Let the (retro) games begin!
If it were a choice between Pac-Man, Pong, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong, which one would win out? Well, at this point in time that’s not of great import, of course, but once upon a time, everyone had a favourite. At present those quirky video games are confined to nostalgia. However, it does all of us good to stop for a second and realise the then and now, if only to marvel at the difference between the extraordinary simplicity of those games of yore, and the visually sophisticated and conceptually innovative ones of today. And we do not feign to suggest that the latter should be deemed superior.
There was once a video game called Pac-Man and many people were fans. Other games of similar appeal were Pong (the perfect bar game in that it required almost no brain function and minimal responses) and Space Invaders (ditto, but more fantasy material). The audio tag on Donkey Kong became the test pattern of certain people’s consciousness and could be terrifying, in that it was implanted below the level of possible eradication. Still, visitors of a certain age are bound to gather at the kiosks of nostalgia in the Museum of Modern Art in New York to watch those Pac-Man critters munch their way through the coloured labyrinth that reminds one of nothing so much as an electrified version of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. Fourteen ‘classic’ video games were acquired by MoMA in 2012 and are now on display in the exhibition Applied Design. The show includes some 100 objects of recent origin, from 3D-printed chairs to a bamboo landmine detonator. This demonstrates curator Paola Antonelli’s usual blend of the ingenious and the occasionally preposterous. It also seems to illustrate the museum’s broad reorientation of ‘design’ away from aesthetics – the idea that good design improves relations with the world by involving a component of beauty – toward other goals, including social transformation and technological innovation. Not that these goals were ever hidden. The Ferrari Formula 1 car once pinned to the museum wall or the Bell helicopter hanging from the ceiling showcased industrial technology as, in its way, western civilisation’s greatest achievement. Yet a residual aesthetic aura clings to objects in the exhibition, notwithstanding Antonelli’s interest in issues such as sustainability and interactivity. MoMA is still MoMA, after all. But it does raise a familiar question, posed in a different way by the photographs of Raphael Dallaporta. Does design really carry moral weight? “Design like you give a damn” is the current injunction to the field, but give a damn about what? Jihad? Border conflicts? Landmines have a significant design component no less than Massoud Hassani’s detonator, which looks like a huge dandelion puffball, or Arthur Brutter’s earthquake-proof table, essential décor for unstable zones from Turkey to Japan. And like weapons of all kinds, landmines too can be aestheticised. You don’t see them on display in the collection, or in the show, in spite of the fact that you can’t get more ‘applied’ when it comes to design than a good explosive device (or, even more beautiful: why not missiles in the sculpture garden or RPGs hanging from the ceiling?).
LIKE LIFE ITSELF
Which brings us to the video games. MoMA has plans to acquire up to 40-or-so in the near future. The acquisition part doesn’t seem so challenging: a rummage through a few closets of 40-somethings would probably do the trick. The question, as always, is: which ones? The initial selection in Applied Design reveals some themes. First and foremost is the expansion of gaming platforms and the games’ increasing visual sophistication, both consequences of developing technology. Pac-Man as an arcade game, SimCity 2000 on the PC, Cannabalt on the Android, and narrative challenge games such as Myst, with their elaborate graphics and enhanced computing power, have made possible the trend toward mobile games and ever more visually (and aurally) dense environments. Shifting from Pac-Man to Resident Evil (not yet in the collection) is like going from a 12th century icon painting to a Caravaggio altar. The other thread has to do with conceptual innovation. FlOw, for example (released in 2006), resembles the film Fantastic Voyage, transforming the player into a biological organism in a largely hostile and evolving microworld, a Darwinian paradigm. Cannabalt (released in 2009) was among the first endless scrolling games, meaning that it has no conclusion or ultimate goal. It finishes only with the ‘death’ of the player-character, an inevitability given the increasing difficulty of avoiding attacks and obstacles. Like life itself, the meaning must be derived from the experience of playing the game: no master signifiers redeem termination. The game has been enormously popular and has spawned a number of spin-offs.
Which brings us back to the landmines. Missing from the game collection (so far) are the heavy duty shooter games, from Call of Duty to Grand Theft Auto, the kind of games that generate not only spin offs but entire media industries – films, television series, even contemporary art projects (check out Joan Pamboukes’s pilfering of backdrops from these games). It is unclear what the acquisition plan is, especially with the backlash against them after the mass killing in Newtown, Connecticut, but such games represent a horizon, not so much in their realism but in their translation of cinematic tropes and viewpoints onto the phone, the tablet, the computer screen, to more fully engage the fantasy player. You might call the visual language gameism, and fans are as demanding of it as readers of an earlier generation were of comic book illustration panels – fully aware of the conventions, hungry to see them ruptured. In a sense, this is the way art has always worked, arising out of and for audiences who know the game and can appreciate (either embracing or resisting) change. Contra Aristotle, it doesn’t make for better people or a better society. But that’s interactivity.‹