Paola Antonelli

A game is a living thing

October 5, 2018 / Interview by Jamin Warren | Photography courtesy of Paola Antonelli

When we say the words video game design, what does that mean? Well, we know what video games are, but what does it mean to be a video game designer? I posed this question to Paola Antonelli, a force in the world of modern art. She is currently the Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture & Design as well as the Director of R&D at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. What I love about Paola is how expansive her view of design is. She pushed the museum to expand design objects like Eames chairs into the digital domain. Under her guidance, they acquired everything from the @ symbol, and typefaces like Helvetica, to the original set of emoji released in Japan in 1999. In 2012, the museum did something different. They selected 14 video games for their permanent collection. Some games you’ll know. The Sims. Pac-Man. Some games you might not. For example, Passage, Jason Rohrer’s game about life, death, and marriage.


How did games end up in the permanent collection at MoMA? More specifically, how did they fit in with some of the other forms of play that already exist in the collection?

The curators at MoMA had been thinking of the digital space as a place where a lot of great design happens. Of course, when you think of digital design, you think of interfaces, interaction, typefaces, and visualization design. But, video games are exquisite examples of design. It was essential for us to tackle this because the mission of the Museum of Modern Art states that we are supposed to show the world the art of our time. What’s more of our time than video games? So, we started thinking about the need to add them to the collection.

Other museums dappled. They would explore it from the outside, as opposed to integrating it into this, like a more substantial conversation that was already happening at the institution.

Definitely. The big difference is that, of course, there were video games in other museums, but they tended to be museums of video games, museums of the moving image, museums of digital culture. The difference and the challenge was that we were talking about an art museum where design was one of the departments. I was thinking of video games as design, as interaction design, within an art museum. We had to calibrate our choices in a particular way. Also, we had to figure out what to acquire, how to purchase it, and how to show it.  We had to start from scratch.

I’m curious about play, because I think play often is this larger umbrella. Video games and game design are a practice. It’s a formal practice, but I’m curious about the word, play, and whether that’s something that comes into your language when you’re thinking about design outside of just video games?

Behavior, to me, and interaction. That’s the key. What differentiates video game design from the design of a chair? Everything is the same when it comes to form, function, and the tools at your disposal, but video games are about designing behaviors. You could say that it’s the same with a chair, but that’s shaping one behavior, or maybe two or three, right? But in video games, there’s this idea of trying to plan, invite, suggest, and guide the behavior of the person. It’s the quintessential ingredient of interaction design.

That’s also what happens when you design the interface of an ATM or the MetroCard Machine. You are planning an action/reaction, a response, and a communication. An exchange. In the case of the ATM, hopefully, it’s very predictable and prescribed. In the case of the video game, instead is following some rules but is also open-ended. So to me, that’s eternally fascinating.

I would say that video game designers have a lot of power, and much more ability than designers of an ATM, right? With the ATM, they just have to do the job, and then they only have to close and go. Video game designers have the power to instill, to manipulate, and to condition people for good and for ill.

Let’s be frank. There are so many discussions that are happening about educational video games, and so many conversations that are happening about video games that indeed suggest a very evil and deviant behavior. So, I think that power is what it’s about. The fact that game designers can reach into people’s lives and take them for a ride. But, it depends on the kind of ride.

“We had to figure out what to acquire, how to purchase it, and how to show it.  We had to start from scratch.”

That’s an exciting way to approach games; from the language of behavior. A lot of times, games kind of get thrown back and forth between the folks on the narrative side of the medium. People who believe that games are an expressive medium, a container for stories.

Then, on the other hand, you have more systems people coming out of computer science departments. These people have very formal approaches to games, systems, and the path to games as a form of design, that feels very different in a way.   That latter view is both integrated but also seems very different than a lot of the conversations that I see, at least among players, when they think about what games are and why they move us.

Yeah, it’s interesting, because when we had these conversations, people, even gamers and game experts, that were around the table were sometimes surprised by our point of view. And, that to me was wonderful, because if you can contribute something using your ignorance, and an eager, earnest attitude towards a new field that you don’t know much about;  if you can provide something also for experts, it’s quite fantastic.

I don’t know if you remember when we were discussing how to show the games. We at MoMA had an idea that we thought would incense you and other experts. You would find it almost blasphemous because we didn’t want to have any of the paraphernalia and the nostalgia arcade cabinets. We just wanted to show the videogames. We tried to mimic a screen that was the same size as the original screen. We wished to embed it on the wall. We wanted it to be, not a cathode ray tube, but a digital display. We tried to reproduce the interface, and the only other real thing would have been the controller because that’s where the behavior and the interaction happens.

