Interview with Kate Carmody on the Museum of Modern Art and Games as Curated Objects

Video games, designed for play in the home or in arcades (does anyone still remember arcades?) are appearing more and more often in museums (re: Spacewar! at the Museum of the Moving Image: The Challenge of Bringing Games Into Museums). In the past few months, the Museum of Modern Art took major steps forward in bringing games into their collections.

According to a blog post by Paola Antonelli in MoMA’s Architecture and Design Department, they are “collecting a selection of video games as outstanding examples of Interaction Design, a design field that is already represented in the Collection and that is one of the most important and discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. We have developed a curatorial approach and sought the advice of several game and digital conservation experts, historians, and critics, who helped us refine not only the criteria and a wish list of about forty works, but also the issues of acquisition, display, and conservation of digital artifacts that are made more complex by the games’ interactive nature.”

MoMA’s A&D Department frames the inclusion of video games not only as art, artifact, and educational tool but most importantly interaction design: “since our first acquisition of John Maeda’s 1994-2006 Reactive Books, the Department of Architecture and Design has actively researched, exhibited, and collected outstanding examples of interaction design at all scales, from the computer screen to the spatial installation.As for all other categories of objects in MoMA’s design collection–from posters to chairs and from emergency rafts to fonts–the curators look for a unique combination of historical and cultural relevance, aesthetics, functional and structural soundness, innovative ideas in technology and behavior, and a successful synthesis of materials and techniques in achieving the goal set by the initial program. This is true for a stool and a car as it is for an interface or a video game: the programming language takes the place of the wood or plastic, and the quality of the interaction translates in the virtual world the synthesis of form and function in the physical one. Because the standards are so high, the selection of video games we have chosen is very tight and might not feature some immensely popular video games that do not satisfy the criteria.”

Today we will be speaking with Kate Carmody from MoMA. Kate holds a MA in the History of Design and Decorative Arts. Currently a Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA, she has worked on several exhibitions including Talk to Me: The Communication between People and Objects and Born out of Necessity with Senior Curator Paola Antonelli.

Barry: Hi Kate. Welcome to Mooshme. Most of us, even those who play games, lack a language for describing them. What criteria did you use to make your decisions and how did you come up with them?

Kate: As Paola mentioned in her blog post, here are some interaction design aspects that we have privileged in our research on video games–with an indication of some games that best express them.

Behavior–behavior is central to the idea of interaction design, and to all video games. The scenarios, rules, stimuli, incentives, and narratives envisioned by the designers come alive in the behaviors they induce, encourage, and elicit from the players. A well-designed behavior, whether individual or social, is instinctively recognizable because of our experience with social mores. It can be scrutinized according to psychological and even moral criteria, and can be tested also in terms of emotional engagement. A purposefully designed video game can be used to train and educate, or to question the way things are and envision how they might be (SimCity and The Sims are a good example). An integral part of behavioral design in video games are the game controllers, which in some cases (i.e. Marble Madness) provide an uncanny level of tactility.

Aesthetics–visual intention is an important consideration when it comes to the selection of design for an art museum collection. As in other forms of design, also in interaction design, the idea of visual elegance finds many different formal manifestations that vary according to the technology available. The dry and pixilated elegance of early games like M.U.L.E. and Tempest can thus be compared to the fluid seamlessness of flOw and Vib-Ribbon. Just like in the real world, particularly inventive and innovative designers use technology’s limitations to give identity to the game (for instance in Yars’ Revenge).

Yar’s Revenge

Space–in an interesting parallel with the physical world, the space in which the game exists–built with code rather than with brick and mortar or glass and steel– is an architecture that is planned, designed, and constructed according to a precise program, sometimes pushing technology to its limits in order to create brand new degrees of expressive and spatial freedom. As in reality, space can be occupied individually or in groups. Differently from the physical world, however, video games can defy spatial logic and gravity (i.e. Portal) and provide untested experiences such as teleportation and ubiquity.

