Feb 25, 2013

Attracting an Audience: Video Games at the Museum of the Moving Image

The most interesting takeaway from the exhibition Spacewar! Video Games Blast Off, on view at the Museum of the Moving Image until March 3rd, was not only the audience the exhibition attracted, but also how they moved through a space surrounded by moving images. These images came in various sizes from wall length projections to arcade cabinets to entirely intimate, handheld devices.

Although it was expected, the most notable groups were families with children. The kids who grew up in the days of early video games are now adults with kids of their own and many of the early games were recognizable to them. Today’s kids would be more familiar with the new console systems or iPad games available in the exhibition. It was interesting to see this interplay between parent and child, the back and forth of one teaching the other. The power of personal experiences and nostalgia in the audience is evident in this exhibition.

The interior architecture is determined by the layout of the games. The arcade games create a physical barrier, blocking the players and audience from the activity behind the machines. The projections on the walls create a social barrier: unless there is no other way around, it is considered improper to consciously walk in front of a projection. Writing for the New York Times, reviewer Chris Suellentrop uses the phrase “electronic cave paintings.” Although he was speaking of only the arcade cabinets, his description is more apt when applied to the projections and the exhibition as a whole. Overall, the space is chasmal and dimly lit, reminiscent of the household basement or a dark den. The majority of the lighting comes from the projections or screens, creating several dark corners.

Handheld vs. Projection
Osmos (2009) for iPad vs. Star Fox (1993) for Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Wall of arcade games

The exhibition relies heavily on nostalgia and this can have both a positive and negative impact. While cultural memory of a game or of playing the games helps keep the games alive and recognizable in the museum context, there is also the argument that relying on nostalgia devalues the games as works of art. But to answer the question of whether or not video games belong in a museum, the answer is yes: they belong in a museum as much as any other object recognized for its cultural, artistic, or historical significance. 

Kristin MacDonough
February 25, 2013

Referenced: Article from Chris Suellentrop, New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/arts/video-games/spacewar-video-games-at-museum-of-the-moving-image.html?_r=1&

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