Video games struggle to be taken as seriously as films or paintings or books or other pieces of culturally accepted works of art. Yeah, thanks Duke Nukem. But there are signs of change; today, New York's prestigious Museum of Modern Art announced the beginnings of a considerable video game exhibition.
A fledgling list of 14 games will be exhibited (in varying ways depending on game content) in the museum's Phillip Johnson's Galleries from March 2013. But MOMA has plans for that number to grow to 40, all things permitting.
Among the initial list are surprising (to me, at least) entries such as Eve Online, Dwarf Fortress and Portal. Katamari Damacy's in there and so are indie darlings Canabalt (one of our games of 2009) and Passage (the game made by The Castle Doctrine's Jason Rohrer). The usual suspects Pac-Man and Tetris are in there n' all.
Over time, MOMA plans to expand this list with stuff like Street Fighter 2, Tim Schafer's Day of the Dead-inspired point-and-click Grim Fandago and indie darling-turned-inspirational world beater Minecraft.
"Are video games art? They sure are," wrote Paola Antonelli, senior curator for MOMA's Department of Architecture and Design.
"But they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design ... that pertain to interaction design.
"As with all other design objects in MOMA's collection, from posters to chairs to cars to fonts, curators seek a combination of historical and cultural relevance, aesthetic expression, functional and structural soundness, innovative approaches to technology and behaviour, and a successful synthesis of materials and techniques in achieving the goal set by the initial program.
"This is as true for a stool or a helicopter as it is for an interface or a video game, in which the programming language takes the place of the wood or plastics, and the quality of the interaction translates in the digital world what the synthesis of form and function represent in the physical one."
That latter reason is why some of the more popular "no-brainer" video games are excluded from the collection, apparently.
MOMA appraises video games on "not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects, from the elegance of the code to the design of the player's behaviour".
MOMA is at pains to obtain both original incarnations of software and associated hardware as well as emulations (future translations). MOMA also wants to talk to the original programmers and have them retroactively annotate their code for posterity. "MOMA's General Counsel is in deep negotiations with the publishers [to make all of this happen]," Antonelli added.
As hinted at before, games will be displayed in different ways depending on content. Shorter games may be entirely playable; longer games given a bespoke playable demo. Even-bigger-still games may be best presented with a video, whereas experiences like Dwarf Fortress and Eve Online may need players and designers to collaborate to create guided tours of their worlds.
All in all, this is no gimmicky lip service to the colossal video game market. MOMA's genuinely making an effort, applying the same rigorous criteria use for other more established types of museum content. Video games are being treated like art.