My name is Paul Galloway. I'm located in New York City. I work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I'm 38 years old.
A few years ago --- actually, it was probably about eight years ago --- we started a project at the Museum of Modern Art to figure out how to acquire videogames and to exhibit them along with everything else we exhibit at MoMA. This was a long project and it took a lot of stretching our brains to think about what it means to acquire a videogame in a place that's used to holding oil paintings and sculptures and stuff like that. So it's: What does it mean to come in here and also how would we exhibit it? What do we want our visitors to get? What kind of story do we want to tell? What games belong in here?
There were many aspects to it. It took us years to narrow down our list of which games we felt were important for MoMA. We came up with a list of criteria. This was a project lead by our senior curator Paola Antonelli and we also worked with game designers, journalists, and others to refine our list because of course no one person is an expert in all history of videogames. Everyone has their own specialties in their certain areas. So, we have to talk to a broad group of people. It was a really fascinating intellectual exercise and we came up with a wishlist of 40.
Our idea was: if we were going to start a museum from scratch that wanted to focus on videogames, what would it be? And then since we're not that, what does that mean for MoMA? And the list we came up with was in many ways kind of idiosyncratic. There are some major titles missing from it. There are some strange choices. There's some very obvious, very famous games like Pac-Man or Space Invaders or Tetris and then there's some very obscure ones like Another World or M.U.L.E. or these other lesser known works that we're actually extremely excited about. And then any time somebody makes a new push for something like that, there's a lot of controversy. I'm sure you've seen: "Videogames are not art."
Anytime, too, you do a thing that is a list, people will be upset that something is missing.
Yeah. Yeah. That's just how it's gonna be.
But we were very aware of the potential for controversy and we talked to the curators at the Smithsonian because we were doing this at the same time they were working on their "Art of Video Games" exhibition, which was partly crowdsourced, and they had gone to the public and asked them to help come up with the criteria. We wanted a different approach from that. It was not just, "What is everyone's favorite game?" We wanted a kind of cold, critical look at these things. I mean, we have the best Picasso paintings and sculptures in the world. They're here. We have arguably the best Van Gogh paintings and Matisse paintings. We don't have every Picasso painting. We just have the best. Right?
So that's what we wanted to look for when it came to videogames. Not to be comprehensive, not to be a history museum, but to cherry pick specific moments, these specific examples of games we felt had a large and lasting impact on the culture of gaming and would be relevant for people to see and experience.
And it was born out. We have people playing Tempest and the original Soviet version of Tetris in our galleries and they are fascinated by it. They're really, really interested in it. And we feel it's doing a good job of helping our public appreciate that there's more to games than just passive entertainment, that it's actually a heavily designed, heavily orchestrated space that -- and especially if you look at the long history of it, has a huge amount of bearing on what our world is today.
Everything you do on an iPhone or a computer is informed by the language created by videogame designers in the 1970's and 1980's and we want people to be aware of that and to understand that the development of videogames is part of a long trajectory of visual expression that you can trace back to development of photography in the 19th century, then the development of motion pictures, and it just keeps going on. When photography first came out, it was just a machine. It wasn't viewed as art. It took a long time for photography to get established as an art. Same thing with film. Now, nobody questions a photographer calling themselves an artist. Nobody questions a filmmaker calling themselves an artist. I'm sure within the next 20 years nobody will question the videogame designer calling themselves an artist.
I've also heard it said that videogames are where the novel was a few centuries ago.
Where it's cultural worth was being hotly debated or contested and under great scrutiny. You mentioned photography. What was the path to being less questionable and how do you think games could learn from that?
The path was just time.
[Laughs.] That's it?
That's really all it is. It's when -- how old are you?
You're 32. I'm 38. We grew up with them, right?
But you might be old enough to remember playing on an Atari or a Commodore 64 or something. They were very primitive and if you try to hold up Space Invaders on an Atari versus Citizen Kane nobody's gonna say Space Invaders is better than Citizen Kane. But if you look back at some of the early examples of film, very, very early stuff like Gertie the Dinosaur, one of the first animated films, or some of [Eadweard] Muybridge's stuff, it's really mostly technical exercises showing what the medium can do. And nobody's gonna say we shouldn't have or know about Gertie the Dinosaur or these super-early films because they’re part of the DNA of the entire artform of film. And I think that the same thing could be said of some of these super early games. They're very, very basic. They're not doing a whole lot, but they are the basic building blocks of what is now being done in these really radical and fascinating places like thatgamecompany. Or there's this incredible -- and I think it's an artistic project -- guy doing the Far Lands or Bust with Minecraft where he just keeps walking and walking and walking and walking and walking through the Minecraft landscape. [Laughs.]
That's an incredible artistic thing. There's a precedent for that in art.
There's now been two generations -- three, I guess, of people that are born into a world with videogames and are experiencing them. With every generation games get more and more immersive, more and more beautifully done, more carefully thought out and artistically directed, and it's just become part of the cultural landscape.
