All right, so, my name is Erica Gangsei. I'm 38 years old. I'm based in San Francisco, California.
For the last 11 years, I've worked for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Most of that time has been in interpretive media. For the last three years, I've been the head of interpretive media, a department that does storytelling with mostly audio and video. We also create interpretative gallery spaces where stories about artworks are available for visitors, mostly through technology, since 2012. So, I guess for the last five years I've been running a variety of games experiments at SFMOMA. Should I list out briefly the sort of three or four major ones?
Sure, if you'd like to, yeah.
Okay, cool. So, in 2012, so I guess the actual process started in 2011, I did an exhibition called ArtGameLab, which was an exhibition in the Visitor Education Center that included five crowdsourced games for visitors to play. So, what we did is we put an open call out to our local creative community for ideas for games that visitors could play inside the museum, and of the 50 responses that we got, we selected five games to put into production. And so, the exhibition was up for nine months and visitors could play a variety of games, including a word game, a performance game, alternate-reality, participatory narrative experiences. A variety of games for visitors to play. That was in 2012.
Then in 2013, just before the museum closed for three years for an expansion project, I did a pop-up arcade in collaboration with Sarah Brin and Babycastles and it was all games that were designed to promote relaxation and collaboration and open-world exploration as a sort of counterpoint to the hyper-competition and simulated violence you often see in conventional videogames or what we think of as conventional videogames.
And we still see.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] I get it. Yeah, it's weird. It's been four years and not much has changed. How bizarre.
So, but that pop-up happened during the Game Developers Conference, and because all of the games were relaxation-oriented, we called the Ahcade. That was a fun project. Then we closed for three years and did some research and have been, for about the last year or so, running a program called PlaySFMOMA where we work with game designers and residents to workshop different games and see what visitors are actually interested in playing inside the museum. And so, we workshop different games. We've hosted a game jam. We've done a pop-up arcade. Public playtesting is, for us, sort of the meat and potatoes of the program. So, basically, instead of deciding what visitors want and producing finished games for their enjoyment, we're experimenting with more avant-garde or sort of artist-driven instances of gameplay and then trying them out with visitors. Part of this was driven by something I was seeing in the field, in the museum field at large, which was a tendency to write a grant to make a digital game about a topic and then make a digital game about a topic without necessarily employing game experts and without necessarily playtesting very much with visitors. So, what I really wanted to do was take a games-first approach to visitor-facing game design inside the museum and design games as games first, and then since we're a modern contemporary art museum, a lot of the experiences that people can have inside the museum can be very abstract in nature. And so, a game can provide you with something very abstract but still quite relevant to a visit to our museum.
Thanks for summing that up. Before we started -- I might be misremembering, but you said something about videogames are where photography was 50 years ago?
This is always a dumb thing, I don't know if you've heard it, but people have a tendency to say the high mark of a videogame is in its ability to be art by making a player cry. Have you heard this before?
I have heard that, yeah.
Well, this is not a question I was expecting to ask, but is there precedent of that in art history of people declaring it is only good if it produces one specific feeling?
I mean, yeah, that's an interesting question. I guess there's been a ton of different people who have said different things. Maybe not about art in general, but sort of about a specific movement. You know, “This type of painting is only good if it does X, Y, and Z.” They've said that about everything from movements like De Stijl to -- yeah, any creative movement has its rules or has its metrics by which it measures the success. So, any creative movement would. I also should say I don't know if I agree that a videogame is art when it makes someone cry.
I think that is one way in which a videogame could be art, but I think there's this tendency right now with videogames to want to be taken seriously. Part of being taken seriously means removing oneself and one's industry from the realm of childhood. Unfortunately, part of removing oneself from the realm of childhood seems to be injecting an air of seriousness and gravitas to everything that one does. You know, things can be funny and still be art. Things can be fun and still be art. [Laughs.] You know? It's one of those things that I take exception to, not just with games but with a lot of forms of culture in general, that there's certain kinds of cultures that are relegated to children.
One thing -- I think there are many things that people in games are trying to do in order to serious-ify themselves, and I think that the idea of making games that are "sad" is -- of course games can address serious topics and it's wonderful when they do, but not every -- I think about Rod Humble's The Marriage as a great example where you just have a blue square and a pink square and it breaks your heart. Not every game has to be The Marriage.
A game can be a work of art without making you cry. So, I just say that.
I'll say that just because I'll say that I the people that subscribe to that -- and this is where the whole indie games or art games as such things becomes a little problematic to me. It's such a new medium, still. Our understanding of it as a medium is still so new. People are aligning themselves into one camp. I think in 50 years we'll understand that "a videogame is art if it makes you cry" is the rallying call of a specific view of game-making, you know? In the same way Piet Mondrian had very specific rules that he lives by in order to make his paintings. It didn't mean that anybody who didn't paintings like that wasn't also an artist.
Do you think -- I mentioned this just before we started, the communicating the dissonance of the technological advancements with some of the cultural regression, do you think this is the inversion of that? Where creators feel like, "Oh, we have to hurry up and get into line as far as where we fall?" Like, before the internet or before videogames, were emerging artforms more open-minded about who they were and what the rules were?
I think -- you know, that's an interesting question. I think in some ways, yeah, but you also have to imagine that in the past the way that emerging artforms worked is that people would all be in the same physical location. That in a lot of cases, they wouldn't really see anybody other than each other.
You have Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg living one floor up, one floor down from each other and basically just hanging out all the time, just the two of them while they're coming of age as artists without -- you know?
I guess in some ways now that the world is so interconnected and now that location isn't the only way that you can develop ideas in tandem with somebody, I think that there are sort of needs for gathering points. Like, we need to say, "Okay, I'm gonna plant a flag in the ground and everybody who thinks that this is a good flag, stand around it with me."
That used to be a literal locational thing and now it's a conceptual thing. But I also think that it has a lot to do with where the contemporary art world is right now, which is, in my mind, sometimes a little unfortunate. It's kind of like artists are just expected to not just make objects but have wholly formed ways of talking about them that hold together theoretically.
I think that videogame artists are trying to do a lot of the same thing and in some ways it moves, like the thing I said in response to your prompt. In some ways, videogame artists who are looking for fine-art legitimation are adopting the unfortunate parts of the contemporary fine-art market in addition to the helpful parts of the contemporary fine-art market. I think that this idea of rallying around a concept -- I don't know. It may be part of that.
