THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

Figure 1: The Nimatron at the New York World's Fair, photograph, 1940, © Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

Figure 2: Stills from The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair, directed by Robert Snody, 1939, film, Library of Congress.

Figure 3: Nimrod on display at the  Festival of Britain, photograph, 1951, © Computer History Museum.

 

Display Mode: Exhibiting Video Games as Art, History

by Kelli Wood

 

“Are video games art?” The frequency with which that question has been posed over the past decade belies the wholly unsatisfactory nature of the responses. Although the classification of what we mean by video games has not remained categorically uncomplicated, the crux of the debate has largely lain, instead, with fairly banal epistemologies of art.

At the extremes, art critics have derided video games as lacking the sophistication, depth, or even “soul” of works by such strawmen as Picasso and Van Gogh. Game designers and industry professionals, in turn, have accused such critics of being uninformed outsiders and Luddites unable to appreciate the ways technology has revolutionized art’s expressive potential on a popular level.1 Historians of art are, of course, never to be consulted, as history is positioned as manifestly irrelevant at both nadir and zenith. An art historian might eagerly delight in discussing Plato and old master printmaking jointly in conversation with games. She might point to the fundamentally mimetic quality of games and to the well-worn ground of claims for the revolutionary nature of replicative technology. But such pedantry will be avoided here.

Rather, the tangible answer to two core questions—“What is art, and are video games it?”—is one that has remained the same for nearly a century when it comes to the canonical absorption of new media: when art and design museums display video games, those games unequivocally attain such status. Yet even though the institutional answer to this is question is patently unsatisfying, the conditions and rhetorics of the display of video games in exhibitions and museums have something important to tell us about ingrained understandings of art, science, culture, and industry, as well as those categories’ shifting hierarchies. In short, though exhibitions can only tell us that games are art in the least-interesting ways possible, they can tell us rather a lot about how they are art when encountered in “display mode.”

The 1939 New York World’s Fair displayed the first video game in a major exhibition. Edward Condon, then associate director of research for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation (and later nuclear physicist for the Manhattan Project), designed the Nimatron computer game to entertain the public at the company’s pavilion (Figure 1).2 The Nimatron digital computer competed against a human player at nim, a sorting game wherein player and computer took turns removing virtual tokens from shared piles, which were signified by rows of lightbulbs, with the goal of being the player to remove the final piece. The game joined other installations that emphasized the wonders of Westinghouse’s innovations, which included new, store-ready products, such as their electric dishwasher, along with publicity stunts like Elektro, a life-sized robot. The inventive design of this pavilion created the perfect environment to display commercial products as technological achievements advancing human life.

Promotional materials for the pavilion—including a comedic (but moralizing) hour-long film—depicted the imaginary “Middletons,” the exhibition’s ideal family visitors (Figure 2).3 The plot centers on the romantic exploits of the Middleton daughter, Babs. To the chagrin of the Middletons, she brings along her out-of-touch paramour Nicholas Makaroff, a European-styled, bowtie-wearing, Marxist art professor. In the nick of time, the family’s handsome young friend Jim Treadway, an all-American hero who works for Westinghouse, defeats his foil’s snobbish critiques of the exhibition as a “temple of capitalism” by pointing out how the innovations of Westinghouse’s products will benefit the working man. In the end, the earnest Treadway rescues Bab’s from her misguided and worrisome dalliance in focus from “science to art,” and the film closes with the couple arm-in-arm, admiring the marvels of modern industry and imagining a happy domestic life made possible by Westinghouse.

Art was not just irrelevant—it was, in fact, situated as patently antithetical to the values espoused by the first exhibition that included a video game. The abstract painting Makaroff shows Babs during the film was, in 1939, indexical for anti-capitalist Bolshevism, contributing to a discourse that would pervade subsequent early exhibitions of video games—one that emphasized science and technology’s value for industry.

The Canadian National Exhibition of 1950 featured “Bertie the Brain,” a tic-tac-toe computer game built by Josef Kates to demonstrate a new tube display technology. Across the pond, on the centennial of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Festival of Britain attracted huge crowds eager to experience the progress promised by post-war recovery and national unity. The associated Exhibition of Science in South Kensington invited visitors to “seem to shrink like Alice in Wonderland” as they navigated a path through the atomic structure of matter, slowly enlarging as they returned to the familiar structures of life.4

The path of the Exhibition of Science prepared visitors to confront a final section focused on the latest advances in research “in a more leisurely way.” 5 This included the opportunity to play a game on Nimrod, an “electronic brain” built for the show by Ferranti, who began offering the world’s earliest commercially available computers that very year (Figure 3). Unlike Westinghouse’s earlier Nimatron, which Condon devised specifically for the purpose of entertainment, a pamphlet emphasized the scientific and practical importance of the Nimatron rather than its use for the game:

“It may appear that, in trying to make machines play games, we are wasting our time. This is not true as the theory of games is extremely complex and a machine that can play a complex game can also be programmed to carry out very complex practical problems.” 6

It was precisely the supposed value of this new computer technology for the complex problems of scientific research—and, in particular, research supported by the US’s postwar military-industrial complex—that would foster innovation and dissemination of video games on a popular level.