I mean, videogames passed filmmaking for total revenue a long time ago and I think in another generation nobody will question this stuff. It just takes time. It just takes time.
You mentioned collaborating with designers and writers to select games for your collection. Given that you were striving for "the best" games, what did you notice about the sorts of things people were recommending to you -- or what ‘the best’ in their eyes seemed to say or mean?
It really depends on who we were talking to. Some designers focused on the elegance of the coding or ingenious technical solutions to problems and highlighted that aspect of games. The writers tended to open us up to the more obscure games that we’d never heard of. There were the obvious "best" games -- like Pac-Man or Portal, and some highly contentious ones that were heavily debated, like Grand Theft Auto IV, which was later dropped from the list.
You had also mentioned the Smithsonian and there's also the EMP out in Seattle which has an exhibit about videogames. I just saw, too, over the weekend that there's a museum in France that also just opened an exhibit about videogames as well. I'm curious to know, like, you said this started with MoMA six years ago, but how did the subculture of people at museums appreciating videogames form and come about?
Well, it's our job. We're the Museum of Modern Art.
And it's in our mission statement to reflect the art of our time. That phrase is from the very beginning of the museum, which was meant to reflect the current world of creativity. And you cannot talk about art in the year 2015 without also talking about art in the digital world because artists are no longer tied down to medium. They're not just making oil paintings or bronze sculptures. They're working on computers, they're making videos, they're making interactive software pieces. And so if we want to be relevant and reflect what's going on right now, we have to embrace that. And the line between what is an artist and what is a designer, what is a designer and what is a computer programmer gets fuzzier and weirder all the time, which is fantastic. That's what we want. That's a testament to the flexibility of these tools and the openness of the art world right now.
So, curators have been looking at computer-based artworks for a long time and it's just one small step from that into looking at what videogame designers have been doing. So, I think there have been many discussions about this going on and there have been plenty of videogame exhibitions. We were very keen to make a point of it being an art museum doing this because many of these other places are technical museums or history museums. We wanted videogames to be seen in the same building as Picasso or Jackson Pollock; in that same building you can play Pac-Man. The same way that you look at that Pollock and you go, "Huh," and you think about what he has done -- the way he is moving his hand around on that canvas - we want you to look at and watch somebody play Pac-Man. And we've got a label there and it describes the way that [Toru] Iwatani programmed different behaviors for the different ghosts and gave the ghosts personality. And the whole program of that thing is like half a kilobyte or something. It's this incredibly basic program and yet he programs in artificial intelligence, in a way, for those little characters.
And that's only something you can get if the museum gives you the tools to look at this thing in a different way. It's not an arcade cabinet. It's not got all the sound and noise of an arcade cabinet. It's kind of a cold, clinical look at a videogame. And we want people to take the critical reasoning and critical approach they bring to looking at art, which they apply to film and they apply to photography, and apply that to videogames as well. I know there are other museums that have been doing this too. We're certainly not the first ones to do anything like this but it was -- our goal was to make it very, very prominent and to get as many people looking at is as possible.
Sometimes you'll run across in criticism of videogames outright dismissal, people sniffing, "It's not even a game." As if that's the ultimate way of saying it should be ignored. Is there a history for this sort of reaction in other mediums as well?
Oh, absolutely. When Édouard Manet exhibited his painting of Olympia at the Salon in Paris, critical reaction was fierce, right, because it's a nude woman and she was a prostitute. And it was very clearly not a painting of a historical figure of Venus or something like that. It was very clearly, "This is a prostitute." And it was right in the middle of a big, horrible STD outbreak in the city of Paris and so they had to hang the painting high because people were trying to smash it with their canes.
When they tried to import Constantin Brâncuși's Bird in Space, this beautiful bronze sculpture, a beautiful modernist sculpture -- it had a lot of problems getting through customs in New York because the customs officer said, "This is not a work of art. This is a work of engineering. This is like a machined object." I can't remember if it's exactly that or what it is. But the idea is that this is a technical thing. It's not a work of art because you can't even see anything of the artist's hand.
And there was eventually a court case where the Brâncuși's difference between importing the duty imports on this kind of "machine thing" versus an artwork is a huge amount. [Laughs.] And so there's a long, long history of any time art tries to move something forward in a radical way, people say, "Oh, that's not art." And they've called paintings by Manet not art, they've called Brâncuși's sculpture not art, they've called Duchamp's work not art. It's just -- it's almost like a badge of honor for an artist for someone to say, "That's not art."
[Laughs.] Well, everyone is a critic.
What do you think is behind that mentality, that outright dismissal of, "This does not even belong in that category?"
