A focus on the art of video games

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Next month, Mortal Kombat turns 30 years old. Look back at that 1992 arcade game now and it almost seems quaint. 2D cartoon fight, pixelated blood. But what many gamers may not remember, or simply weren’t alive to experience yet, was that Mortal Kombat was the eye in a storm of video game violence. His gut-wrenching blood was the subject of congressional hearings and contributed to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which to this day puts content and age ratings on games. Three decades later, Mortal Kombat is a classic, and discussions of video game violence are often seen as too much hand-wringing.

Paola Antonelli, curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, thinks about this a lot. not particularly about Mortal Kombat, but about violence in art, and what it is for. Antonelli is currently curing Never alone, an exhibition on video games and interactive design opened at the museum this weekend. When he arrived at MoMA 28 years ago, he argued that a Beretta pistol should be part of the design collection. Others at MoMA rejected the idea. Antonelli protested, saying that weapons were represented in all kinds of work, why not have one in the collection? The reasoning was that paintings and sculptures often show representations of weapons; putting one in the museum would be an endorsement of its function. “We apply the same principle to video games,” says Antonelli. “We had a lot of discussions about gratuitous violence versus targeted violence.”

To that end, Never alone does not include assassin’s Creed either Grand Theft Autobut it has this war of mine, a game from the perspective of a civilian trying to survive the conflict. MoMA collections specialist Paul Galloway describes it as “an incredibly violent game,” but that’s not the point. “Some of the most interesting games deal with violence in a way that really moves us forward,” he says.

Antonelli and Galloway see video games as cultural artifacts worthy of discussion. People have been discussing them for a long time, but the exhibit, which runs until next spring, is aimed at giving games a more prominent artistic platform. It’s not just about making graphics or storytelling for games worthwhile, but about showing that the way people interact with them isn’t that different from the way they interact with art.

This is true right down to the title of the exhibit: Never alone. Derived from the game of the same name, which is part of MoMA’s permanent collection, like everything else on display, it’s a testament to the fact that while people want to paint gamers as loners gunning down their basements, video games can be a community. -building. This has only become more true in the age of Twitch. Last week, as I walked through the MoMA exhibit while it was still under construction, it was easy to see evidence of this. There are games—pac-man, space invaders-on display. But also the many interactive design tools, like a first-generation iPod and Susan Kare’s icon sketchbook for the original Apple Macintosh. The point, Antonelli tells me, is to show that, with games, art is made when a player interacts with a designer’s work. Each turn is unique.

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