In 1961, the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) donated a PDP-1 computer to MIT, and that same year, Dan Edwards, Martin Graetz, and Steve Russell used the new technology to create a video game. SPACEWAR simulated galactic combat for players by employing a subroutine enabling the cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor to display pixelated spaceships and stars. By the summer of 1962, SPACEWAR went viral, showing up across the country on any research computer with a CRT—a precursor to the way that video games would dominate the electronics market during the ’70s and ’80s. Fierce competition among companies like Apple, Atari, Intellivision, ColecoVision, Commodore, Nintendo, and Sega fast-tracked the development of processors and graphics in the 8- to 64-bit era.

In 1988, the rapidly growing popularity and increasing visual sophistication of video games caught the eye of Rochelle Slovin, director of the then newly opened American Museum of the Moving Image, and in 1989, she co-curated the first exhibition dedicated entirely to video games, “Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade” (Figure 4). Writing twenty years later, Slovin would describe how a fundamental connection between form and content, circuits and graphic style, inspired the exhibition:

“[T]echnology became both the enabling force and the content of the games. This was a useful orientation for the Museum, because we meant, as I saw it, to show how technology affected the content and technique of the entertainment industry.” 7

In his essay for the opening of “Hot Circuits,” poet Charles Bernstein employed a time-tested conception of Art as divorced from utility in favor of pure aesthetics to describe these games: “Liberated from the restricted economy of purpose or function, they express the inner, nonverbal world of the computer.” 8 Rather than exemplifying a rupture between science and art, video games in “Hot Circuits” supposedly pointed to the artistic value of technology itself.

 

Figure 4: Installation view, "Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade," 1989, © Museum of the Moving Image.

 

For Slovin, interactivity was a key quality that earned games a place as an emerging medium within the worlds of art and design. That very interactivity, however, posed a problem. Video games relied upon rapidly changing technology and were subject to the wear and tear, neglect, and abandonment faced by all such hardware. Upon the exhibition’s opening, The New York Times published, “An Archeological Hunt for ‘Old’ Video Games,” which described the difficulty of finding and maintaining defunct cabinets and consoles. Many video games were already “near extinction,” antiquated consumer goods that found themselves “discarded, abandoned, scrapped, or recycled.” 9

In response, many of today’s museums dedicated to video games take a directly archival and historical approach, falling well within one traditional function of museum as a cultural repository and curators as caretakers (coming from the Latin cūrō, cūrāre). Such institutions include Berlin’s Computerspielemuseum, which opened in 1997, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games®, which opened within the Strong National Museum of Play in 2009, and Rome’s VIGAMUS, which opened in 2012. Even “Game On,” the now world-touring exhibition of video games originally installed at the Barbican Art Gallery in 2002, orients the visitor’s itinerary around the history of technology and cultures of gaming with only passing nods to aesthetics. However, the institutional decision to preserve video games as technology may, strangely enough, be a driving factor in their eventual full inclusion within the rarified realm of art. Recent methodical turns toward material and popular culture within art history and museum studies suggest that, with a bit of historical distance, a Pitfall cartridge manufactured for the Atari 2600 may well find itself installed alongside the Lewis chessmen.

In 2012, the Smithsonian’s provocatively named “The Art of Video Games” seemed poised to finally take a definitive stance on video games’ status as Art. The exhibition used crowdsourcing to select 80 games; computer expert and console collector Chris Melissinos then organized those games around progressive technological developments. Deferring to public judgement, Melissinos wrote, “[V]iewers will be left to determine whether the materials on display are indeed worthy of the title ‘art.’” 10

Dashing art critical hopes, the meaning of “art” in Melissinos’ title proved to be something less than a polemical declaration. Rather than straightforwardly elevating games to the canonical status of contemporary genius reserved for the likes of Kehinde Wiley or Cecily Brown, “The Art of Video Games” articulated a traditional and safer conception of ‘arte’ as a conspicuous and skillful manipulation of a medium or technology, itself a holdover from Renaissance art theory.

 

Figure 5: Installation view, "Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt," Victoria and Albert Museum, 2019, photograph by Kelli Wood.