At the same time, I think we're too young. By "we" I mean as a field. I think that the field is still too young. I think that everybody who can thinks that games can be art should all be sort of hanging out in the same shoebox right now.
And you figure out, you know, 25, 50 years from now the vast differences. But, you know, I think that there's a lot there in terms of -- some people really believe in technological sophistication and some people believe in simplicity. For me, at SFMOMA, everytime I do a more technologically oriented project, I make sure that the next project that we do is less technological. When I program things, I make sure that we have games that -- you know, when we did the mixed reality pop-up arcade this past spring in March 2017, we had a live-action role-play game that was just a person with dice and a binder. Then we had intense multiplayer VR goggles experience. Both of those things are forms of mixed reality and, to me, that was a really important thing, was to separate the concept from the platform.
I know you gave an introduction up top, but in the spirit of us figuring all this stuff out, can you talk a little bit about how you define your role with SFMOMA?
Oh, yeah. Okay. So, I'm the head of interpretive media. And so, what we are in charge of doing is engaging visitors with the artists and artworks and cultural spaces of the museum. So, when you think about the SFMOMA app, you think about audio that guides you through the museum and allows you to see the artworks and the building through the perspective of whoever's talking into your ear. You think about the video content that we do. We work with local filmmakers to capture the artists in our collection in their studios and tell their stories and sort of create a context in which the artists of our collection can be understood as people and the things on our walls can be understood as having been made by people. So, we're a department of digital storytellers. Where games fit into all that, for me, is games are still somehow considered an emerging medium even though, if my information is correct, they're the highest grossing and most popular entertainment medium in the world. Is that right? I feel like that's right, and it could just be in some markets but not in all markets. But anyway, if they're not already, they're overtaking film at quite a steady pace. [Pause.] I'm fact-checking in real-time with you.
[Laughs.] I appreciate that. Well, I know you mentioned it was important or at some point along the way mentioned it was important to distinguish your role from a curator.
For people who don't run in the museum world, why does that distinction matter? What is that distinction?
Well, curators do a couple things. Curators are in charge of collecting objects that are of importance to the field that they're an expert in. So, if you're a design curator you're collecting design objects. If you're a media-arts curator diverse media, you're collecting paintings and sculpture. You're basically creating -- every curator develops a point of view about what they're collecting and exhibiting, and then collects and exhibits based on that thesis or that point of view.
For me, what we're doing with PlaySFMOMA is less about exhibition and it's less about art history and it's more about visitor engagement. Our area is a visitor-engagement area. So, to me, I see games as a participatory storytelling tool. Basically, what you're doing is instead of telling the visitor a story that they're then being led on, you're actually providing them with parameters to live a story themselves. That's the thing about a game that's amazing: It's not like watching a film. It's not passive media where you sit, you watch the film, you see the story happen to another person. You actually become the character who's living the story. The thing to me that's exciting about games as a medium is that they have that ability. They have that ability to provide parameters for somebody else to live a story themselves.
You know, for me, what's interesting is that I think the games program that I've been able to design at SFMOMA relies heavily on a group of people in the Bay Area who think of themselves as artists making games or think of themselves as code artists. I'm not completely sure that a colleague of mine who was working at a science museum or a natural-history museum would be able to build the same kind of games program 'cause what I'm doing is very much rooted in a type of experimentation that you see in contemporary art.
That was actually something I wanted to ask about, was how your department and program fit into the remit of SFMOMA as a whole.
In what way?
Well, I guess I'm asking if you could talk a little bit about some of the more boring bureaucratic conversations.
Or just the ways -- you know what I mean?
Yup. I work for a large arts institution. Bureaucracy is my day-to-day. [Laughs.]
Happy to, happy to.
I can't even -- like, friends of mine who work for even larger institutions think, "Bureaucracy? You know nothing." [Laughs.]
Like, imagine working for the Smithsonian! [Sighs.] It's a giant museum and you're controlled by the government. Oh my!
Well, it's interesting -- and I don't want to encourage you to sling mud, but I was curious because they included videogames but they had someone with no art-history background involved with their curation.
That “The Art of Video Games” exhibition was really interesting for me to see. I think that there's -- I was really glad there was a major museum exhibition about games, but I thought that the timeline of art of videogames and art being defined pretty narrowly by the visual art or graphics inside the game, that, to me, didn't necessarily help advance the understanding of games as a medium in their own right.
That's something that I hammer on almost constantly with SFMOMA, it's this idea that games are a medium in their own right and that what you should be evaluating when you're evaluating a game is the play mechanics, the experience of it. I thought that actually in the Smithsonian exhibition the thing that was the most successful to me in getting at that was the video piece they that they had of people's faces as they're playing a game. You know, the joy and the terror and the sadness and the excitement. You know, the delight and the abject misery when you lose and all of that. [Laughs.]
I thought that that started getting at something which is what makes games particular. I think that that's the thing that's hard about games right now, is that -- when photography was fighting to be recognized as a medium in its own right, back in the '60s you had fine-art galleries and then you had photography galleries. They're in their own little sidebar. I think it took a long time for museums to understand, "Okay, photography is art in the same way that painting is art."
But you don't have the same difference in exhibition challenges between photography and painting. You hang something on a wall or you hang something on a wall.
You know, there's a sort of 1:1 there. Whereas, videogames are not like anything else inside the museum. They take time. The experience is often very individual.
So, when I've been in contact with my festival contacts, where you have a lot of different people playing different games, the effect is that people can actually appear very isolated from each other. The community that comes out of those things comes from meeting up in hallways and comparing notes, but you have to have a framework. You have to know other people who are having the experience in order to do that. Most people coming to a museum don't know a lot of other people who are there, because it's not the context.
So, I think one of the things for me is -- like, we do pop-up programming in part because we can include a lot more people, but we also did a study of the field and looked at museums developing persistent games and then looked at museums doing pop-up programming and discovered that -- not just in museums but also in the gallery sector.
I can send you this if you want. It's a really interesting study that we did while the museum was closed for expansion, basically looking at how people are deploying games inside the cultural sector. The thing about the way people are exhibiting games is, for the most part, pop-ups and event-driven things are a lot more successful. Even a space like Babycastles that calls itself a gallery is a lot more successful on event night than on any other night. We sort of decided that PlaySFMOMA should be an event-driven program.
