Brow Beat

Are Video Games Art? MoMA Says Yes.

A screenshot from the 2000 video game The Sims, already acquired by the MoMA for exhibition

Are video games art? For every well-argued dismissal (Roger Ebert’s controversial piece “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” for instance), devotees mount an equally cogent defense (sometimes in persuasive video form).

This morning, the Museum of Modern Art took a definitive stance: In a post for MoMA’s Inside/Out blog, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design Paola Antonelli proclaimed, “Are video games art? They sure are.” Antonelli announced that MoMA has acquired 14 video games for exhibition in the museum’s Philip Johnson Galleries as part of its Architecture and Design Collection beginning March 2013, with plans to expand the collection to include 40 more games in the near future.

In an effort to promote the value of the video game’s interactive design—“from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior”—the new MoMA collection is taking video game exhibition to a new level, so to speak. While video game exhibits have become a trend in storied museums, the novelty of the content often overshadows curatorial insight. In a review of the Smithsonian’s survey gaming exhibit this past fall, the New York Times noted that its organizers appeared “acutely aware that the big deal with ‘The Art of Video Games’ was merely having a video game exhibition at the Smithsonian at all.” This all seems a bit elementary for an interactive platform that is already considered art by the United States Supreme Court.

How will the video games, which necessitate personal human interaction to be fully experienced, be exhibited for the masses? MoMA says that visitors will be able to play the entirety of short games and experience “interactive demonstrations” or emulations of longer and older games. As for the complex universes of games like Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online, MoMA claims it will provide “guided tours of these alternate worlds.”

If video games are art, what kind of art are they, exactly? By including the games in its Architecture and Design collection (which, it should be noted, also includes some works in film and book form) the MoMA acquisition places the “art” of video games in their architecture—that is, in the code crafted by designers and programmers. This is a different take than argued for by, for instance, Tom Bissell, in his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, which largely focused on their storytelling. A video game “looks nice,” Kate Carmody, a curatorial assistant at MoMA told Slate, but “there’s always the function, how that function elicits behavior,” adding that the narrative of a game only “plays into that grander design” of guiding the player’s behavior. The museum is currently seeking annotations on code by game designers, much as it would the scribblings and musings of artists. “The programming language takes the place of the wood or plastics,” Antonelli writes on the MoMA blog, comparing the design of a video game to that of “a stool or a helicopter.” As with those older technologies, Antonelli sees in video games a “synthesis of form and function.”

The games MoMA has acquired so far are: Pac-Man (1980), Tetris (1984), Another World (1991), Myst (1993), SimCity 2000 (1994), vib-ribbon (1999), The Sims (2000), Katamari Damacy (2004), EVE Online (2003), Dwarf Fortress (2006),  Portal (2007),  flOw (2006), Passage (2008), and Canabalt (2009). The short list is sure to spark fiery debate—just look at the comments section beneath TIME’s 100 All-Time Video Games. (As already noted, the largest omission from the current catalog is Nintendo games. Carmody told us that they “haven’t started talking to Nintendo yet,” and that acquiring their games would require “complex negotiations.”) But the museum has a longer list of titles it hopes to acquire in upcoming years—from Spacewar! (1962) to Minecraft (2011). Legal and display considerations may hinder fan favorites from making it to the galleries, though: As with their film collection, MoMA aims to obtain the games in their original format—as well as acquiring the source code.

How exactly this ambitious attempt to bring the gaming experience to a gallery will play out remains to be seen. But the new collection should appeal to both video game nostalgists and more up-to-date fans. And we’re just happy that MoMA’s curation and research team appreciates the timeless narrative of Passage just as much as we do.