 

Unlike the Smithsonian’s strategy of crowdsourcing a large number of games, Paola Antonelli initially incorporated 14 carefully selected titles into the Museum of Modern Art’s collection in her role as curator of architecture and design. For Antonelli, video games were clearly art. Yet even still, it was their expressive qualities as design products that most fully situated them within MoMa. “Our criteria,” Antonelli wrote, “emphasize 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 behavior—that pertain to interaction design.” 11

Design similarly took center stage at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2018-19 exhibition “Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt” (Figure 5). The opening section treated eight video games as products of individual workshops and artists, juxtaposing finished games with their process of creation using preparatory drawings and notebooks—a conventional and effective curatorial maneuver similarly employed in recent exhibitions of Michelangelo and Andrea Mantegna. Moreover, by displaying René Magritte’s surrealist Le Blanc Seing (1965) alongside the game scenography it inspired in Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013), “Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt” not only connected video games with their influences from traditional media, but implicitly asserted their parity with capital-A Art.

These major national and international exhibitions were in many ways both a response to and an apotheosis of connected local gamer cultures. Over the past 5 years, Chicago’s vibrant indie gaming scene has fostered exhibitions of games as untidy and fertile assemblages of Art, design, technology, and performance. In 2014, The Video Game Art (VGA) Gallery, now a brick-and-mortar space in Wicker Park, held its first exhibition at Galerie F, featuring playable game stations alongside commissioned fine art prints of video games, a move that fashioned indie games as Art hanging on the white walls of gallery space (Figure 6). The same year saw the inaugural iteration of Bit Bash, Chicago’s indie game festival, which continues to introduce the public to the work of lesser known game studios. Recent events by Bit Bash have not only served as a node of connection between art and industry but have also interrogated how video games are increasingly comfortable (or perhaps equally uncomfortable) being exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry alike.

 

Figure 6: Installation view, The Video Game Art Gallery at Galerie F, Chicago, 2014, © VGA Gallery.

 

Their very institutional situation at the intersections of technology and aesthetics and of industry and design places video games at the fulcrum of art’s ongoing and living history, unimpeded by reductive and outmoded definitions of art employed in conservative criticism. Industry responses that defensively deride the analog history of art as irrelevant to the values that video games bring to a digital future are, then, a telling reminder of the way that both camps have inadvertently fallen victim to the same false dichotomies of art and technology and of culture and industry—dichotomies purposely evoked by the all-American corporate champion Jim Treadway and European Marxist art professor Nicholas Makaroff. The 80-year record of video game exhibitions not only gestures toward the problematic and polemical roots of this divide but also charts the course of curatorial struggles to reconcile this false and motivated binary.

Recognizing the ways in which art and science have been pitted against each other in the very question “Are video games art?” can potentially create space for new, collaborative curatorial strategies as video games continue to find themselves on display mode in exhibitions and museums.

 

Dr. Kelli Wood is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Tennessee and an alumna of the University of Chicago. Her research and teaching situates video games within the history of games and museum studies. Currently she is guest curating a permanent wing of the Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum, A Global History of Sport, forthcoming in anticipation of the 2022 World Cup.

 

1   Jonathan Jones, “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art: Exhibiting Pac-Man and Tetris alongside Picasso and Van Gogh will mean game over for any real understanding of art,” The Guardian, Nov. 30, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2012/nov/30/moma-video-games-art; Keith Stuart, “Are video games art: the debate that shouldn't be,” The Guardian, Dec. 6, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2012/dec/06/video-games-as-art; Chris Melissinos, “Video Games Are One of the Most Important Art Forms in History,” Time magazine, Sept. 22, 2015, https://time.com/collection-post/4038820/chris-melissinos-are-video-games-art/

2  Edward Condon, “Club and Allied Activities: The Nimatron,” The American Mathematical Monthly 49, 5 (1942), 330-33.

The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair, directed by Robert S. Snody, Audio Productions (1939), Library of Congress

4  Jacob Bronowski, Exhibition of science South Kensington : a guide to the story it tells (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1951), 7-38.

5  Ibid.

Faster than thought: The Nimrod Digital Computer (Hollinwood, Lancashire: Ferranti Ltd, 1951), 19.

7  Rochelle Slovin, “Hot Circuits: Reflections on the first museum retrospective of the video arcade game,” Moving Image Source, January 15, 2009, www.movingimagesource.us/articles/hot-circuits-20090115

8  Charles Bernstein, “Play It Again, Pac-Man: An appreciation of the peculiar allure of early video games,” Moving Image Source, January 15, 2009, http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/play-it-again-pac-man-20090115

9  Glenn Collins, “An Archeological Hunt for ‘Old’ Video Games,” The New York Times, June 19, 1989, https://www.nytimes.com/ 1989/06/19/arts/an-archeological-hunt-for-old-video-games.html

10 Chris Melissinos and Patrick O'Rourke, The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect (New York: Welcome Books, 2012), 9.

11 Paola Antonelli, “Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters,” Inside Out, Nov. 29, 2012, https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/11/29/video-games-14-in-the-collection-for-starters/

 

 

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