A new exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image highlights the ingenuity and optimism of the past ten years of video game design.
If you were to ask me about the history of video games last week, I would have begun with Atari, touched on the delightfully artful CD-ROM works of Theresa Duncan (who I admittedly admired more as a style icon than as a videogame designer), and ended with The Sims 3. I would have assumed having fun was a big part of playing video games. And I would have had no concept of the huge distinction between mainstream games (what you find at GameStop) and the rich, teeming world of independent and experimental games (what you will not find at GameStop). But then I went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria and visited the highly enlightening, deeply corrective new exhibit called “A Decade of Game Design.”
The exhibition, which opened on Friday, presents work from eight influential game developers from the past decade, all of whom are working outside the mainstream gaming industry. I was first shocked to see how un-game-like many of the works were. Take, for example, Hunger in LA, developed in 2011 by Nonny de la Peña. The “immersive journalism” piece uses virtual reality to recreate a real-world event that took place at a food bank in Los Angeles, in which one man suffers a seizure and another bolts to the front of the line and steals provisions. In Hunger, you can move around the pandemonium and interact with other people on the scene, all the while hearing audio of the actual event, which was recorded live in August of 2010. The experience is meant to shed light on the hunger and food insecurity many in this country face. I found it moving – especially how it managed to convey people’s sheer desperation.
The other games on view touch on no less weighty themes, including mortality, enlightenment, gender transitioning, masturbation, the history of the gaze, and even the nature of gaming itself. Having fun really isn’t the point – or rather, fun is relative. Because intellectual enrichment can be fun, right? “Unmanned meditates on the banality of contemporary warfare,” reads the riveting description for Paolo Pedercini, Jim Munroe, and Jesse Stile’s 2012 game. In it, the player assumes the role of a soldier controlling an unmanned attack aircraft by day, and by night returns to suburban life. By showing us another type of warfare and its proximity to domestic life, Unmanned cleverly subverts traditional (and popular) military video games. “Are you having fun?” I asked a girl playing it this weekend, who looked to be about 12. “No,” she said, matter-of-factly. But she seemed deeply absorbed.
It was hard, for me, to look back at this decade of impressive work (roughly 2007 – 2017), and not consider the Obama era – a time when so much of American life was taken for granted. As others have argued before me, the relative peace and stability of the Obama years afforded artists the permission to look inward. Though not all the designers in the exhibition are American, most of the games are deeply personal, and interrogate questions of faith, identity, existence, and empathy. Considering the dire political times we’ve found ourselves in stateside – where so many of our basic rights are under siege, so much of our collective energy must be put towards resisting the state, and environmental catastrophe seems all but inevitable – the space to question these things does seem a bit luxurious, though no less pressing.
What will the next ten years of video game design look like, or the next two years and eleven months under an oppressive demagogue? Maybe we will see a return to fantasy and escapism. Maybe games will take a violent or dystopian turn, preparing us for the future to come. Or perhaps virtual worlds altogether richer, more complex, more unexpected, and more limitless will appear, showing us a better way to live in this physical one.
“A Decade of Game Design” is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image through June 17, 2018.