Just internally, where I fit, I've been running -- so, I basically started doing games experiments myself after I was the project manager on an SFMOMA families game called The Country Dog Gentleman Gallery Game. This was back in, like, 2010, and we were developing a game for families to play. A lot of the exercises were very good inside of it. It was basically an app that you could download that would lead the family through a series of conversation-driven close-looking exercises at various artworks around the building. It was not artwork-specific at all. It was a lot of guessing games. There were some charades elements. Some Apples to Apples-type equivalency things going on.
But the thing to me that was really hard about it was that we didn't ever have anybody -- this was a major grant-funded initiative and didn't have anybody in the room who was a game designer at any point. You know, we had our family programs people, we had our docents, we had the interaction designers who were building the app for us. But we never had a game designer in the room.
This is when I started thinking -- and, you know, it was interesting. In some ways the game did really well in that everybody who played it had a really good time. But it's never -- I think that museums are still catching up with what their expectations for their digital programs should be in the 21st century. As I like to say about our video content, we're not Beyoncé.
People are not waiting for our new video to drop. [Laughs.] It's not like, "Oh, crap SFMOMA has a new Vito Acconci video! I'm so pumped!" There's a very small group of people who would ever say a sentence like that out loud.
But anyway, the experience of working on that game and then getting to know people who are actually designing games as a practice and understanding that a lot of museums are sort of approaching it backwards. This is sort of a roundabout way of eventually getting to your bureaucracy question.
But basically, a lot of museums are approaching it backwards: They're writing a grant, they're setting up experience goals, they're setting up education goals, they're identifying target audiences, they're even in some cases identifying the length of time they want those target audiences to spend engaging with the resource, and then they're designing a game with all of these constraints already in place. I started thinking, "Okay, well, there have to be looser ways of going about engaging audiences using games." That was where our ArtGameLab came in. I don't know if you looked at it, but I actually wrote a paper about it for Museums and the Web in 2012.
Oh, yeah, I looked at that. I was surprised 'cause I had never heard of -- I want to go to that conference next year.
Oh, good. It's a good conference. There's that one and there's also a good conference called the Museum Computer Network. Museums and the Web happens in the spring; MCN happens in the fall. MCN is very maker-oriented, like, the people who are actually in the shit are at MCN, whereas MW, there's a mix of makers and administrators. There's definitely more administrators there, too. So, people have their opinions about which one they like more but both of them are fantastic. Anyway, Museums and the Web and MCN are both really great conferences and games have been hotly debated there for a while. One of the things that I'm actually really excited about is I've been showing up at museum conferences for about five years just shouting to anyone who will listen about working with -- don't just do it in a vacuum with yourself and your docents. Work with local game designers, work with creative people who want to make games for the museum. Other people at other museums are actually starting to do that now, which is really exciting to me. It's really great when you hear somebody else in a room saying the thing that you've been saying for years. [Laughs.] You're like, "Frikkin' finally!"
But, you know, it's one of the main things. When I first started going to museum conferences, there were panels on gamification and people literally meant gamification. They didn't mean, "I'm gonna make a game." They meant, "I'm gonna gamify something that I want my visitors to do. Like, I want to create a points system for our museum's membership. Every time you purchase a day at the museum, you get a badge or you get a stamp in a museum passport."
There were a few of us who understood the deeper value of games as an expressive medium. Games can be employed for all kinds of things. In the same way, film can be employed for all kinds of things. When we make films about modern contemporary art, we work with local filmmakers. When we make audio tours, we work with audio storytellers. So, for me, the thing about PlaySFMOMA right now is that it's so much more about understanding how a museum can do a program that is like our audio program or like our video program but working with local game makers, working with people who are sort of best of three. For me, I think there is a lot of potential for some kind of curatorially driven games program at a modern contemporary art museum. That's not what I'm pushing. I don't imagine that PlaySFMOMA is ever gonna be the thing that ends up getting a game accession. We don't really commission games so much as -- we'll do game jams. We'll invite people who are interesting into the museum to think with us about games that are about and for the museum. Part of it is to just understand what visitors might be interested in.
To start to understand, externally, what visitors might be interested in and then, internally, what our own threshold is for that type of programming playing.
Well, Paul Galloway at MOMA in New York, he told me that videogames are "weird for people."
I guess this is another side of the thing we were talking about before, as far as how do they still hit that spot where they're more accessible and approachable in an everyday way. How do you think games can become regularized or normalized as this disconnect continues to exist and maybe help bridge the gap?
You know, it's something I obviously think about a lot. I think there's a program within indie games that do a good job for people who know about them, like IndieCade, Day of the Devs, Wild Rumpus. But then, I think that a lot of that stuff is very niche and that there are certain things that are starting to get more traction, like Sundance [New Frontier Story Lab]. Slamdance has a new interactive component to go along with it. South by Southwest. I think what's interesting is to me is when you think about these festival models and you think about a film festival and how you have, like, the Sundance Film Festival and then the Sundance Film Festival ends and the movies that were part of the Sundance Film Festival become part of the Sundance channel that you can subscribe to and watch those movies.
The same thing with music festivals: You can look at who's playing and you can look up the music and get to understand things about what's being chosen and how it's being chosen. There's a validation that comes along with that. I think there aren't -- this is where the chicken and egg with distribution and monetization comes in, but, basically, people are going to have to start pushing indie games. Interesting instances of games. It's weird, because indies, I think about it a lot. I've been going to Sundance since the late '90s and the thing about Sundance and the late '90s is that there were not as many celebrities.
[Laughs.] There were fewer channels to become a celebrity, as well.
Even just blockbuster or Hollywood stuff. Basically, you know, in the last 15, 20 years, Sundance has become the kind of festival where you see A-list celebrities walking down the street in Park City, and all of the big movies that are coming out, all the feature-festival movies are all blockbuster celebrities who have multi-billion dollar films that they're part of, sort of getting their "indie cred."
I think about that a lot when I think about indie games. I think about the Independent Game Festival that is part of GDC and how some of those games are truly independent and some of those games represent significant capital. And so, I think that there's a range that we need to start understanding when we're talking about indie games.
I think it's a couple things. One thing is that i think there need to be more populist indie games evangelists who are focused on audience and not on community. I think that there's a very strong indie-game community and I think it's fantastic. I think the range of people who are very well-funded and people who are working out of their basement, I think that is a strength. But I think that there need to be more people focused on audience for indie game.
