The long-running debate over whether video games constitute art may finally be moot — at least as far as the Smithsonian American Art Museum is concerned. Last week, SAAM acquired two video games, Halo 2600 and Flower, for its permanent collection.
The acquisitions follow the museum's The Art of Video Games exhibit, which opened in Washington, D.C., last year and is now on a tour of several U.S. cities. (You can read more about why the museum chose these particular games here.)
But adding video games to a museum collection isn't just a matter of storing cartridges in a humidity-controlled vault. It means keeping a game in working order for researchers and the public to study and enjoy in perpetuity.
Level 1: Hardware and software
Video games, like other digital media, present a host of challenges for preservationists. The hardware and software used to run and play any particular game eventually becomes obsolete or breaks. Storage media like DVDs, flash drives or hard drives can become corrupted over time, too.
"There's the hardware and the software — the console and the code of the game," says Michael Mansfield, SAAM's curator of film and media arts. "Both are needed to experience the game as it was designed to be experienced. ... You really need the architecture of the [PlayStation 3] to play [Flower] into the future. They can't be separated."
Mansfield likens the level of know-how required to keep a video game functional to the museum's expertise with conserving marble sculptures.
"If there's an impact, marble pulverizes in some places and cracks in others," he says. Piecing it back together takes a deep understanding of the material.
"We have to develop that same kind of experience for handling video games," Mansfield says. "Game controllers — these are more or less living objects with parts that move and heat up and cool down and vibrate. We have to get a better understanding of exactly how these things live, and that they continue to function well into the future."
Level 2: Preserving the experience
It's not just keeping hardware and software functional that makes video game preservation difficult. Part of the challenge for museums like SAAM and others that acquire video games is keeping the less tangible aspects of the games alive, too.
It's the act of playing a game in its historical context that creates "a compelling avant-garde performance space, activated by artists and players alike," according to SAAM.
When you add in the complexity of MMOs (massively multiplayer online games), which live on servers and involve players interacting in real time, the challenges for understanding today's games in the future get even more complicated.
"You could have a working version, 50 years ago, of World of Warcraft, but it's going to be kind of lonely playing that, unless you have documentation of the social experience of playing that game," games curator Raiford Guins of the State University of New York Stony Brook told Library Journal.
Level 3: The future
To tackle some of these issues, Mansfield is part of a Smithsonian working group that's exploring best practices for preserving all kinds of digital and electronic artworks.
Acquiring Halo 2600 and Flower will help in that endeavor, he says, but he knows museums interested in video games have their work cut out for them.
"Gaming is going to continue to become more complex — the software, the languages, the hardware. Museums are already ill-prepared to handle these new kind of media," he says. As collections grow, more specialized help will be needed to keep digital media available for enjoyment and study.
Mansfield is also quick to point out that preserving a work is only one aspect of adding it into a permanent collection. "It's important to preserve the digital science of games," he says, but it's also important make them available to expand "our understanding of global media culture."
Eventually, Mansfield says, SAAM will exhibit the games — and others it plans to acquire in the future — in the museum. And yes, that means visitors will be able to play them. But you won't just be playing a game while you're there.
As Mansfield describes it, you'll be creating a virtual performance space that will "shed new light on the way we understand the world around us. ... When all the rest of culture falls away to ashes, we can hold it up and say, 'This is who we are.' "