Video games in an art gallery? MoMA allows Pac-Man into its hallowed halls

The New York gallery has started a new collection that will ignite the debate as to whether computer games can be called 'art'

Nick Clark
Friday 30 November 2012 20:33 GMT

Visitors to the Museum of Modern Art will soon see Pac-Man displayed alongside Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as New York’s premier modern art gallery has officially decided video games can be called art.

The debate has raged over the last decade over whether games can be described as art, and MoMA has sided with the developers after buying in 14 video games, including the iconic Pac-Man, to start off a new category in its collection. One expert who advised the curators, said gaming could increasingly become “one of the most important” art forms.

The museum sought out scholars, historians, critics and legal experts from the computer game world to draw up a list that includes The Sims, a series which by last year had sold over 150 million copies, Another World and Portal. Art connoisseurs may raise an eyebrow as gamers will actually be able to play the titles in the gallery.

Paola Antonelli, senior curator in MoMA’s department of architecture and design, said there was a 40-strong “wish list” of games to bring into the collection. The initial 14 will be installed in its Philip Johnson Galleries from March.

She said: “Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe.”

MoMA’s wish list includes classic games from Asteroids and Donkey Kong to Pong as well as Snake which was popularised by the Nokia mobile phone.

It is not the first venerable institution to back video games after the Smithsonian American Art Museum this year had a major exhibition called The Art of Video Games, charting the evolution of the medium. Alongside Pac-Man games including Earthworm Jim and Final Fantasy VII made the exhibition.

Chris Melissinos, guest curator of the Smithsonian exhibition who also advised MoMA, said: “This decision indicates that video games have become an important cultural, artistic form of expression in society. It could become one of the most important forms of artistic expression.”

He continued: “People who apply themselves to the craft view themselves as artist, because they absolutely are. This is an amalgam of many traditional forms of art.”

The debate has proved controversial with heavyweight film critic Roger Ebert saying in 2005 that he was not aware of anyone who could name a game “worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.”

The argument that video games could be art was boosted in the US last year when the Supreme Court ruled they were like other works of art and their right to free speech should be protected under the First Amendment.

Dan Hewitt, a spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association, said that MoMA’s news was “the latest in a series of validations from the high art community acknowledging that video games stand next to the best in art and are taking their place.

“The shift has been gradual over the past 10 years, but those taking positions of influence now are those who grew up with video games,” he added.

MoMA looked at the “historical and cultural relevance, aesthetic expression, functional and structural soundness, innovative approaches to technology and behaviour, and a successful synthesis of materials and techniques,” Ms Antonelli said.

Additions to the collection will be Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Street Fighter II. The most recent title is hoped to be last year’s Minecraft.

The gallery’s wanted to emphasise visual quality, the “aesthetic experience” as well as “the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behaviour,” Ms Antonelli said.

The museum’s digital conservation team is now trying to secure copies of the games in the original format, whether it’s a floppy disk or a cartridge, and the original consoles or computers they were played on.

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