I think that there also needs to be more of a bridging of the producer-consumer divide. There needs to be more of an understanding that there are so many tools available to people right now to be able to make their own games that you could be a weekend game designer in the same way that people are weekend painters.
You had mentioned, and I think this is what you're referencing, that there a lot of academics and MFAs and others making "art games" for the field rather than general audiences. I think this is the disconnect you're talking about, right?
Which, I would absolutely agree with you, but for people who don't know what the hell we're agreeing about, what does that distinction actually mean in terms of content or what's in these games?
Whoa. That's a tough question. I mean, I think that there's this idea that I think in the last five years or so we, as a field, have abandoned the idea that a game has to be about anything or that a game needs to have a win state. There are games that specifically don't have win state and that's part of the game. Or, there's a game where simply by playing it you've already won.
I think that there's this -- well, it's interesting, too. We're starting to get more categories in our minds of what we mean when we talk about an open-world exploration game as opposed to talking about a sandbox game.
I think a lot of these distinctions only make their way to the field, again. They're not making -- that's something I wonder about all the time, is I talk to people who do make art games and I'm like, "Well, where are people supposed to go to find about this?" Because those are not people who are gonna be going to the enthusiast game sites and those rarely get feature in more mainstream press.
Art historians love semantic distinctions. [Laughs.] I get a lot of questions about, "Okay, well, is this a game? Is this a toy? Would you call this a game or should you call this a play-based interaction?" You know?
I think that the thing that's interesting to me is that games have become a really big umbrella. So, you can have -- and, I think part of that is actually in reaction to gamification that you have things like point systems and time limits being applied to, like, quizzes and training exercises and marketing surveys. So, suddenly, all of those trappings, all of those things that used to make something a game start to feel irrelevant because they've been corporatized or they've been put in the service of something -- to me, one of the things that is a real strengths of games is, like, a game is not something that you have to do. It's something that you choose to do.
In the same that a museum visit is not something that you have to do. It's something that you choose to do. Something that I think about games is the sort of voluntary forms participatory culture.
Do you know who Jason Rohrer --
Yeah. Yeah. I've never met him, but I like his work.
He -- I'm actually speaking to him next week. In anticipation of this, I sent him an email. I think I phrased the question to him this way: "In a cosmic sense, and in a more pragmatic sense, what has having your work featured in MOMA in New York or being featured in The New Yorker done for you?" And he told me that he feels that the art world in general is fascinated by games.
But they generally don't play them. [Laughs.] He underlined and did an exclamation: "They definitely don't buy them!"
Could you talk a little -- I wasn't sure if that was going to be revelatory. I mean, it was revelatory for me to hear it, because I think people hear, "Oh, videogames are in MOMA. Here's The New Yorker doing a whole piece about a solo show for a videogame artist." I think they connect all these dots that, as you and I probably know, are not connecting. But can you just talk a little bit about --
That's not even news to you. That was news to me. [Laughs.]
Not that I even had made any assumptions, but it's just interesting to hear about.
So, I think that a lot of people -- when we're talking about the older guard, something that you hear a lot about in museums and culture in general is people obsessing about the shifting cultural landscape. You should actually look at, there's a really interesting survey that happens every three years called Culture Track, where they actually poll people in the US and they started including Canada, too, to just find out what forms of culture they're engaging with and how much and how often.
One of the things they didn't do when they did their survey three years ago that I'm hoping they'll do this time is include games in that mix. They just for the first time, last time around, included appointment television as part of that mix, that watching Game of Thrones on a Sunday night with a group of friends is now a form of culture in the same way that going to the opera is a form of culture or going to a film festival is a form of culture. This is the first time that they've included that.
But anyway, there was a lot of obsession in the cultural sector about the changing landscape. The old guard still, I think, sees videogames as fringe-y, and as "that thing my grandson wastes his time on." [Laughs.]
So, I think that there has been an understanding. I like to point out to people that, you know, it depends on the game. In the same way that you can say, "Okay, I'm gonna watch a movie," is that movie a form of culture really depends on what kind of movie you're watching. If you're watching The Avengers movie for the 15th time, probably not. But if you're watching -- I'm getting myself in hot water with The Avengers lovers out there. [Laughs.]
Nah, you're fine. Don't worry. They're still gonna make more of them. [Laughs.]
That's true. It's just that I wouldn't talk to the performance and film curator and tell them that he should put The Avengers in the museum.
But if you're watching, like, [Andrei] Tarkovsky Stalker, then, yeah, that's probably culture. [Laughs.] And so, I think the same distinction --
Well, so much of that has become blurred because I feel -- I don't know when this really ramped up, but there's been such a big push I think in all fronts of pop culture of elevating the source material. You know what I mean, of highlighting or sometimes, I feel frequently making the case for deeper meanings -- also in videogames, this is true -- probably weren't even there. You know, this sort of -- I don't know. Because I don't know that I believe in that high art-low art divide.
But I think deep down, we all know there's a difference between --
-- you know, more meaningful stuff and things that are there for respite, which is also meaningful. It's just different.
It's interesting to me, the whole high art-low art question because I think so much of it depends not on what you're consuming but how it's being consumed. I think that you can -- to me, the phrase "pop culture" has started to seem really funny because then I start thinking about what I do. So, is what I do unpopular culture? You know? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Well, you had asked the question about with all this fragmentation going on and blurring: "Who are the new nerds?" 'Cause I think if you were born after 1990, that's not even a thing anymore.
Yeah, I know. The idea of the nerd, when you think about nerd culture and you think about computers and -- basically all of the trappings of nerd culture have been popularized.
Right. They're in our pockets now. It's not in the basement anymore.
Exactly. I love it when you hear things from the '80s and people are talking about what their hobbies are and they'll say that one of their hobbies is computers. It's like, wow, in 2017 saying that your hobby is computers is like saying your hobby is breathing.
[Laughs.] I was gonna say, "Yeah, my hobby is oxygen."
"Atmospheric pressure, I'm really into atmospheric pressure these days."
"You probably haven't heard of it."
Well, we all should be. [Laughs.]
But, yeah, I don't know. I mean, I guess to get back to museums, Paul at MOMA in New York told me he felt that with videogames, MOMA has pioneered nothing and that MOMA's job is to simply tap into major cultural shifts.