Time–the designer’s choices in the temporal dimension, how long the player interacts with the game over time are essential design characteristics: is it a quick 5 minute game like Passage? Or is it a years-long development in real time, as in Dwarf Fortress? Does it exist in its own time, like Animal Crossing? Interaction design is quintessentially dynamic and the way in which time is expressed and incorporated into the game–through linear or multi-level progressions, with obstacles and rewards or none of the above, the experience being wasting time­–is an act of design.

Barry: What did MoMA see in how visitors to Talk To Me interacted with the games? And how have people responded to the announcement of the game acquisition (beyond those who complain that their favorite was left out)?

Kate: To tell the truth, in Talk to Me, we really only had one true playable video game, Jason Rohrer’s Passage. The other interactive pieces were websites and apps. Passage was very well received, and was really appropriate for a gallery setting because of the limited amount of time it take to play (the entire narrative of the game is achievable in about 5 minutes).

Jason Rohrer’s Passage

Of course, there are a few disappointed fans!  But overall, the reaction has been great and very supportive. We are quite proud of the list–I really like it when people bring up both obscure or very popular games to see if we considered them, and I can say with confidence why we chose to include them or have a resolute reason why we didn’t.

Barry: Most video games are designed to craft an experience based on a presumed relationship between the player(s), the game, and the space around them. How does the space of the museum affect that experience – since, for example, Talking Carl was designed to sit in your hand, not be projected on a wall – and how did you account for it in the exhibit design?

Kate: That is a really good question.  We used an iPad for input, so the gesture of interacting with him stayed the same on the touch screen surface of the iPad, but were able to project him really large with the help of the designer.  It ended up working really well–the familiarity of the visitors with the iPad format automatically invited participation. Working with games, hardware and software from different time periods will change this automatic tendency (the iPad is so ubiquitous and the format is still evolving, so visitors are in tune with that and respond accordingly).

As a department we have come up with the following installation plan: “We hope  to be as accurate and as faithful as possible to the originals, but have decided curatorially that in order to reduce the visual white noise and to make sure the public can focus on the interaction design aspects without being distracted by the hardware, we will present each game on a screen divorced from the nostalgia-inducing arcade cabinet, television, home console, or computer. Only the screen (in proportion with the original experience) and the controller with be present in the galleries.”

As we mention above, if the duration of the game is short enough, the game itself will be made playable in its entirety. For instance, visitors could play the game Passage in its entirety in the Talk to Me exhibition because it only takes five minutes to play, and the narrative and message of the game require the player to engage with it for the full time.

Dwarf Fortress

We have decided that “for games that take longer to play, but still require interaction for full appreciation, an interactive demonstration, in which the game can be played for a limited amount of time, will be the answer. Along with programmers and designers we will devise a way to play the game for about five minutes and enable visitors to experience the game firsthand, without frustrations. With older games, the original cartridges may be too fragile or hard to find so instead we will present an emulation, in which a programmer will translate the original code, which was designed for a specific platform, into new code that will create the same effect on a newer computer. It is comparable to being able to watch the same movie on film, VHS or DVD—all different platforms, but the data, what you see and experience, is the same. Finally, some of the games on our recent acquisitions list (for instance Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online) take years and millions of people to manifest themselves fully. To get this full scale experience across in the galleries, we will work with players and designers to create a guided tour of these alternate worlds—so the visitor can fully understand the extent and possibilities of the complex gameplay.”

Barry: So what’s next and how will it build on what you have now learned?

Kate: Well, we plan to install the games, along with other new acquisitions in the contemporary design permanent collection galleries beginning in March!  We will see how it goes, and are really excited for this new step in our collection to take shape in the museum space.  We also hope to continue on down our wish list and acquire more games beginning in the spring.

Barry: Thank you for your time today. But before I let you go, what’s the last game you played (be honest)?

Kate: Tetris! Every night on the train ride home…

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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