Is Pac-Man the same as a Picasso? N.Y. museum revives debate over whether video games are art

·National Correspondent

NEW YORK—The hallways of the Museum of Modern Art have always been packed with visitors looking to catch a glimpse of some of the most famous artwork in the world.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is on display here, as are Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” and Monet’s “Water Lilies”—three celebrated images that have been replicated in countless prints and on postcards worldwide.

And just steps away, beginning next March, patrons will be able to observe the museum’s latest high-profile acquisitions—ones that they may have even owned. Last month, MoMa announced it would add 14 video games to its collection as part of a new design category that will display in the museum’s Philip Johnson Galleries.

The titles—including “Pac-Man,” “Tetris” and “SimCity 2000”—mark the first of what museum officials say will be a collection of about 40 video games. Other games MoMa is hoping to acquire in coming years: “Super Mario Bros,” “The Legend of Zelda” and “Space Invaders.”

The acquisition revives a long-simmering debate among critics, art aficionados and gamers: Is a video game really in the same category as a Picasso?

“Are video games art? They sure are,” Paola Antonelli, a senior curator in MoMa’s department of architecture and design, wrote in a somewhat defensive post on the museum’s website. She explained that while the museum considers the games art, they were being added to the collection on the basis of design.

“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,” Antonelli wrote.

The games, Antonelli said, would be picked with the same criteria the museum uses for any other art, including “historical and cultural relevance, aesthetic expression, functional and structural soundness, innovative approaches to technology and behavior, and a successful synthesis of materials and techniques.”

Video games are probably not the most unusual addition to the galleries at MoMa, which has previously displayed Tupperware and a Dyson vacuum cleaner as part of its design collection. But it has renewed the contentious video games as art debate.

Film critic Roger Ebert famously said they shouldn’t be—a stance he has declined to defend even in the aftermath of MoMa’s decision to add games to its collection.

“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,” Ebert wrote in 2010. Asked in an email if he feels the same way today, the critic did not respond.

But other art critics have publicly voiced their opinions. In a piece that was widely circulated on art blogs, Jonathan Jones, a critic at the Guardian newspaper in London, trashed MoMa’s decision to add video games to its collection, arguing that it was dumbing down the definition of what art is.

“A work of art is one person's reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition,” Jones wrote. “Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination. The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a program. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one ‘owns’ the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.”

But John Maeda, a digital artist who is president of the Rhode Island School of Design, accused Jones of missing the point in an opinion piece published on Wired. He argued that games are an act of imagination because game designers have to plot out ways for players to take their minds on “journeys.”

“As a genre, videogames take our minds on journeys, and we can control and experience them much more interactively than passively—especially when they are well designed,” wrote Maeda, whose art is also a part of MoMa’s collection. “So the creators of a game haven’t ‘ceded the responsibility’ of their personal visions; rather, they allow a space for users to construct their own personal experiences, or ask questions as art does.”

The biggest debate, Maeda argued, should be over whether MoMa is picking the right games to add to its collection.

But the biggest drama for MoMa may not be complaints among art critics, but rather what its own financial supporters think. While the museum’s underwriters do not play a formal role in what MoMa acquires for its collection, the museum is reliant on its donors to help fund its collection and exhibitions.

Margaret Doyle, a spokeswoman for MoMa, told Yahoo News she was unaware of any “negative reaction” among the museum’s financial supporters. And she pointed to the comments on Antonelli’s post announcing the acquisition, which mainly debated the merits of the museum’s initial picks.

But in an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy” blog, Antonelli acknowledged there had been some mixed reactions—though she insisted it was mostly positive.

“There are people who don’t understand this at all,” she said. “And other people, instead, don’t have any problem with it.”

Looking toward the future, Antonelli said this was “just the beginning” when it comes to games being acquired as pieces of art.

“I’d just like to break the ice and start collecting this type of artifacts so that in the future, we will feel more comfortable about acquiring digital objects,” she said.