Not necessarily -- he was saying that museums in general are slow to come around to new artforms.
So, some of with the bureaucracy, what I'm wondering is it's tempting to come in as a visitor and think that an institution all together is in lockstep with its philosophies and feelings. I'd be curious to hear you talk about what those first conversations about including videogames like, and do you find yourself still having to sort of hand-hold other people internally to be on the same page as you are? It sounds like you're on an ongoing process of exploratory surgery as, clearly, you can tell, I am as well with this. That's just reflective of where the culture is right now.
Exactly. I think, for me, I see PlaySFMOMA as a laboratory. Like, I actually wanted to call it the SFMOMA Games Laboratory. My boss told me that he felt like "laboratory" was a really 2000 way of thinking about an experimental program and that it would feel really dated. You know, whatever. But basically, PlaySFMOMA is a games laboratory. and one of the things that we're trying to do is test out different interests in games. You know, what kind of games are people interested in playing and to what degree and in what context, running these experiments. When I started doing this stuff five years ago, I was the only person in the room who was on the page that I was on. Basically, what part of the work has been bringing people along to this point of view. Basically, to just say, "Okay, so, we want to run a games program. We're working with people who consider themselves to be artists working with a medium. We want to program games in a way that respects games as a medium in their own right. We have a lot of respect for these other programs." I love what MOMA's doing, collecting videogames, but displaying videogames with this sort of critical distance that they do as design objects? To me, that's not the goal. Because you're not actually --
Well, it feels kind of sterile and it removes the ability to editorialize.
It removes the ability for the visitor to experience firsthand what makes a game unique.
Also that, yes.
I think that that's the thing. When you display a painting, a visitor can understand firsthand what makes the painting unique by looking at it. Displaying a game, there's so much more that goes into it. And so, the thing for me that I'd say is it started out with just me and then it's me and a couple other people. I'd say now there's -- it's not even a hefty handful of people. It's like two hefty handfuls of people around the museum who sort of understand my perspective, understand what I'm trying to do with this games program and why I'm trying to do it in the way that I'm trying to do it.
I think there's a lot of curiosity about games in the culture. For people who are trained as art historians, there isn't a lot of scholarship about games yet. So, I think for a lot of people who are in leadership in arts institutions, a lot of the information about games that's being put out there by people like you is still very new. I don't think that there's -- what's been really great for me to see is that in the time that I've been doing this kind of programming, there's an understanding of the necessity to do this kind of experimentation. But as you mentioned, museums are rarely in a hurry. [Laughs.]
I think that there's an understanding of the necessity of this kind of programming, but there isn't a rush to move to whatever the next step is. I definitely have colleagues who are really curious about what we're doing and why we're doing it and are really interested in collaborating on projects in various ways. We're actually collaborating with our architecture and design department on a series of play-based activations -- it's an exhibition of models and drawings that Isamu Noguchi made for his playground designs. But what we're doing is a series of play-based activations in the public spaces around the museum that are drawing from the ideas that he was interested in when he was making his playscape designs. So, basically, trying to find a way to make exhibition-centered content that doesn't feel quite so edutainment-y.
Yeah. It's funny -- well, maybe not funny, but I see reflections of the same sort of how despite however many years of effort, there's still only a few handfuls of people who "get" the surgery you're doing. I had mentioned a big goal with this project was to try to seed reporting at a little of different places -- current presidential administration aside and the way that's backburnered it, what I did not anticipate is correlating blank stares like I'm sure you've gotten from so many stretches of the media. Just editors who don't understand that some things are still lacking in this space. So, I've found just through doing this project as long as I have -- this is something I think Robert Kett [curatorial assistant for SFMOMA’s architecture and design department] told me when I went out there, which is that he felt these interest in videogames internally at the museum and elsewhere, they're starting to emerge because boundaries around videogames and other disciplines have started to erode.
I've found a couple of unexpected allies I would have never expected, like people who work in the restaurant world are huge, huge fans of this project.
Just all these things, I did not expect. I was curious, have you found completely unexpected allies in what you're doing who they just found you or you didn't reach out but you found out they were getting all this stuff from your work that you could have never predicted?
You know, actually, I have to say that the food-arts thing is a big parallel for me in that you're sort of looking at a time-based experiential participatory thing that people are doing. It has an analogy in restaurants and it's something -- I have friends who have restaurants in San Francisco and I feel a lot in common with them. Yeah. A common ally, yeah.
It's really odd. When I hit on that, explaining to people, "Okay, well, when you make a game and you want to publish it on a Nintendo or on a PlayStation, it's a lot like if you open a restaurant and you decide to use only the conventional plates and forks and knives."
There are similarities in the creative process where before you do anything, 80 percent of the end user's experience is decided for you unless you choose to rethink them and go a different way. But, yeah, I was curious, did some sort of other group outside of the museum cross your path that you weren't expecting?
To me, what's interesting is the performance world and where the crossover is there, but I think it's actually a lot closer than -- not really. Like, I haven't been incredibly surprised by any of the groups outside of games themselves.
It's all stuff that's closely related, like performance or film or who's the other one? Like, the code artists-type of people that come out of the Gray Area Foundation.
Well, this is perhaps rudimentary, but why put videogames in museums at all? Like, I think the cynical reading might be that it's a transaction, that museums want something from games and games want something from museums. But what's missing in that assumption?
I think that one of the reasons to put games in museums is because -- you know, one thing we've been talking about throughout this whole conversation is this idea that there's a lack of understanding of games as something that have cultural merit. One thing that I think about a lot is you see people coming to museums and there a lot of people who don't quite know why they're at the museum. They just know that there's something of value there, and they know that there's something of value there for all these nebulous and not so nebulous reasons. The more that games are inside museums, the more that people will understand that there is interesting work going on with games and that there are things about games that have value.
I think about a thing that a friend of mine said years ago when we were talking about addiction and videogames. It's like, here's the thing: Chess can ruin your life if you let it. It's not the game. It's how it's played. It's not the game. It's its relationship in your life. That's not to say that there aren't certain companies that are making their games more addictive in order to incentivize in-game purchases and generally be money-grubbing and evil. But there are also a lot of games and game companies that aren't doing that. I think that -- to me the reason to put games inside museums is to start habituating people to the idea of games as a valid form of culture.