Well, criticism is important. And we should be criticizing things and we should be looking at things critically. So I'm not saying that videogames should get an automatic pass because, I mean, to be honest, the vast majority of videogames are total crap. [Laughs.] They don't need any kind of special attention. But it's the same thing with film. The vast majority of films being made are total crap. But among that crap, here and there, there's an incredible jewel, an incredible manifestation of human creativity.
So, people look at videogames kind of writ large and all they're smelling is the giant stench coming off it and so they miss the beautiful things that are happening in the middle of all that.
And you have to really look closely. That's the job of journalists. That's the job of a museum. To help people sift through all of that and find those really incredible, compelling things like Journey or something that's a beautiful, quiet, meditative experience. You know, everybody's just gonna think of Call of Duty or they're gonna think of those loud things and nobody's gonna find a quiet little game like that.
Nothing against Call of Duty. I mean, I like blowing up people as much as the next guy.
I think there's an art to everything, but not everything is art.
Well, there you go.
But I think that's true of every medium or anything involving creativity, where 90, 98 percent of it is going to be crap. In your estimation, what in games is crappy?
Of course, that's a subjective experience.
Yeah. But I'm curious what your opinion is.
Well, I can't really tell until I play a game. Our blog post details our specific criteria for examining the work of a videogame and how we judge its quality, the sense of space, the creation of the aesthetic, the direction of behavior -- and that's a really important thing in videogames because the whole idea is the computer does something and then we react, and then it reacts to our reaction, and there's back and forth, and through that kind of reaction back and forth you form behavior. Both the computer behaves and we behave, and that kind of interaction with man and machine is really quite fascinating. It's the most purely interactive experience anybody has with a computer is this kind of gaming, the shaping of that behavior. So that's a really important one and sometimes that's a really deep, interesting shaping of behavior.
Something like Portal does this really really beautifully where it's like, "Oh, I do this and then the computer does that." And it gets progressively more difficult and more mind-bending and insanely frustrating. So there are intangible things you want to look for. There's the pure sense of aesthetics, some games are lots of fun but they look like crap. That's not gonna necessarily fly in an art museum. But that's not to say it doesn’t belong -- we really want Zork and Zork is a purely text-based game, but actually, there's something kind of beautiful and reductive about Zork just as a command-line text-based game. So, we look at these things very critically, but then, in the end, you just have to sit down and play it and ask if it speaks to you in certain ways.
What beyond fun can be found in games, even ones that were made to "just be fun?"
Well, even the ones that are just fun, you can look at and see some really interesting qualities -- like Tetris, for example, is a really interesting one. What we have done at the exhibit here is actually a recreation of the Soviet version. We worked with The Tetris Company to recreate the one that was done in Moscow by Alexey [Pajitnov] on the Electronika 60, which was a very, very simple game. Essentially ASCII text. There's no sound. There's no real levels. The blocks just keep coming. It's very harsh and Soviet-feeling. [Laughs.] These things just keep coming and coming. They even mimic the kind of rough CRT scanlines so it looks like you're looking at an old computer. And there's something actually quite simple and beautiful about these geometric blocks coming down and fitting them into puzzles. It engages your brain in a spatial and logical manner.
So it is fun but it's also intellectually quite challenging, which is what the best art does. The best art is both good-looking and fun and intellectually challenging. Some of the stuff we have on view in our museum is not easy. I mean, people come in and sometimes the art is hard. If you want easy art, there's lots of places you can go for easy art. We're the hard museum.
It is! These are often difficult things. People see our Duchamp snow shovel hanging from the ceiling and they're like, "What the fuck is that?" It's a snow shovel, and it's titled "In Advance of the Broken Arm." And there's this fascinating kind of discussion that happens about Duchamp and the Readymades and that's not easy. Some people just want to see a pretty painting. But we're constantly challenging our viewers with these difficult questions.
What are people's expectations from a videogame when they wander into your museum or your exhibit?
I think people are wondering how they got lost on their way to Matisse.
But they don't necessarily. It's often a bit of a surprise, people coming in there, they're still quite surprised to find these things. And it is weird, right? It's surprising and strange to come into an art museum and then there's a game on the wall that you can play. You know, they walk through the whole museum and there's guards hovering over them so that they don't the art, you can only get so close to the wall, and then all of a sudden they are in the design gallery and they can touch it and they get really excited. We've actually had problems with people breaking things because it's like all their pent-up touching energy goes crazy and then they smash something. We go through a controller, like, every other day.
So, there's a bit of surprise for the visitor, but then there's often this very quick delight. We'll see little kids, when they see the display of Minecraft, and it's a beautiful display, [but] it's not actually playable because that's just not feasible in a gallery. But we have these beautiful videos that we worked with Mojang to make and this gorgeous wallpaper that they helped us create. And it's an experience of Minecraft they've never seen, and suddenly their faces light up and there's something they can immediately connect to because that is the kind of creativity that they're familiar with. And for a lot of kids, Minecraft is a very important creative sandbox. They do a ton of really fascinating stuff. So, for them to see something that they're so intimately familiar with and are so fond of is a way of giving them access to the museum when they've probably had a hard time with some of the things they've been seeing.
