a very important consideration for a art Museum. This helped us create a way to frame each game that is under consideration.
So does this exhibit cover all of MoMA’s video games?
GALLOWAY: Yes. This isn’t the first time we’ve shown video games at the museum and it won’t be the last. That’s a key difference between what our project is and what other museums have done — and others have put on really fantastic exhibits. But for us, these are recurring presences in galleries. Sometimes it’s just one or two, but they’re part of our collection, and they keep popping up on our walls.
“My idea was to avoid nostalgia… I dream to focus on the behaviours between the the person and the machine without environmental interference.”
The most recent game in the collection is from 2018. Video games have already changed so much since then. Are you worried that the exhibition is not up to date enough?
ANTONELLI: It’s interesting. Every object we acquire is frozen in time. So we’re not very concerned about updating them, but rather trying to represent a release that shows off the full glory of a particular game. So with something like Sim City 2000 Where Minecraft we decided to show only one version, for example.
And acquiring video games is so much more complex than it seems. We’re not going to buy the game – we’re building a relationship with the production company, we’re making sure that we’ll have the rights to migrate the game and emulate it ourselves – that’s a really big scaffolding to create a collection of video games. So we make choices not about the newest or the most popular, but rather about showing the world what we believe to be the greatest expression of contemporary design.
GALLOWAY: And I would point out that this reflection is ongoing. The most recent game is from 2018, but we’ve been thinking about it for several years. Likewise, there are games right now that we are reviewing. You have to spend time with these things to really fully understand them.
Were there any cases where it was particularly difficult to acquire a game for the museum?
ANTONELLI: I mean, notice there are games that are missing from the collection. Let’s put it this way. [Laughs.] Well there is Zorkfor example, of which no one knows who it belongs to, so we cannot acquire it.
GALLOWAY: It really varies. We have titles that come from huge studios like Microsoft or Sony, some from small independent studios, we have some from individual designers. Dealing with a sprawling juggernaut is, of course, more difficult. I would say that for all the games in our collection, the parties finally happened and it wasn’t that hard. The only ones that were really hard didn’t work out in the end.
ANONELLI: Which is sad, but it’s not just this collection. We have similar cases in digital design – it’s not just like going out and buying a chair. There are intellectual property issues, end user license agreements. We had to convince some producers to modify the EULA for us.
GALLOWAY: There is a clash of cultures. They are IP lawyers who spend their time monetizing IP. They do it a certain way. When you instead ask them to view them as cultural objects, they have to reframe both conceptually and legally.
ANTONELLI: Designers want their work to be in the museum, of course. It is the lawyers who arrest them.
“My relationship with video games is a relationship that makes me feel the impulsethe Beating heart of the world.”
No console is displayed in the game stations. Was it an early decision? Has the other side of that – the display of each machine – also been taken into account?
ANTONELLI: It was an early decision, I take responsibility for that. It was discussed with the original committee of gamers, game designers, and experts over 10 years ago. My idea was to avoid nostalgia. You see a lot of video game exhibits trying to rebuild an arcade – the whole culture and gestalt of an arcade. I dreamed of focusing on behaviors between man and machine without environmental interference.
I remember at the time I was afraid of being crucified by the committee. But instead, it was understood that if you want to see games in their natural habitat, you can go to other museums or a game room. All museums must be part of an ecosystem; you should try not to imitate what others are doing, but rather to complement it.
GALLOWAY: I strongly agreed at the time. I mean, I’ve been playing since the 80s. I see a lot of these games and get carried around in a bean bag with a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and a bag of Doritos in my lap. I think the style that Paola has developed actually helps me see them in a much more critical way, because you’re really focused on what your hands are doing with the joystick, you also become more aware of what’s going on inside. ‘screen. It really facilitates a critical reading of things that we often know very well.
Did the organization and curation of this project change your relationship with video games?
GALLOWAY: Working with Paola for so long made me re-evaluate a lot of things that I took for granted. I also met all of these amazing designers and it really showed me how much the way we use video games continues to change. I think for me, looking at history and how the way we use video games is still evolving – I find that extremely exciting.
ANTONELLI: It hasn’t really changed my relationship to video games. For me, they are always a temptation that I stay away from, otherwise I would be completely sucked in. But this work also connected video games to the rest of the world for me. They are the crystal clear example of interaction design, the same type of design used for something like New York’s MetroCard machines.
Video games, for me, are a great example for distilling something that surrounds us. My relationship with video games is one that makes me feel the pulse, the beating heart of the world. I love them, and I will continue to love them, and I want to see where they go.
Never alone is available for viewing (and reading) until July 16, 2023 at the Museum of Modern Art.