I think to not take games seriously as participatory media or to think of games and only think of AAA games or think of games and only think of, like I said before, hyper-competition and simulated violence would be a big mistake. It would be like looking at film and only seeing Mission Impossible. You know? [Laughs.] It'd be like, "Well, I don't think movies are a good idea because I hate Tom Cruise." [Laughs.]
That's very dismissive of a much larger field that's much more nuanced. I think one of the things that I'm trying to do with my program is just bring -- I'm not an expert in the field of games, but I'm the closest thing that SFMOMA has to an expert in the field of games.
I sort of consider my responsibility to be going out into the world, gathering information, and then bringing it back to my colleagues. I don't know where that will end up eventually. I felt for a long time that our museum needed to be doing something with games and nobody else seemed to have the bandwidth. And so, I'm honestly continually shocked that nobody's taken the ball from me yet and run with it.
I'm happy to continue running with this ball, but I keep on expecting to sit down in a meeting and have somebody say, "Thanks so much for all the great work that you've done up until this point on games. We've got it from here." [Laughs.] You know?
Yeah. No, I know exactly how you feel. Yeah.
Yeah. It's fine, but I really feel by the fact of who's coming of age and who's controlling the culture, games will have a bigger place in the culture in the future. I think that if we can steer that conversation towards culturally progressive aims, then it will be better for everyone. I mean, there are always gonna be AAA games that involve shooting people in the head. That's the reality of contemporary entertainment. But I'm gonna make sure that there are visible instances of games that are not that, and that people who distribute games understand what those differences are and can make those distinctions and brand different game distribution platforms with types of experiences that have different merits.
What do you find -- I guess there are two parts to this question. I'm curious to hear you talk about what you find revelatory for people from the general public who come and attend your installations, but I'm also curious to hear for people inside your institution, what's revelatory for them when they come and check out a videogame exhibit. So, for the public and for people inside MOMA, what surprises them when they come and see where videogames are at or at least the things you've programmed, what that shows about where they're at?
Yeah. I mean, I think that -- huh, that's interesting, like, what surprises my colleagues. I think the thing that's been the most surprising to colleagues of mine is that they don't think of themselves as being games people. You know, they'll say things to me like, "Oh, well, I'm not very good at games." Which drives me crazy. I'm trained as a yoga instructor back in a former life, and people would say, "I'm not good at yoga." You're like, "Okay, yoga is just having a body. There's no way that you can not be good at yoga.” The reason that you're bad at yoga is because you think you're bad at yoga, actually.
When people say, "Oh, I'm not very good at games," what they mean is, "I don't know my way around a PS4 controller." It's like, of course you don't know your way around a freaking PS4 controller. You're 50. [Laughs.] Like, that's not the point. The point is not that you're bad at games. The point is that you have a very narrow idea of what games are and you don't think that you can fit into that.
So, the thing that I think has been really interesting for me about colleagues and senior leadership at the museum coming to games events has been how much they find there that is actually for them. You know, they've been really surprised. They're like, "Oh, that was really interesting! Oh! I had a nice experience there! Oh! I haven't understood X, Y, and Z up until this point and now I really do." That, to me, has been interesting and surprising. There are definitely several people who say, "Okay, I get what that is, but it's not really for me." But you know, I think just showing people examples of different types of games experiences.
I think the same thing is true with the public. We did a play test of a game -- Rod Humble was our first game designer in residence when the museum re-opened, and he developed a game about the experience of being in the museum when all the art was on the walls but the museum wasn't open yet to the public that I thought was really abstract and beautiful and technologically complex as most of Rod's games are. What I really loved is that his game was play tested all day and we had comment cards.
A couple people wrote really long, elegant things about the game: "This is what I loved about it, this and that, and I had these feelings and I had those feelings. It was really interesting for me to engage with." One visitor wrote, "You know, this game was really hard for me to understand how to play." Then somebody wrote, "Videogames aren't art." Then somebody else drew a penis. It was like, "Okay, so, that's pretty much the range of visitor responses to any exhibition."
What I felt really good about is, "Okay, so we're presenting a videogame and we're getting a range of responses that are analogous to the kinds of responses that we get to pretty much any exhibition or any presentation inside the museum." To me, that was -- I guess the other thing that was interesting to me about that in particular, 'cause, I think the pop-up arcade was a very specific thing in that it happened during the Game Developers Conference and so a lot of the audience was already sort of built-in for that. But the play test that we did with Rod's game was really revelatory to me because it was -- there was no adjacency with another event going on, like a games event or anything. It was just an ordinary Thursday afternoon inside the museum. It was over a five-hour period with 950 people coming through. What was really interesting to me was that there were people who are actually playing the game, and then there were people who were just sitting on benches watching the game happen up on the big screen. That seemed to be a very pleasant experience for them.
Something that we talk about a lot when we talk at SFMOMA and with collaborators and advisers in the field about -- the thing about a game is that there's this perhaps false understanding that in order to experience a game, you have to actually be playing the game yourself. When, in fact, there's a lot of space for somebody else playing the game and other people watching the game be played. But a way to do that that isn't the way that the Smithsonian had it where you just have a bunch of kids standing in line to play Pac-Man -- I think that's one of the major hang-ups in terms of displaying games at a museum or a cultural institution, is just the throughput issues.
I mean, the throughput issues are insane for games 'cause a game takes a while to play and a lot of people come to a museum with really limited time.
I think I mentioned this, but unless you have something like Christian Marclay's "The Clock," where standing in line for an hour and half in order to experience it, is part of it.
Yeah, you did mention that. [Laughs.] Well, that was a thing I was gonna ask: Museums are really, just by virtue of being around chronologically in history, they're really just set up for paintings and sculptures.
They've also been able to accommodate movies and theater and musical performances, and I think in line with everything else we're talking about, museums are figuring out how to do more than simply accommodate videogames. So, this is an inelegant question, but how are they a pain in the ass to exhibit? [Laughs.]
Oh my God. How do I count the ways?
So, the main thing --
'Cause it's not lost on me when I walk through these exhibits, just all the conversations that had to take place and probably where compromises had to be made, so don't spare any detail if you're comfortable sharing.