But then, also, I'm often surprised by seeing a Danish grandmother standing there next to Pac-Man and I'm pretty sure she's never played a videogame in her entire life and she's looking down at the controller while she's trying to move Pac-Man around on the screen. So for some people this is actually the first time, I think, they've ever played a videogame. So we're getting everything from old hands who know exactly everything and know exactly what we're doing and disagree with some of the choices we've made to some people who have absolutely no vocabulary for videogames at all.
Have you seen evidence that the exhibit challenges people's preconceived notions about games?
I think so. I absolutely do. I mean, we're exhibiting them in this very heavily directed manner. I'm not sure if you've been here or seen pictures of the exhibit, but it's -- we made a very conscious decision to keep nostalgia out of there as much as possible because, in my opinion, nostalgia is the enemy of critical thinking. If you're suddenly taken back to the moment when you're 13 years old and you're sitting on the carpet with a bag of Doritos and a can of Mountain Dew playing Half-Life or something, you're no longer a critical thinking human being, you're a Doritos-covered 13-year-old.
So we made a decision that no consoles are visible, there's no arcade cabinets. There's nothing. It's very stripped down, very minimal. The monitors are embedded in the wall. You just see a little opening in the wall, there's the monitor, there's a platform coming out with the controller on there. It's very, very reductive to try to isolate the experience of the screen and the controller so that you're really focused on that. And I think that has actually worked. It helps people look at the games in a different way than they're used to. The gallery doesn't have the cacophonous nature of an arcade. It's actually relatively quiet and calm and orderly in there and I think that has really helped people to look at video games in a very different way.
I don't know how closely you regularly follow the conversations or circles around videogames online, but there's kind of a dichotomy or a tension between games wanting to have the legitimacy of the art label but none of the higher critical aspects that come when a thing is recognized as a generator of culture. Are you aware of that tension at all?
Yeah. And I can certainly appreciate that because a lot of the culture attached to the fine arts is hoity-toity and snooty and overly serious and overly concerned with its own importance. And that's something that the kind of still free-wheeling, slightly hippie-ish Doritos-covered Mountain Dew-swilling game culture doesn't want. [Laughs.]
And there's a lot of that I can sympathize with. There's a lot that's not so great about the art world. But I think there is a way to bridge the divide -- and I'm not saying videogame people are all covered in Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew. [Laughs.] That's certainly not the case. But there is a kind of freewheeling, raw quality to that industry right now, and I certainly can appreciate people not wanting to be put into a straitjacket and into an institutionalized manner of working.
So I can certainly appreciate that vantage point, right? Because as soon as you're put into a museum, you're now canonized as official and now it's time to put on a suit and behave properly and you need to write your thesis the way that an MFA student at an art school would and it can get really ridiculous.
So, I certainly sympathize with the people that don't want that to happen, but simultaneously, it's time for videogame designers to recognize that they have a huge role to play in the creative field, that you can't just get away with calling yourself a designer. I mean, they are artists. They are creative people. They are making things that people interact with and it's up to them whether or not they want to accept the responsibility that this is larger than just them, that they're actually creating something for the world.
I feel like there's more resistance among videogame people than, say, musicians when something similar happened with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You know, people sniffing, "There's nothing rock 'n' roll about a museum!"
But I think that turned around fairly quickly, and people saw that as an honor, however ironic. But I don't know if I see that happening with videogames, necessarily.
It's still quite early. It's a very, very young field. In many ways, videogames -- it's something you do by yourself. It's you and your computer, it's you and your console in your home and then for it to become public is a very different sort of experience. And it's strange, some of these things being made very public. And that's another thing that I'm very fascinated by, is this entire life that happens within videogames and how some people have documented experience of their life as it exists in a game and in some cases that becomes more important than their real life, so it's kind a private, personal thing, and so to take that away -- I can certainly appreciate how that makes people uncomfortable.
What happens when you are more than a designer, you're an artist, like you said, but you sort of shun that you have that role in a greater ecosystem? Is there damage that can be done when you don't take responsibility for what you create?
Not necessarily. I think you're passing up some opportunities.
Because if designers start getting really serious about talking to each other about what they are doing and start talking about some really interesting critical ideas of that experience -- it's already happening, though. That's the thing. Whether they want it to or not, it's happening. Designers are making some really incredible things, people are talking about it, and they can choose to disengage from that critical discussion, but it's going to go on without them anyway. The boulder has started rolling and if they don't want to be part of it, they don't have to, but I think they're missing out.
Well, you mention how the conversations are already happening between designers, but it is also true that the conversations games academia is having is separate or not all that connected to the conversations in the greater industry. So, in other words, they're solving for the same design problems but not really coming into contact with each other. I mean, that's what my Internet and circles indicate. Do you get that sense, too, that they're not pushing together on that boulder you mentioned?
