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MoMA Has Mistaken Video Games for Art

The museum is putting 'Pac-Man' alongside Picasso. That misses the point.

Rovio Entertainment

Earlier this month, the Museum of Modern Art debuted a new exhibition, “Applied Design,” which features the 14 video games recently acquired for a new branch of the museum's permanent collection. That the same hallowed halls reserved for Picasso now also displayed Pac-Man sparked yet another round of a now familiar debate: Are video games art?

Whatever the answer, whatever the position, the debate revolved around the same set of ethereal arguments that are called to earth whenever art is being discussed. Supporters of MoMA’s canonization of digital entertainment pointed out that video games, like all great art, expand our horizons; opponents argued that lacking a single creator, and being primarily playthings, video games fall short of pure art’s Olympian standards. 

It's a fascinating debate, but the answer to the above question is, put bluntly, "no." Video games aren’t art because they are, quite thoroughly, something else: code.

To understand the distinction, consider Pac-Man, which was at the heart of one of the most important—and most unheralded—lawsuits in the history of the medium. In 1982, with the Pac-Man craze peaking, an aspiring company named Artic International released its own series of video arcade games featuring more or less the same maze, the same pastel-hued ghosts, and the same ravenous big-mouthed circle. The color pattern was slightly different than the original, and the game’s name was tweaked—it was called Puckman—but it was clearly a knock-off.1 Midway, Pac-Man’s American manufacturer and distributor, sued

Artic’s defense was artful. According to Title 17 of the United States Code, they argued, copyright protection applied to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” Unlike a page, which is a repository for printed words, or a film strip, which permanently stores images, the computer chips that made Pac-Man run held nothing fixed; like all code, they were merely a set of instructions that, when followed, allowed the machine to conjure the famous character and his world. As such, Artic argued, video games did not meet the requirement for fixation. The company even cited a congressional report from the mid-1970s, arguing that “the definition of ‘fixation’ would exclude from the concept purely evanescent or transient reproductions, such as those … captured momentarily in the ‘memory’ of a computer.” The judge, however, was unconvinced. Video games, he ruled, may be a set of instructions, but they’re a very consistent set of instructions—Pac-Man looked exactly the same every time the machine was turned on. Artic was forced to cease production and pay damages. 

Puckman lost the battle, but it ended up winning the war. Immediately after the case was decided, the U.S. Copyright Office announced that it was changing its approach to video games: Rather than allow game producers to register the images and sounds that appear on the screen as “audiovisual work” and the code itself as “literary work,” they would now require applicants to choose between the two.

Most game producers chose to protect the way their games looked and sounded and felt, their iconic characters and memorable landscapes. This is unsurprising—it’s Mario and Link and Master Chief we love, not the algorithms that govern their movements. But there’s more to this strategy: Game producers quickly realized that unlike art, which is distinct and unique and exists for its own aesthetic purposes, code is practical and interchangeable and exists merely as a tool to make something work. Trying to copyright code, then, was a lot like trying to copyright a hammer—even if you succeeded in protecting one particular design, it still wouldn’t stop others from constructing very similar methods of banging nails into walls. 

With code largely unprotected, designers are not above the occasional bout of copying and pasting. Take a look, for example, at Crush the Castle, originally released in April 2009. You probably haven’t heard of it, but you’ve almost certainly seen or played a nearly identical game that came out eight months later, used the same general premise—catapulting objects onto stacked structures—but exchanged the warring knights for angry birds.

This isn’t theft. It’s how games work. Even though they were algorithmic twins, the two games couldn’t have felt any more different: One was cool and steely and evoked the raw conflict of medieval times, and the other had those villainous green pigs and enough charm to become instantly iconic. 

Which brings us back to the argument about video games as art. You could argue that Angry Birds succeeded where Crush the Castle fizzled because the former was more artfully done. But that would be only half true, as the game itself—specifically the playing experience, of swiping fingers to flick objects across the screen—is, for all intents and purposes, the same game. With art, borrowing and citing and paraphrasing images and themes and ideas is commonplace; it’s how the craft is practiced. But a game incorporating another game’s code isn’t like Duchamp incorporating the Mona Lisa in his work. That’s because a few lines of code aren’t an artistic statement, but rather an action-oriented script that performs a specific set of functions. And there are only so many functions computers know how to do: While art is bound only by its creator’s imagination, code is bound by the limitations, more numerous than you’d imagine, of computer comprehension. Code can’t, like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, abandon logic and decide to imitate the sounds of nature instead. It can never be poetry, just a series of if/then statements. Code has more in common with the hinges that connect the museum’s doors to their frames than it does with Nude Descending a Staircase

This divide between code and image, between the algorithms responsible for the experience of play and the pixels representing its visual manifestation, is what makes games so complicated and compelling. MoMA, however, has chosen to largely ignore this question: A number of the games displayed in its exhibition are merely loops of video footage, allowing visitors to watch, as the museum put it, “guided tours of these alternate worlds,” but not to play the games themselves.

The question, then, is not whether video games are art, but whether whatever is currently gracing MoMA’s walls could even be called video games. Anyone who has ever been truly transformed by a game—that is, anyone who realizes that games, unlike paintings or movies or books, are made not to be observed but to be actively played, repeatedly and over long stretches of time—knows that the answer is no. 

  1. Curiously, Puckman was Pac-Man’s original name. It was changed upon the game’s arrival from Japan to America, where its local promoters feared that vandals would change the P to an F.