Yeah, there's the personal and durational aspect of playing the game. You know, really in order to get into the elegance of a play mechanic, you need to spend 45 minutes. How on earth do you approximate that? There's, of course, just simple logistical things like how are you going to facilitate people being next? It's not like an arcade where they just put their quarter down and that's how you figure out who's next.
Right. It's a little more like a deli, actually.
It's a little more like a deli.
A deli counter.
Yeah, a deli counter. There's something very -- the thing about a painting is you can experience it from close up, you can experience it from far away. There's no waiting your turn with a painting.
So, all the questions about the amount of time that something takes. There's also hardware, in terms of people not understanding how things work, things breaking, sanitary issues with the hardware. You have a bunch of people touching buttons, a bunch of people putting headsets or goggles on. I mean, I'd say that those are the main things. I'd say that for most museums, they're still figuring all of that out, and I think that, honestly, bigger museums are gonna have a harder time. I think that smaller videogame-focused galleries that can have custom arcade cabinets or whatever -- and then there's also a thing where I don't necessarily believe that a museum or a gallery is the best place to experience a game. I think that it's important for games to continue to be in museums and galleries so that people can understand games as a form of culture, but I think that for most games, experiencing something at home with a couple other people or maybe even just at home by yourself is in fact the optimal way to experience a game. So, you know, I think that in a lot of ways, what we're doing when we're showing a game in a museum and a gallery is giving people an understanding of the value that a game can have for them in their own life on their own time.
You had mentioned mentioned in your responses to my email before about how the fine-art market became hyper-capitalized in the '80s and how it would be unfortunate if videogames replicate some of those behaviors. I'd be curious to hear if you see ways that this might already be starting to happen in videogames?
That's a good question. I think there's -- in some ways, I feel like that's all there is, right? There's academic stuff where the people who are getting their MFAs in game design who are developing games sort of for their colleagues who also have MFAs in game design or are teaching at game-design programs and then there are people who are trying to make a buck. There's some in-between, but there's not very much in between those two things. But, yeah, I think that -- it's like, really, when you think about the industry, that's mostly what you have is hyper-capitalization. It's an industry. So, to me, the thing is -- I don't know. It's an interesting question when you start thinking about games as a fine-art medium and thinking about how they're trying to position themselves within the art world. Are games going to be more like film monetarily? Are you ever going to have collectible games, and if you have collectible games, what is that going to look like? I don't mean like MOMA collecting commercial instances of games. I mean fine-art collectors buying games the way that you would buy a painting or a video-art piece. I think that in some ways, when you think about that you think about the same kinds of things that come up when you're talking about video art or time-based media in general.
Yeah, it's interesting because you're not the first person to say something like this to me. It's mainly people who are "outside" of games but maybe have one toe or foot or leg -- they're aware of what's happening in games. Like, I've heard from a lot of musicians who -- I'll just read this direct quote. He had told me it would be "a shame if the game industry became yet another industry completely subsumed by capitalism before it even got a chance to fully work itself out." I don't know that there's an answer to this question, but how do we even realistically prevent that from happening?
There's no way to prevent capitalism from happening. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] You would tell me if you knew how, right?
If I knew how to prevent capitalism from happening, I would be having a much different conversation with many more people right now. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Fair enough.
I'd be like, "I figured it out, you guys. I'm running for office." [Laughs.] People still need to support themselves, and so I guess maybe the funding models have to be more the same kind of funding models that independent film -- I do think independent film production companies are good natural allies for people working in games. So, that's the closest I can come to. I don't think it'll be like the fine-art market, which is either in a lot of cases, in order to sustain itself, parasitical to the luxury-goods industry or parasitical to some kind of global-investment schema. I think that, you know, for games to support themselves in a way that isn't just capitalist, I think that it is gonna be about aligning ourselves with independent film producers and distributors, and not just looking at those models but actually looking at strategic partnerships with people who are working in those arenas. That's the closest analogy.
When museums first started popping up, what was their goal as far as how to benefit artists? Or were artists more interested in seeking patronage and earning money? I mean, did they care about exposure?
Yeah, I mean, if you mean at the very beginning of museums.
I do, yeah.
Maybe there's just a book you could recommend I read.
Oh, there are many. I think patronage has always been part of the fine-art world, but I don't think that it's the only thing. I think that it really depends on the artist. I think that some artists are interested in sustaining themselves, but a lot of artists are just interested in reaching more people. I think that that's the real joy of museums, is how many people -- you've got a group of people who signed on for some kind of cultural experience. If it's a modern contemporary art museum, then you've got a group of people in the museum audience who signed on for some kind of boundary-pushing cultural experience and have hopefully shown up at the museum to have their minds expanded. I think that what artists ideally want is to reach those people.
You had mentioned the utopian promise of technology, computing, and the middle of the 20th century. I had some thoughts and reactions as far as ways that that ripples into games, and I guess you don't have to take the lens of games, but can you just talk a little bit about what you tend to fixate on when you think about that? Do games fit into that at all?
Yeah, I think that they do. Yeah, I guess the thing that I think about and the thing that I'm saying to you before is basically just when computing technology was first being developed, people who were utopian technologists looked at what they saw as natural progression. They saw the development of this new tool as something that would bring about understanding and enlightenment. Buckminster Fuller in particular sort of foresaw smartphones and thought that they would help humanity be more understanding, compassionate, and bring about world peace. [Laughs.]
Did that happen? [Laughs.]
No, but every time we as a species invent a tool we always find a way to create havoc with it in addition. There's never been a neutral tool. Because it's not the tool, it's how it's used. I guess I can't say there's never been a neutral tool. There's been a purely good tool. Anything that can be used for good can also be used for evil because we have both inside of us. In the same way that we're more connected than ever, we're also more fractured than ever. That's the flip side of having all the information with us all the time.
I see games fitting into this in that I think that there's a tendency in the culture at large to simultaneously connect and disconnect with each other.
I think that games can certainly exacerbate that disconnect, but I think that games can also provide new avenues for connection. I think that one of the things that games can do that no other medium can do is give you the opportunity to experience something that somebody else has experienced directly. It can give people the opportunity to experience the same thing as each other simply by giving them the opportunity to play through the same chain of events as each other.
I think that there's a shared understanding of experience that can come out of that, and so I think one thing that I would love to see from the games industry is finding ways to increase or take advantage of that ability for interconnectedness. I think there are great examples of that already, especially in the form of online communities of people who are enthusiasts of various games and players of various games actually coming together and sharing their experiences with each other. Encouraging more of that and encouraging it in a way that feels inclusive as opposed to exclusive.