I certainly get that because I've interacted a good bit with the industry in the whole acquisition process and let me tell you, talking to the people at the companies is a very different experience than talking to the programmers and some of the academics.
Well, the companies that I'm very often dealing with -- it's the people whose job is it to make money. I mean, nobody's making these things for free. Everybody wants to eat, and if you're talking to somebody at a giant game company, their main purpose in life is to monetize something. And that's often not as huge, the interest, when it comes to talking to some of these designers. They're fascinated by the challenge and being really interested and of course they wanna make money, but it's not their sole purpose in life. So there's that kind of disconnect and then also -- I think, to be honest, that's the kind of core of it. In academia, it's about solving interesting problems and learning skills and that kind of approach versus the business side of it, which is programmers or designers are usually not business people. And that's the same case with artists, and it's often a handicap. They come out with these amazing skills but they're completely clueless when it comes to how to make money. I'm certainly guilty of the same thing. [Laughs.] It's a different kind of skill set and -- I don't know. I think it's just a different kind of vantage point. And that's not the case for everything -- there are lots of companies where that's not necessarily only the case. So I'm not gonna make a blanket statement on either.
Oh, no. And I'm not asking you to. I am curious, though, what was it like working with those companies? Was it simply you need to procure copies for installation or what were your interactions centered around?
No, I mean, we asked them some very strange things. When we acquire a videogame, a lot of people don't know, but we actually permanently acquire the thing. So, normally, when you buy a piece of software or something, there's the EULA, the licensing agreement.
But you don't actually own Windows. You don't actually own iOS9 or whatever it is you have on your computer. You have a license for it on your computer.
Oh yeah, that's true. Because when you buy it, it's not really for public consumption.
Yeah. It's just for you to use. And there's always language in those things that says, "If you do this or that, we can take away your license and you can no longer have this." Well, art museums are governed by very specific laws about what can come in and what can come out. So, an EULA doesn't work for us. We can't just go out and buy it and put it on the wall. And also, copyright law changes, the laws regarding digital works are very, very weird and need a lot of work so we wanted, essentially, permanent ownership of these works. So we worked with the companies to make this donation agreement whereby Portal, for example, comes into the collection. Valve gave us Portal. They can never, ever take it away. They can't tell us how to exhibit it. They can't -- essentially it's ours. We can exhibit it however we feel is appropriate for the museum -- I mean, we can't, like, put Portal on a coffee mug or monetize it or anything. There are restrictions, but within the walls of the museum we can exhibit however we choose and it's ours forever and even if Valve merges with Google and buys GM, they can't do anything to us. It's here forever. [Laughs.] It can't go away.
That was important. There were a lot of things we asked for in that agreement. We asked for permanent rights. We asked for the programming source code and all the documentation for that so we can preserve the works, that's another big one that makes a lot of hackles raise at these companies. But we got it from some major companies. Like, Valve? We've got all the stuff for Portal. I mean, it's all here. Actually, Valve was really pleasurable to work with. They were really fantastic.
But some companies -- you know, you're shunted off between lawyers and PR people and you're not actually talking to the creative people. The creative people are all like, "Yeah! This is awesome. Let's do it!" And then they hand you off to the lawyer and you're like, "Oh God, no!" [Laughs.]
But in the end, every single one of them came around.
I mean, what we're asking them is very strange. It's like, "What? What do you mean you want the thing forever?" So once we get past that and explain it, eventually every single one of the companies whose games we acquired was extremely generous and was very, very helpful and we got everything we wanted.
And there's only one exception to all of that, and that's the real tragedy -- my greatest defeat over the last three years was Nintendo. We couldn't get Nintendo. We just couldn't reach the agreement that we needed to.
How does that process differ from your collection in other mediums?
Well, in other mediums you don't have to ask that. If you buy an oil painting, you have the oil painting.
I mean, we ask for the rights to reproduce it.
Yeah, well, but you physically just have the thing.
Yeah, you physically have it. I mean, that's not always the case. There are lots of artists making software-based artworks. But even then, it's a kind of discrete thing. It's not something that's designed to be sold -- I mean, there's a reason why there's an EULA, right? Software is a difficult thing to monetize so they have to create this very extremely intense legal framework in order to make any money off of it. And I completely appreciate that.
But that entire framework is contrary to the idea of anybody actually owning it. And as a nonprofit public institution, we have to -- we're obliged to actually have the thing here. So, it's really something that's an infinite multiple, right? Because videogames they theoretically want to sell infinite copies of them, versus something that's a limited production like an oil painting. Or even art-making. There's still a limited run. If Warhol makes 500 prints, that's still a limited number of 500 prints. The kind of framework of how you take something like that has to be very, very different.