We thought that everybody would get mad, but instead, you understood that we were trying to isolate the communication, which I thought was great. It’s great when you can have this kind of conversation.

I don’t know if video game designers need to learn much from designers in the physical world. I think that they are born in the physical world, so they retain the sense of gravity that can be useful, especially when you try to set yourself free from it. I think that when you learn the lack of freedom or the limitations of your existence in the real world, then you can still have a compelling point of comparison in the other world

But then, we’re talking about an entirely new universe, so whatever rules have been learned in physical life can be applied or not in the world of video games. The most successful ones are the ones that are plausible though.

I think it goes back to that question of behavior that you mentioned. Are the responses plausible even if the universe is not? I think that’s often one of the challenges; that games will often have these very core values that are buried under something that might be implausible. So that might be, an outer space setting. Or, it might be maybe a narrative that doesn’t quite solidify the way that the designers had hoped, but beneath that, there might be this core interaction that’s really, really meaningful.

Some of it is a function, I think. When you play a lot of games, there’s a literacy that you develop. An appreciation that I sometimes find myself loving in spite of its superficial values. Liking a particular game, maybe not for its look and feel, but because it has this core interaction loop that I find enticing. Sometimes this can be a challenge for folks coming from outside the world of games, where they look at something and what they see is maybe what’s on the screen, as opposed to an understanding or an enticing of human behavior.

For you, when you’re thinking about taking things into the collection. It goes beyond just the initial showing. You now have a body of work that you can pull from for future exhibitions.

I’m curious how 40, 50, 60 years from now, well past our time here, MoMA as an institution will continue to live on. How do you think that they’ll be integrated into future shows, past this conversation that we’re having?

That’s an excellent question. So first of all, as we’re speaking, two games, Tempest and Space Invaders, have been chosen to be in an exhibition in Paris at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in the fall.  That documents some of the best examples of objects from the MoMA collection together with art and everything else. So already, I like this recognition happening in France. We’ve been speaking to the converted, preaching to the converted, because they appreciate this kind of design.

I can answer you by talking about exhibitions that I’m doing today that use objects that were acquired in 1934. One of the objects that we love, and that has become almost a symbol of the MoMA collection, is a big ball bearing that was acquired in 1934, part of an exhibition called Machine Art. It was a document of the art at that time, sure. But it was also an ode to the machine, and at that time, modernism looked to machines as examples of beauty and functionality. It was a great example of an attitude that has remained in the collection today, which is to show parts of objects or objects by themselves that are so part of our lives that we almost don’t consider them anymore, but that are so important in their beauty.

I am hoping that the video games 50 years from now will still be examples of the extraordinary and fantastic use of the technology of the time. Think of Tempest and the use of vectors, right? I think it will be as remarkable 50 years from now as it is today, 30 years after it was designed. If you choose carefully, if you pick the best, not just a group but a selection of the best, they stand the test of time as a fabulous synthesis of the technology available, the talent of the designer, and the beautiful use that was made by people. Popularity is not the guiding principle, but definitely, it’s a litmus test of a game.

“When you learn the lack of freedom or the limitations of your existence in the real world, then you can still have a compelling point of comparison in the other world.”

Do you feel like that’s a challenge that’s unique to games or is this a general challenge you have with anything you take into the collection?

Code is more fragile than porcelain. We think that we can acquire source code for everything, and that’s not happening. People don’t want to give you the source code. They would rather lose it, burn it, and have it gone forever than to give you the source code, emulations, or hardware. Also, we established a protocol to acquire digital artifacts in interaction design, including video games. That is very time-consuming. We go and interview the programmer. We film the game action. We record the sound. It’s a lot of work. It’s not insignificant, so we don’t take it lightly. And when we select new video games to acquire, we think about it a lot.

I mean, is it head and shoulders more difficult than acquiring other things? I’m thinking about the Xerox interface or other digital work that is commercially owned? Are games more difficult than those? Or is it just the nature of the fact that In this day and age, there is a lot of digital art that is owned by corporations, and that only creates a level of complexity that can be difficult to navigate?

We could go outside and buy a copy of the game, right? The way we do with a chair. But a video game is a living thing, right? A chair is a chair is a chair is a chair. You put it there. You conserve it. Hopefully, it’s not going to break. Probably, the polyurethane foam is not going to go to dust in less than fifty years. So, you have challenges, but it’s there.