This week, video games got some love when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced they are acquiring more than a dozen games and putting them on display in the museum next spring. MoMA follows a major exhibit this past summer at the Smithsonian in DC and other NYC based museums this coming winter to put games and their developers in their galleries.
I will confess: I am not a gamer. I started a gaming website back when I was running the editorial operations for Tom’s Hardware in 2006. At the time I worked with a number of gaming journalists and met and interviewed many gamers, including some that made a very nice living from their gaming activities. But I think it is great that games are going into our top museums, for one very important reason: we need them to be preserved and to be played for years to come.
I can’t believe that it has been nearly 20 years when I spent several weeks of my life playing the game Myst. I tried in vain to figure out all of its clever puzzles and pathways. Myst was a big hit back in the day: it sold millions of copies and it raised the bar from crude graphics and beeping computer generated noises that were found in many of the early games. I got out my software and took it for a spin last week, and it was interesting to see how its graphics were not anything like today’s games, but the included audio was still superb. Indeed, I left the sounds of the ocean lapping up against the rocky island playing while I was working, and it was very soothing.
Playing Myst is a good metaphor for many subsequent games: Myst starts out a total puzzle, and as you gain skills and understand the sequence of play involved, you get drawn into the universe of the game and lose track of real life and elapsed time. There have been many such games since then, all building on top of more capable graphics and processor hardware to create some very life-like universes.
I stopped being interested in Myst once my frustrations mounted. I bought the cheater book and worked my way through to the end of the game. But it left an impression in me and I always thought of games as being basically good, even those first-person-shooters that leave plenty of carnage in their wake.
Are video games worthy of being in a museum? Definitely yes. Here is why. While trying to figure out which computer I was going to reinstall Myst on, I came across all sorts of limitations. Myst doesn’t run on any modern Mac processor, and I eventually went to a machine running Windows XP with a five year-old graphics card that worked just fine. But many games are more archaic and need specialized hardware or emulators to run on modern PCs.
This is where museums can make a difference. Many games are tied up in a complex web of IP rights and legal restrictions that prevent anyone from easily obtaining their source code, or recompiling them to run in the cloud or on another platform than they were originally written for. Or they include likenesses of individuals who either don’t want them used.
Preserving a game isn’t as easy as just buying an old Nintendo and bolting it to a pedestal in some gallery. As MoMA explains, apart from the actual game software, hardware and source code:
“Many companies may already have emulations or other digital assets for both display and archival purposes, which we should also acquire. In addition, we request any corroborating technical documentation, and possibly an annotated report of the code by the original designer or programmer.” MoMA will also put together a video demo or some other interactive demonstration, in which the game can be played for a limited amount of time to give visitors a better idea of the game without having to start from level 1.
For some of the virtual immersive worlds, MoMA will “work with players and designers to create guided tours of these alternate worlds, so the visitor can begin to appreciate the extent and possibilities of the complex gameplay.”
A few years ago, the film critic Roger Ebert stated that games weren’t art and created an online fracas. He as since recanted, or at least moved back somewhat from his original position. But whether you feel that games are art, or design, or just a evil of today’s society, they do deserve to be preserved for future generations. And I am glad that my eventual grandchildren (no, none yet on the horizon) will be able to witness the wonder that is Myst many years from now, even if it means a trip to a museum.