For people inside the industry making games who are reading this and saying, "It's just going to take time for games to catch up to other mediums?," like, they don't want to wait two generations -- how do you suggest that they bridge the gap to popular knowledge and appreciation if they feel like they're starting from nothing or it's nowhere near there yet from an audience perspective?
You mean, they want an audience beyond the existing game audience? They want to engage, like, the fine art audience? In some cases they've gotta actually do that part. And I know game designers that do this already. How many of them actually go to the art museums? How many of them actually go to art shows? There's actually a lot of artists working in software-based works. I mean, in school, right, videogame design is often part of the art school. And yet they're still kind of siloed off in these different corners and the design students aren't going to the art exhibits, even though probably a lot of the artists would love to talk to some videogame designers and get their ideas and work together on things.
So, in some ways, it's up to them to start engaging and being part of that world because I can promise you: By younger practicing artists, they would be welcomed with giant, open arms.
And I think it's also: Keep making great work. They're already doing that. It's going to happen. It will take time, but I think more people will proactively engage with the art world as it currently is. And it may not be what they're familiar with and it may not be the kind of conversation that they're interested in having, but they're not gonna lose anything. I mean, there's some incredible artwork being made. Having talked to a lot of these game programmers, now, they get a lot of out of fine art. They can and look at [Vincent] Van Gogh and go and look at the contemporary art paintings and they're gonna get a lot that can inform what they're doing with games.
I was reading over some of the stories that were written about your exhibit when it was opening up -- and I'm sure you read them too -- and there still seems to be this incredulous tone around videogames and adults playing games in the media. It was in pretty high effect when it came to what you were doing. Why is this tone lingering or the mainstream acting like it's still 25 or 35 years ago around videogames?
Well, the people who are still in control of the levers of cultural power are of the generation where their experience of games is the loud, cacophonous video arcade at the mall where it's just a bunch of bratty kids putting quarters into machines or playing the Super Nintendo at home. So that's still, at least, largely directing the conversation.
There's, of course, dramatic exceptions to that. And also, to be honest, the vast majority of games are crap, right?
We haven't reached the point where there are enough critical mass of really fantastic games to get people to finally be like, "Okay, fine. I get it."
But I think that every year there's more and more great games being made, there's more and more great journalism being done about games. There's more -- I mean, The New York Times has a videogame critic. That would have been unthinkable in the 1980's. Critical acceptance is gonna come. But I think it's gonna take some time and it's gonna take designers sticking to their guns and continuing to make really fantastic stuff.
You had said videogames in an art museum is "the wrong way to do it." [Laughs.] How did you guys get over that and decide to embrace it anyway?
When I say "the wrong way to do it," it's sort of like the "right" way to see a film is in a movie theater, right? And actually at the MoMA film department, we have many movie theaters here. In the museum, they actually still show things on film. ot digital projections, actual film. And MoMA is really dedicated to preserving film as a medium, not just digitizing everything. So, the "right" way to see a film is in a movie theater. The "right" way to play a videogame is you at a computer. This is particularly true of a lot of the games we've acquired like EVE Online or Minecraft or SimCity or The Sims. That's not something you can just sit down and play with in the museum for five seconds. The average time people look at a work of art in a museum is less than five seconds. You go through and you're like bam, bam, bam, look at the painting, look at that painting, look at that painting. And that's not a way you can consume time-based work like video art or film or performance art or videogames.
So, we knew it was going to be challenging to get people to interact and connect with them in the critical way we wanted.
So that was certainly a daunting challenge, but every artwork one acquires presents challenges and difficulties. And videogames just had new challenges that we weren't used to, but that didn't mean we didn't want to try to do it.
Where do you think videogames are artistically, today?
That's a hard one.
Yeah, I know.
It's hard because there's such variation from gargantuan blockbuster enterprises to very small, people sitting in their den, like, Zach and Tarn [Adams, creators of Dwarf Fortress].
The scale between Grand Theft Auto and Zach and Tarn is pretty intense. It's like a comparison of China and some tiny little island in the South Pacific. It's totally different. I think in the conversation, Dwarf Fortress versus Grand Theft Auto -- and there's nothing wrong with Grand Theft Auto. Grand Theft Auto is a fun game, but comparing the two, it's almost surprising that they're both called videogames. [Laughs.] That you can use the same word to describe the two things. And there's many examples of that. Videogames that are very short. Videogames that are really long-- or those where there's no objective or they're really harrowing, like This War of Mine. Comparing that to a first-person shooter from a major studio is hard.
So to say what's the state of videogames? I'm not sure if I can even answer that question. [Laughs.]
I actually sometimes think stuff like that points to they have reached a certain point of maturity where somehow you can call those two totally different things the same name.
Yeah, I guess that's right. I keep referring to the comparison with film, and while I think they are very different at the same time they have a lot of similarities. They often are collaborative enterprises involving a lot of voices. They can range in scale from very, very simple things done by one auteur to a giant team of people and very, very different experiences.
