Needing Room to Breathe: Moving Forward With Game Exhibitions

The Salon of 1767, Paris, France

The first thing that greets you as you walk into the Game Masters exhibition, which opened this week at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, is not so different from what you’d see walking into your average video arcade in the heyday of quarter-per-play gaming. Maybe a bit cleaner, and there’s some space and expository materials between the lined up arcade cabinets, but the noise, flashing color, and of course, players, are all present. Unlike how games are displayed at the MoMA, their original consoles, art, and context ferreted away so that all that remains is a controller and a screen, Game Masters offers a throwback to the original site and context of these arcade cabinets. The arcade era themed section opens up to a vaguely defined “Game Changers” area, and then a lounge-like area where a variety of indie titles are running on both desktop PCs and iPads.

The striking difference between the first area and the second two is partly due to the attempted scope of the exhibition, to cover videogames, as a new cultural form, from end to end. However, one of the major changes in how we play games is the huge transition from loud, hot and crowded arcade, where people perform and watch as much as they play, to a mostly private experience, at home PCs or consoles. Of course, there are still elements of viewing and performance that persist, in Let’s Plays, online multiplayer, occasionally even in-person multiplayer, but in general, private, focused contemplation is how we engage with videogames today.

The art world has had similar transitions. My first experiences with art galleries were the austere “white cube” spaces of the MoMA and Philadelphia Museum of Art’s contemporary wing, where one painting per wall, or at least, spaced far enough apart that you could clearly gaze at one painting at a time was the norm. The white cube expresses the Modernist belief that singular, engaged contemplation by a single viewer can reveal the truth and value in a piece. A painting or sculpture in the white cube needs room to breathe, in essence, to present itself as itself without interference from nearby works or other elements of the room. These are ideals that ignore the very real contextual details at work in even the most purified “white cube” presentation, but they still guide how much modern and contemporary art is hung, and it was, for a long time, what I was used to. What I thought was a “good hang.”

So I was fairly put off by a display like the one I saw in the Pitti Palace in Florence, for example. Paintings clustered, stacked up the entire wall, totally filling every nook, and what gaps they couldn’t cover had lavishly decorated wallpaper or tiles peeking through. It was chaos! What do I look at first? Why do I have to crane my neck so hard to see some of them? How am I supposed to consider each painting on its own merits? This dense display style was used in several contexts through art history, from personal collections in palaces to the public salon. Not until museums seeking to present an informative history of the development of art came about did presenting the paintings space apart and in a single line, implying narrative, become standard. Linear display is one of the most commonly used techniques for hanging art to this day, since it’s an easy way to establish an order, and guide the viewer around the “story” of the works on display.

While the arcade display does a good job of establishing context for that early era of gaming, the later sections are reminiscent less of how we experience videogames today and instead reminded me more of the sensory overload of a trade show like E3. The indie area is slightly more spacious and well-lit, but the “Game Changers” middle section, with the least specific theme and the bulk of featured games, is a jungle of metal trees with oftentimes multiple screens attached, noise and lights from all the games going at about the same intensity. Expository text and interviews meant to highlight the titular “Masters,” or auteurs of what are, for the most part, mid to large studio games, are unfortunately lost in the shuffle and a coherent narrative or curatorial angle breaks down.

unnamedThere’s practical issues as well. While “over 100 playable titles” is central to how the exhibition is promoted, it just left me feeling overwhelmed. It’s impossible to have a meaningful experience with every game if you stayed at the museum from dawn until dusk, much less the 3 hour time window your ticket gets you. I was personally excited to see the UI of a copy of DosBox I probably wasn’t meant to see, and the way the exhibition is set up, overflowing with choice, means that a visitor is likely to walk away from something as soon as they get stuck, leaving the next person who picks up the controller with the unpleasant situation the last player had gotten themselves into.

While the arcade is an important setting in gaming’s history, and the entertainment expo is an (admittedly unfortunate) reality of its present state, there’s nothing dictating these forms of display have to be replicated or alluded to in the emergent display of videogames in museums to properly contextualize the material. Similar to The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian, there’s an urge, upon being let in to a major institution for the first time, to try and tell the entire story of gaming in one breath. While the first half of that exhibition was criticized for only showing videos, concept art and memorabilia of the games on display, the second half consisted of five playable games with an exhibition style that allowed both individual engagement and group spectatorship. I also felt like I had the time and stamina to engage meaningfully with each game, and “get” what it was about, formally and conceptually.

So maybe more tightly curated, linear displays, similar to what is now standard in modern and contemporary art are what’s needed to create a discourse on exhibited games beyond, “here’s a bunch of games, and they’re pretty good/influential/innovative/lucrative/original/artistic/etc/etc.” In this case, I don’t mean to uncritically celebrate the presumed neutrality and objectivity of white cube style displays. I think showing videogames in this way subverts the expectations of the white cube gallery (of distanced contemplation rather than engagement) and also forces visitors to consider games more closely, when coming across them in an unfamiliar and comparatively sparse environment. Shows that use a dense display style to critically comment on the videogame institutions of the trade show and arcade are doubtlessly possible, but large institutions looking to put on exhibitions introducing videogames in general as worthy of consideration by art and cultural studies need to bring an editor’s sensibilities and theoretical mettle to make meaning of the heaps of evidence.

I realize that up until this point I’ve made Game Masters sound like a drag, when I did enjoy myself. I was introduced to many worthy games, including the aesthetically hypnotic Rez by Tetsuya Mizuguchi. As someone who is generally interested in games for their narrative or conceptual potential, Rez was not a game I would usually see myself playing and writing about. The rhythmic shooting and pulsing colors, along with the aggressively vibey controller were only detracted from by the sound of hard plastic on plastic strikes of a Rock Band kit a few feet away. While it’s good that another major exhibition focused on games has made it into another major institution, after a certain point these exhibitions no longer count as victories in and of themselves, (especially when they begin to function as major visitor/cash draws), and more incisive questions about curatorial choice and exhibition quality must be considered.