You had emailed a little bit about some of the more regressive side of games culture.
Additionally, your being in the Bay Area where there's certainly been a lot of stories coming out about a lot of regression in tech out there. I'm curious just in your day-to-day, maybe not even with MOMA, but in your interactions or things you've heard, what aspects of the way you see this kind of regression represented online -- I guess, basically, what do you feel are nuances maybe missing from these conversations in this type of regression?
I think that the thing that's hard is that -- [Sighs.] Conversations about this form of regression can often be really polarizing really swiftly because there are the people who see it and then there are the people who don't see it. To the people who don't see it, it's just not there. I think that -- I'm trying to think of nuances that I feel are particularly missing. I think that it's tricky to me because I would love to see a conversation where all perspectives are valid, but that includes leaving space for the validity of the perspective that it doesn't exist. You know?
That, to me, is the thing that's hard. It's interesting because I feel like my friends who work in games who are more aware of these issues who are cisgendered white men are incredibly self-aware and almost self-conscious of how triggering the fact of their cisgendered white maleness can be to people who have been marginalized in various ways. I think that cultivating that level of self-awareness is amazing, but I don't -- part of the reason why it's so incredible is because it's not the norm and it's not something that you can expect from everybody. I guess the thing that I would say is I'm very happy that there are conversations happening about gender representation in games. I mean in the games themselves and in the industry. I'm very happy that there are conversations like that happening at all levels, but I do think -- it's really hard to say something without just putting my foot in it, but I feel like understanding has to go both ways.
All directions, yeah.
That understanding has to flow in all directions. There's a certain amount of blindness that needs to be accounted for when having conversations with people who just never had to grapple with these types of understandings. At the same time, I think that there is -- I talked about it in the email that I sent to you about this sort of dehumanizing of women as objects.
Like, a really good example just in the Bay Area is when the museum closed for expansion, a colleague and I made a bet about the Gold Club, which is a strip club, which is on Howard Street next to what is now the second entrance to SFMOMA. A colleague bet me that the Gold Club was going to be closed by the time the new SFMOMA opened, and instead the Gold Club is the most popular lunch spot for all of the tech people who work in that neighborhood in San Francisco. They have an excellent lunch buffet. You can have your meeting and you can watch naked women dance.
I think there are certain gender biases in the tech world more largely that need to be addressed more broadly. I think that representation of women in videogames is one aspect of the problem to me, but of course larger aspects, like, I think about the controversy that happened about the Star Wars action figures where they didn't make action figures of the female protagonist in the new Star Wars movie because they didn't think that girls wanted action figures and they didn't think that boys would want to play a female action figure. That kind of thinking is so backwards. I really have so much respect for people like Anita Sarkeesian and the work that she does critiquing gender tropes in popular media. Anita Sarkeesian, Alison Bechdel. I don't remember who it was but somebody wrote a piece recently about what they call the trinity syndrome, which is basically a badass female character whose badassery exists in order to validate the male protagonist's worth. [Laughs.] I think it's interesting.
You know, I know people who look at the advent of a game like Tomb Raider where there's a female protagonist, the strong badass female protagonist as a real plus, but at the same time, watching Lara Croft run is not necessarily a feminist activity. [Laughs.]
It's complicated. I think that there's a lot more work that needs to be done. I think that in some ways the hardest thing for me is that the people who feel less directly involved are the people who really need to be having more of the conversations because the people who are directly involved are, in some ways, too close to it. It's not a matter of subjective personal experiences. It's not a matter of people being trans and having that be an issue when they're looking for avatars in games that look like them. There's so many character creators in game engines where you can create your character, but the first thing you have to do is you have to choose whether your character is gonna be male or female and there's no third option. There really aren't good options for queer avatars in games. I really love Anna Anthropy's queer avatars project that she did. That kind of thinking needs to be mainstream and I think that's a thing that is hard right now. It feels really niche and part of the reason it feels really niche is that something like queer gaming avatars doesn't actually feel marketable to people who are in charge of the bigger companies.
That is something that needs to change and I think will change slowly over time. I mean, I think about people like -- think about what happened in the culture last year when David Bowie died and then Prince died and the widespread mourning of characters, both of whom, pushed the normative understanding of male sexuality to a different place. Thinking about how normalized a person like David Bowie is in 2017 as opposed to who he was to people in the '70s is incredibly important in thinking about what we can do in thinking about popularity. The short answer is I would love for a major company to create a series of game characters that are not gendered. I would like to see that, and I'm not talking about freaking Tetris blocks. [Laughs.] I would also love to see female characters that didn't have overt trappings of being female. You know, female characters that doesn't have a pink bow or a male character where purple is the dominant color scheme. I think that there's a lot of work that can be done in really simple ways in representation and I think that audiences are willing to go there, but I think that if the mainstream media continues to pander to expectations, then we're just gonna end up caught in a loop where we have little girls being Disney princesses and little boys being ninjas and pirates.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
What do I think videogames have accomplished? [Pause.] Whoa. [Pause.] I think that there is now -- oh my God. So many questions about, like, what is accomplishment?
I guess there is an understanding of a sort of populist participatory form of media that videogames are helping to -- how would I put this? Something about a populist participatory narrative media experience. I think that that's really the thing, is the idea that a videogame is a story that you can live through as opposed to a story that you can hear. The idea -- I mean, I don't even know if that's what they've accomplished so much as the potential of the medium, but I think maybe those are two sides of the same coin. You know, what they've accomplished and what the potential of the medium -- this is a hard question. [Pause.]
I don't necessarily think that videogames -- like, when I think about the industry, I'm not like, "Oh, videogames have accomplished something so far." But I guess maybe what videogames have accomplished so far is regularizing or normalizing this idea of participatory narrative, which is now making its way into the theater world with things like Sleep No More. That as generations who have grown up in participatory digital spaces -- like, we now have whole generations coming of age who have never not known the internet. I think that videogames are gonna become an increasingly important cultural space for participatory narrative experiences. The idea of a diversity of participatory narrative experiences and shared narrative experiences is something that I think that videogames have accomplished a sort of normalization of that type of experience. But I think that something that videogames still have yet to accomplish is using the potential of that type of experience for culturally progressive games.