And games often look to movies for a lot of stylistic things or cues. Does that limit games in some way?
Well, I think that's often in a way easier, to look at an earlier artform and kind of crib from that and say, "All right, well, if this art form does this very successfully and that's a very compelling experience, we want to take some of that into our own experience." And that's not to say that that's a bad thing. The arts have been pulling bits from here and there for a very long time.
And there's cinematic aspects to some really compelling games like Journey or This War of Mine or these other ones that I'm thinking of just off the top of my head that have a great cinematic quality to them and that really feeds into some really beautiful stuff about the game. I don't think that's necessarily a problem at all.
Have other mediums or creative mediums done stuff like that in their early days?
Yeah, absolutely. Some of the very first photographs that were done in the 19th century when they were first figuring out the chemistry of the thing, they made still lifes, and they composed these still lifes the exact same way a Dutch painter would have composed a still life in the 17th century: arrange some stuff that looks kind of attractive and pleasing, different forms, different shapes, and make an image of it. So, really, photography starts by cribbing from the language of painting. Film, then, kind of builds on that. Early film is essentially -- especially just those early, silent films -- pulling a lot from live theater.
Because it's like: What are your antecedents?
What are the things that inform the actors, right? Because there was no history of film actors. So it's all these stage actors and they bring that vocabulary of stage to film. And anytime you have that early evolution of something, it takes a while to build its own deep vocabulary. So there's certainly nothing wrong with that. And artists still do that. There's still artists pulling stuff from all kinds of places like that.
What messages do you think your selection of games is sending or saying?
They're pretty disparate, the difference of these games from an insanely complex and almost unfathomable universe created by the people playing EVE Online to an extremely simple game like Canabalt or Tetris, but in all of those cases they are compelling visual experiences, they are compelling behavioral experiences. Tetris spawned a lot of problems with people. People got addicted to it. It actually became this huge phenomenon. It's one of the most successful games of all time. And yet now we're showing people it in a much more controlled manner. They're actually looking at it in this very kind of reductive, stripped down kind of way, and so in all of these, we want people to experience the kind of breadth of the capabilities that these things have for us, whether that's essentially creating an entire new economy and a new world and a new experience for people in EVE Online to something very, very simple like Tetris, which exists on just the plane of the screen and is very reductive.
And yet in some ways, Tetris is just as immersive as EVE Online is, even though they're very, very different. But in all cases, the thing that connects all of these things is how we are interacting with a machine, and then how that machine can then in some cases help us interact with other people the way that massively multiplayer online games can do. So, it's you interacting with a machine, interacting with another person, and the machine becomes this kind of node for that.
But the core message of all of this is how we interact with a machine. How does an organic, biological person interact with a mechanical system? Videogames are a language for doing that. It's an ease of entry into these two very different forms of communication: our human form of communication and the mechanical form of communication.
Games from the greater industry, from the bigger companies, what message do you feel those games are sending or saying?
Well, I mean, those big titles -- as with anything, their job is to make them gobs and gobs of money. Because the bigger and more elaborate you make the game, the more expensive it is to make it.
I mean, they drop hideous amounts of money producing those things. So they need a big return on their investment. And there's certainly nothing wrong with a hugely immersive experience, like on Metal Gear or something that is incredibly rendered and thought out and really, really immersive. In the same way -- hell, I love the big Marvel blockbusters. Those are a lot of fun. I know that there's a lot of cheesy artifice going on. I know that it's all this carefully scripted thing to appeal to my reptilian brain, but that doesn't make it any less fun or any less valid a form of communication or artistic expression.
And I think that's the same case with these big produced games. They may be appealing to very easy instincts in us, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't happen. I wouldn't want to live in a world where every movie that I see is like some harsh Ingmar Bergman thing.
I want my Guardians of the Galaxy, too. I think it's important to have that kind of balance of really serious things that make you think and they're really immersive and also stuff that's much more fun and lighthearted and easy. In a way, that helps you appreciate the hard stuff.
Do you feel like you see much from the bigger company space that is the equivalent to the Ingmar Bergman stuff? Or is it mainly just reptilian brain?
It's kind of mainly reptilian brain, but there are exceptions to that. Nintendo's done some really wacky, weird games in the last decade or two. They're very strange and surprising -- and Sony, too! I mean, Vib-Ribbon is really weird. It is a really weird, strange game. And they produced it. I mean, they got it out [in 1999].
I think they're not as many, because of course their return on their investment is much smaller, but the big companies do make some kind of funky things out there.
You mentioned Nintendo. The 1985 version of Super Mario Bros. What do you feel a game like that that comes out in Japan and then in America -- what does that game say about Japan and its culture and what does that say about American and its culture?
[Laughs.] That's a big one.
Are we gonna get into the possible biological metaphors of Mario going into holes and stomping on goombas and stuff like that? Is that what you're asking?
