December 3, 2020
By Monica Marchese
Intersections between video games and museums have become more widespread in the past five years. From video games displayed in museums to museums embedded in video games, these intersections all center on the goal of making art more inclusive and accessible. One of the main sticking points for traditional art historians and critics, however, remains the belief that video games are not a valid artistic medium.
Instances of video games entering the museum space have become more commonplace over the past several years. In 2012 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) added 14 video games to its collection, in the department of Architecture and Design. Around the same time, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) hosted an exhibition centered on the evolution of the medium of video games, framing the genre as art.
Film critic Roger Ebert famously maintained that video games are not art. He held this stance staunchly until his death in 2013, claiming that “no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”
However, these initiatives from MoMA and SAAM showcase the fact that video games are now entering into the art world and that they do, in fact, have artistic merit. In the case of MoMA, the museum hopes to acquire nearly 40 video games over a period of several years, creating a whole new category of art in its collection. MoMA addresses the question of “are video games considered art?” with a resounding yes:
“Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity.”
MoMA used a few key criteria to decide which games to collect, including visual quality and aesthetic experience, quality of the code, and design of player’s behavior. MoMA consulted with countless scholars, historians, and digital conservationists in order to decide which games, and which exact aspects of those games, to acquire. In the end, the team settled on acquiring copies of the games’ original software format (e.g., cartridges or discs), those formats’ hardware (e.g., consoles or computers), and original source code when possible. The latter ensures that the code could be translated in the future, should the original game technology become obsolete. As with most museum acquisitions, deciding which paraphernalia to collect accompanying each game—from designer interviews and notes to video demos—is handled on a case-by-case basis. The same care and planning used to acquire traditional works of fine art was used to acquire these video games. The collected works were on view in the MoMA’s Applied Design exhibition from March 2013 to January 2014.
SAAM’s blockbuster exhibition The Art of Video Games featured a total of eighty games, presented through still images, video footage, interviews with developers and artists, and objects such as historic game consoles. One of the first major exhibitions to explore video games as art, The Art of Video Games aimed to celebrate the evolution of the medium, focusing on “striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies.” A committee of game developers, designers, industry innovators, and curator of the exhibition Chris Melissinos selected 240 games, which were then voted on by the public. Over 3.7 million votes were cast to decide which eighty games would be showcased in the exhibition. The criteria used to select the initial 240 games included quality of visual effects, innovative use of new technologies, and how well the game fit into the narrative of the exhibition. The attention given to video games by these world-renowned museums proves that scholars, curators, and historians are all in agreement that these games have become a veritable art form.
There is no better example of museums entering the gaming space than the recent Animal Crossing phenomenon that has swept through the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Searching for an escape from the devastation of real life—and the lack of physical museum spaces to visit—players can virtually visit a museum in this game. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a video game predicated on establishing one’s own private island village, generates a museum on each player’s island. While the only real objective of the game is to get out of debt to the tycoon raccoon, Tom Nook, while building up the infrastructure of your island village, a side-task for players is to collect specimens for the museum. The museum initially featured a collection of insects, aquatic animals, and fossils, but in a later update, was expanded to include artworks as well.
Using QR codes, players create customized clothing and decorations for their islands. One of the most innovative things that came out of this integration of museums and the video games is the use of real-world museum collections in the game. Both the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened their collections for searching and sharing, providing QR codes for images to be uploaded into the game. Using this technology, players upload pixelated versions of famous works of art to display in their avatar’s homes, on their clothes, and in their virtual town’s museum. While perhaps silly and just barely educational, this innovative intersection seemed to scratch the museum itch for a lot of people over the pandemic-imposed quarantine.
There has been a consistent dialogue between museums and video games over the past several years and, despite Ebert’s criticism, there can be no doubt that video games should now be considered an art form. Just as artistic mediums and styles have evolved over millennia, it would be short-sighted to count video games out as a medium, just as they are beginning to hit their stride (the first video game, Tennis for Two, was in fact invented in 1958 by physicist William Higinbotham and “rediscovered” in the mid-1970s; relatively speaking, video games are in their infancy). With virtual reality and augmented reality technology improving each year, it will be exciting to see where this new relationship takes the museum field.
 Rose Eveleth, “Video Games Are Officially Art, According to the MoMA,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 3, 2012, https://bit.ly/32yugcg.
 Roger Ebert, “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” RogerEbert.com, April 16, 2020, https://www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/video-games-can-never-be-art.
 Paola Antonelli, “Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters,” Museum of Modern Art: Inside / Out, November 29, 2012, https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/11/29/video-games-14-in-the-collection-for-starters/.
 Antonelli, “Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters.”
 Applied Design, Museum of Modern Art, https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1328?locale=en.
 “The Art of Video Games,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/games.
 “Own a Van Gogh … in Animal Crossing, with The Met’s New Share Tool,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Blog, April 27, 2020, https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/collection-insights/2020/animal-crossing-new-horizons-qr-code.
 “The First Video Game?” Brookhaven National Laboratory, https://www.bnl.gov/about/history/firstvideo.php.
Chang-Yi Zawacki, Selina, and Sarah Waldorf. “How to Build an Art Museum in Animal Crossing.” Getty Iris Blog (blog), April 16, 2020. https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/how-to-build-an-art-museum-in-animal-crossing/.
Monica Marchese is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She expects to receive an M.A. in Museum Studies from New York University in May 2021.