It's a special kind of time travel, playing video games.
Hours vanish in the dreamy infinity of Super Mario Bros. 2, which doesn't have a game clock. In other universes, time is condensed so that over the course of an afternoon, you cross the country by covered wagon, build and destroy entire cities, or roll the universe into a ball.
Then there's the pleasantly disjointed experience of being both hyper-aware of game time — the urgent quickening of music that lets you know time is running out — while that other kind of time, the one that drains daylight from the sky, recedes unnoticed.
“I've been thinking about it because those sort of disjunctures in time are quite natural to me,” Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art's senior design curator, told me. “I've always been a big science fiction fan. I've always loved the idea that time can have many side dimensions and side directions that we don't really know about.”
In video games, we can fly, teleport, slide down pipes, shoot through barrels, spring to great heights, drive racecars, shoot crossbows, throw fireballs, swim without coming up for air and destroy bricks with our bare hands.
To Antonelli, these strange fantasy worlds are part science fiction and part actual science. Otherworldly game physics are a reminder of the mysteries of our own universe.
“What I love about video games is they can give you these kind of feelings that I think we could have if we were more evolved creatures,” she said. “I believe, like many other people, that the reason we cannot perceive the other eight dimensions of string theory is because we're limited. But video games can give us a feeling of how the other side is. Just a little bit of it. So whenever I see this juxtaposition between game time and real time, I just feel that I'm getting a glimpse of how it could be.”
Antonelli has spent the last year immersed in this kind of thinking while planning the video game exhibition “Applied Design,” which opens at MoMA on Saturday and runs through January 2014.
She announced in November that the museum had acquired 14 games, some of which museum visitors will be able to play. Acquisitions include Pac-Man (1980), Tetris (1984), Another World (1991), Myst (1993), SimCity 2000 (1994), vib-ribbon (1999), The Sims (2000), Katamari Damacy (2004), EVE Online (2003), Dwarf Fortress (2006), flOw (2006), Portal (2007), Passage (2007), Canabalt (2009). Eventually, she hopes the collection will swell to at least 40 games.
Antonelli and her team made selections based on design principles — weighing a game's aesthetics, its use of space and time, and the behavior it elicits.
“The idea that the screen is a room where we spend most of our day is something I've been trying to communicate to people very simply,” Antonelli said. “It's a space. You live in it. You better have some opinions and some ideas about what would make it better or worse. You can criticize it just like you can criticize any other kind of design. So the idea of collecting video games was quite natural when we started thinking of interaction design.”
Whereas a 2012 video game exhibit at the Smithsonian — one of the first such exhibits at a major museum in the United States — focused more on tracing a 40-year history of video games, MoMA's goal is to highlight games that broke ground when they were released.
“A lot of discussion went on, for instance, about Grand Theft Auto,” Antonelli said. “So Grand Theft Auto, the whole series — though I particularly like No. 4 — they are milestones in the history of video games. But, one, they don't give you a new spatial sense. It's not an innovative experience that breaks new ground even though it's done perfectly. And, two, unless you're very good, all you do is go around and smash your car or shoot prostitutes.”
More compelling to Antonelli and her team is the extent to which video games can warp our expectations about the world and how we move through it.
“It's the possibilities that video games express in terms of our accepted standards for time and space that I love,” Antonelli said. Consider a game like Spore (2008), though it isn’t in the MoMA collection. Players begin as microscopic organisms and evolve into animals, then intelligent beings before ascending into space and interacting with alien species.
Grand dimensions of scale also exist in Katamari Damacy, in which players amass an ever-growing adhesive ball made up of increasingly larger objects — thumbtacks, mice, dogs, people, cars, skyscrapers, islands, continents, and so on — until the destructive cluster of stuff is big enough to be a star.
Steven Johnson wrote in 2006 of these awe-inspiring scales of perspective, or “the long zoom,” as the defining view of our era. It is this perspective that enables us to see the echoes of fractal geometry rippling throughout the universe, from the faint capillaries on the underside of a fallen leaf to the way a network of rivers appears from outer space.
Humankind’s ability to observe the universe on such colossal and nuanced scales has never been finer tuned. It has already been nearly a quarter-century since we first saw our planet as the “pale blue dot” in a band of sunlight reflected off the lens of a camera on a spacecraft 3.7 billion miles away from Earth.
It’s no wonder that Antonelli dreams of remaking the 1977 mini-documentary “Powers of Ten,” which begins with the image of a couple on a picnic blanket in Chicago before zooming out until whole galaxies of stars become pinpricks of light. The vantage point then rapidly zooms back in, all the way to the "vast inner space" of a proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom beneath the skin on a sleeping man's hand.
It seems fitting, too, that MoMA’s video game exhibition will open so soon after the museum screened “The Clock,” a masterpiece film collage that loops for 24 hours with no beginning or end and references the actual minutes of the day in real time.
Movie-goers often characterize their reaction to a film as being directly correlated to their awareness of time: I only looked at my watch once or it was more than two hours long but didn’t feel like it. Yet although it exists entirely within the construct of time, “The Clock” distorts the feeling of its passage in a way that’s delightfully incongruent.