We can, but I just mean in the simplest sense: What does that game say about each culture?
Well, it certainly does. Essentially, you have to look at Mario Bros. as an evolution of Donkey Kong, right? Because that's where it starts, with Donkey Kong. It's Mario, he's a little plumber, he jumps over those barrels and he has to rescue the princess from the big ape. And you look at that ape and he just screams manga. Or he just screams the kind of manga that was such a huge part of Japanese culture. And Japan has a long history of printed images and that language of imagery from well before the 20th century and that kind of evolution comes right into the games. So, from Donkey Kong, then, you get Mario Bros., which is, again, go rescue the princess, which is very kind of simplistic hero's quest. You can think about the very simple hero's quest as discussed by somebody like Joseph Campbell.
So Mario has to go through this journey and eat these special mushrooms and get these powers and he learns things and you learn skills, so the longer you play, the more skills you learn, and you, the player, as embodied by Mario, on your solo quest get better and better and more skilled at these things. So, you can certainly look at the kind of influence of Japanese art on a platformer game like Mario Bros.
And then in America, it's really the same kind of instinct, the very simple instinct of the hero's quest. If you haven't read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it's a useful one because really, any time you have the hero's quest, you can apply it to so many things. It's a universal instinct to have that's been around for thousands and thousands of years. It's the same thing that's outlined in something like Gilgamesh or Beowulf.
Yeah. Literally before this call I was wrapping up a transcript on another conversation I had for this project, in part about an interviewee's theory about how the very narrow types of stories games tell over and over again, and how in a bigger sense the hero's journey the player goes on as a human, and how games might be impacting people's subconscious.
Well, I think it's a very relevant theory to talk about, actually, because it defines a huge amount of cultural production, the idea of the hero's journey. It informs a huge amount of our mythology in all cultures across the world and it's continuing to. It's essentially part of our -- if you're into [Carl] Jung, it's part of the collective unconscious. It's part of what we do. We can't help but keep having that stuff come out.
What's your feeling on what people say about how gamers are toxic or that some of them are very, very angry and overly protective of the medium. I'm sure you've heard about some of that.
Oh yeah. They are no more toxic than any other males anywhere else. If you take 100 men, there's gonna be at least 20 that are toxic assholes. If you just happen to give those 20 toxic assholes a giant megaphone, they're gonna make a lot of noise. That's just how it goes.
I don't think there's any more of that than there is any other field. These just happen to be very vocal and people continue to listen to them for some reason and to spite the basic rule of the Internet: Don't feed the trolls. But people keep feeding these trolls. I don't know why, but I don't think it's any more endemic to videogames than it is to anything else.
Have you discussed how you will future-proof things with your exhibit, anticipating the rise of location-based or real-world games? Like, how you might integrate some of those into your collection?
Oh God, I don't even want to think about that. [Laughs.]
I know, and I know it's gonna be a really interesting field. I hope I'm not here when that starts happening. [Laughs.] When it's time to bring those in, I hope that's somebody else's problem.
Do you think there's a specific definition of what a game is? Do you concern yourself with criteria like that?
In the same way, if you ask someone to define art, that's really hard to do. It's extremely hard. You can either go huge and write a 20-page paper on it to answer that question or you can just boil it down to "art is creativity." It is making something. So you can be super-reductive or you can be hugely expansive in that, and I think the same thing happens when you say, "What is a game?" You can answer that very, very simply or you can expound on it for forever.
I think that's a less important question to ask than, "Is this compelling?" And whether you call it a game or whether you call it artwork or whether you call it a project or whatever term you want to use: Is this compelling? Is this something that you find interesting? Is it something that is engaging your senses and making us think in a critical manner? Can I step back for a moment and actually look at it in a more critical manner?
Whatever you label it at this point doesn't really matter.
What have videogames accomplished?
I think they have allowed the human species to interact with machines. If you think about the fact that 40-odd years ago, when the first ones were coming out, the vast majority of humans on this planet -- 99.99 percent of them - had never touched a computer. And really, it's almost unthinkable right now to think about human beings not touching computers. We have these computers in our pockets that we walk around with and we interact with constantly.
Videogames allowed that to happen because for the first 20 years of personal computing, you needed a fair amount of expertise and facility with computers to be able to use them. And videogames formed the bridge to get people comfortable with these things, used to interacting with them. And they informed and they helped people understand a graphical interface. Would Xerox PARC have happened if not for the videogames being made beforehand? Would Mac OS have happened if Steve Jobs not been working at Atari before that? I mean, they are the key to helping us interact with machines. It's become a universal thing. All humans are doing it now.
So we went in 40 years from almost no humans knowing how to work with a computer to nearly all humans knowing how to work with a computer and I think that's because of videogames.
Where are they taking us?
[Laughs.] Well, there's better qualified people to answer that one.