Pac Man and Atari's Pong weren't a waste of time. They were art. Your MoMA says so.

Great news: You didn’t rot your brain and waste your days sitting in front of Pac-Man as it gobbled up your quarters and any good sense you had.

No. You were appreciating art. So smart your 14-year-old self was. Take it from the New York MoMA: There’s Munch and there is video munching. The museum just announced that it has acquired 14 classic video games that will become part of an exhibit of gaming as art.

In a blog post, MoMA senior curator (can you think of a cooler job?) Paola Antonelli said:

“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.”

The MoMA news adds to what  has been a huge week for Silicon Valley hometown favorite Pong. On Thursday the game celebrated its 40th anniversary. See my Storify tribute here.

And now MoMA says the iconic Atari game, which made its debut at a Sunnyvale tavern, is on its wish list. So far it’s bagged the aforementioned Pac Man, Tetris, Another World, Myst, Sim City 2000 and more.

You can see the whole list in Antonelli’s blog post.

More than that, you can feel really good about your misspent youth by reading the post. Like, did you know that M.U.L.E. and Tempest had “dry and pixilated grace?” And that they could be compared to “the fluid seamlessness of flOw and vib-ribbon?”

Who says? MoMA says.

But while it’s easy to poke fun at the idea of video games as art, some people take this stuff pretty seriously. Check out this comment made by Jef2D on Antonelli’s post in which she talked about how visitors could play “Passage” because of its short duration:

“I just ‘played’ that Passage ‘game’ and it was the most boring 5 minutes of mawkish sentimentality I’ve experienced in my entire life -and I’ve heard at least 2 Coldplay songs! This is not a game.”

Among those taking this seriously is MoMA, which should warm the hearts of code-jockeys in Silicon Valley and beyond. The museum is not interested simply in a representation of these iconic games. They want the original medium (cartridge, disc etc.) and the source code. They’d like to talk to the artists, too. Get a load of this from Antonelli:

“In addition, we request any corroborating technical documentation, and possibly an annotated report of the code by the original designer or programmer. Writing code is a creative and personal process. Interviewing the designers at the time of acquisition and asking for comments and notes on their work makes preservation and future emulation easier, and also helps with exhibition content and future research in this field.”

In short, this outfit has done its homework:

“Over the past year and a half,” Antonelli writes, “we have sought the advice of scholars, digital conservation and legal experts, historians, and critics….”

What? No 14-year-old boys?



Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.