I spent more than two hours in MoMA's darkened theater, watching the “The Clock” tick by. It felt more like 45 minutes.
“‘The Clock’ is this incredible, strange contradictory space," said Paul Galloway, a collections manager in the museum's Department of Architecture and Design. “In the best of games, that also happens. You're hyper-aware of details and time passing in the game but real time starts to slip away. It really varies according to the game. Some of them, the entire point of the game is to make you aware of time. You have this entire life in five minutes and you compress everything down to five minutes, and it makes one of those monumental events in life more monumental, versus something that's more drawn out and five days have passed and time has completely slipped away from you.”
The expectation that video games ought to disrupt our relationship with time and space is so ingrained that real-time games seemed jarring at first.(Take The Sims, in which the player is tasked with carrying out the minutiae of daily life.)
New York Times columnist David Brooks was vexed by the game when he wrote about it in 2002: “There's no winning and losing in the Sims. No points, no end. In the game, as in life, you just keep doing the dishes until you die.”
But death — and more precisely, dying over and over and over and over — is the metronome that paces so many video games. Life cycles are short but abundant. You die and die and die until you win. But then it's over. This paradox calls to mind a line from the physicist and writer Alan Lightman's 1993 essay about immortality: “Over time, some have determined that the only way to live is to die.”
Of course, different games offer wildly divergent depths of exploration. Consider the relatively shallow framework of side-scrolling games like, say, Donkey Kong Country. The game features a fixed sequence of obstacles that the player encounters from left to right.
Those brought up on games like Super Mario Land for Nintendo Gameboy (or its predecessors) will remember the moment when the ability to move “backward” through a board, retracing steps from right to left, seemed revolutionary. These days, people hack old-school Mario so they can play backward in order to make the game challenging again.
In other game universes, the capacity for multi-directional exploration feels near-limitless. Journey, a 2012 game for PlayStation 3, is simply about wandering through a vast, desolate landscape of deserts and mountains.
“The artistry within games is exploding so much, partly because this sense of agency — choosing where you can go — is becoming so open-ended,” Galloway said. “Journey is a beautiful, beautiful game. You're just wandering away. There's no direction whatsoever. I find that incredibly compelling and strange.”
Massive multi-player game universes can also become unpredictable to game designers. Take, for example, the moral debate that World of Warcraft sparked in 2006, when a player's real-life death prompted a slice of the WoW community to arrange a vigil within the game. When mourners arrived to the in-game memorial, a rival guild was waiting to attack them. The virtual massacre was divisive: Was the attack immoral, a clever gaming strategy or both? Where did the gaming world end and the real world begin? The incident has since inspired scholarly study.
“What I find most fascinating is it's simultaneously intensely personal but also incredibly communal,” Galloway said. “You are yourself and you are your avatar. It can be a cartoon guy eating dots or incredibly complex like The Sims.”
Striking the balance between individual interaction with a game and the sense of a shared experience is one of the challenges that the team at MoMA faced. The design team didn’t want the chaotic sounds of an arcade, for example, so a looped recording of game sounds will play throughout the gallery and individual consoles will have headphones for the person playing and for one observer.
“It's very different from when you acquire a poster or a chair when what you see is what you get, and what you acquire is what you put in the gallery,” curatorial assistant Kate Carmody said. “What exactly are you collecting? Are you collecting the software? Because then you need the hardware to collect it. Are you collecting the interaction? Because maybe a film of someone playing is the best way. Do you display the code?”
The only code on display in this exhibition will be Ben Fry's visualization design of the code for the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, which the museum acquired several years ago. Though MoMA is collecting source code for many of the video games it has acquired, some game makers aren't comfortable with the idea of displaying proprietary programming.
“The designers are always like, ‘Yeah, good idea!’ and the companies are like, ‘Forget about it,’” Antonelli said. “And it's really interesting because in some cases the code is lost. They are so adamant that they need to protect it, but then they lose it because it's on an old floppy disk. Only on a floppy disk!”
As MoMA delves into digital collections, technological difficulties abound. The version of Tetris it acquired, for example, is not actually from 1984 but is an exact replica of the version that previously had been only played in the Soviet Union. The replica even features CRT scan lines and the illusion of a curved screen. But for older original games especially, the exhibition requires a team of information technology and audio visual staffers, as well as digital conservation experts.
“And what if we don't decide to show it again for another 10 years?” Carmody said. “Those guys might not be here. Do we have to start employing computer scientists?”
In technological terms, a decade is an eternity — iPhones haven't yet been on the market that long. But then, time is relative, made meaningful because of our relationship to it.
For Antonelli, MoMA's design curator, video games bring that relativity into focus in a way that no other art form can.
“Because of the spatial and temporal experiences they provide us with, they make us feel that we can live up a notch,” she said. “The tree configuration of life is something that's more apparent in video games. The cause and effect. The possibilities. I mean, there are so many consequences. But they all have to do with the real world. It's not only about storytelling.”