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Exhibiting Video Games: An interview with Smithsonian’s Georgina Goodlander

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For this installment of Insights, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group’s ongoing series of interviews, I talk with Georgina Goodlander, the Web & Social Media Content Manager for the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Exhibition Coordinator for the Museum’s  The Art of Video Games exhibition. There are already some nice interviews exploring the subject matter of the exhibit ( for example, this interview on BoingBoing). In keeping with The Signal’s focus on digital stewardship and preservation I was curious to talk with Georgina about a range of issues related to how the exhibit was developed and the kinds of technical challenges that a cultural heritage institution faces in exhibiting a born-digital interactive medium like video games.

Trevor: For starters, could you explain your role in the development of the exhibit? I realize that Chris Melissinos curated the exhibition and would like to hear more about what your role inside the Museum was on the project?

Georgina: Chris was a guest curator, so I was the museum point-of-contact for everything related to the exhibition. This included managing all of the content (text, video, images, etc.); fundraising; obtaining licenses for every game represented in the exhibition or online; working closely with the exhibition designer and the media specialist on every aspect of the design, technology, and installation; coordinating staff review of content and designs; working with the program coordinator to plan and host all of the public programs, including the three-day opening festival, GameFest; managing all of the online outreach (social media and e-marketing); and more that I’m sure I’ve now forgotten. I lived and breathed the exhibition for three years, essentially!

Trevor: What was the impetus for this exhibition inside the Museum? I would be curious to hear about the genesis of the project and any precursors that might have taken it in a different direction?

Georgina: The Secretary of the Smithsonian held a conference in January 2009 called “Smithsonian 2.0.” The goal of this event was to re-imagine the Smithsonian and its mission for the 21st century. He invited 30 experts in web and digital technology to come in and brainstorm with Smithsonian staff. I was one of the staff members who participated, and Chris Melissinos was one of the experts from the outside world. He and I met when I was giving a presentation on the Alternate Reality Game that we had done at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2008. One of the things that stuck in my head after talking with him was that he owned 43 game consoles! Several months later, the Director of the American Art Museum – Betsy Broun – was interested in exploring video games. She came to me since I had worked on games for the museum, and I brought Chris into the conversation. We brainstormed for several hours and had many different ideas, but finally focused on the concept of an exhibition that explored the evolution of video games as an artistic medium.

Trevor: Part of the process of creating the exhibit involved a public voting process to select many of the games that would be featured in the exhibit. Could you tell us a bit about that process? It sounds like the museum generated a lot of activity and participation in that voting process and I would be curious to hear about how the team thought about the voting site? To what extent is it something you used to develop the exhibit and to what extent was it part of the exhibit?

Georgina: The voting component was very important to us. From the beginning, we talked about the importance of the player in the video game – so by extension, we wanted the video game community to become a part of the exhibition development. Chris worked with the museum and the advisory group to select a pool of 240 games, from which the public would select the 80 games that would be represented in the exhibition. It wasn’t an open vote – you had to choose one game from three in each of the categories. We thought we were prepared for the traffic that the website would receive, since we added extra server space, but we weren’t! The number of people trying to access the content caused the site to crash after a couple of hours! Fortunately our web team was able to get it up and running again pretty quickly. Overall, 119,000 people voted from 175 countries. I don’t consider the voting website part of the exhibition, but it was a critical part of the exhibition’s development, in the same way that the behind-the-scenes photographs of construction, testing, and installation form part of the exhibition archive, but are not part of the exhibition itself.

Trevor: What technical challenges did you have to deal with in exhibiting games? It would be ideal if you could describe a few challenges and how the team thought through and developed approaches to meet them?

Georgina: Oh, so many! This was a very challenging exhibition for us since we are not used to having so much technology be a part of an exhibition. With all artworks, we try to display them as the artist originally intended. Therefore, we had a lot of discussions about whether the early games should be displayed through CRT televisions, as they would have been seen when originally released. In the end, however, this was not possible, since the exhibition will be traveling to 10 venues across the United States after it leaves the American Art Museum through 2016. Using original hardware would have presented too many challenges with putting the show on the road. In addition with the playable games, we wanted large numbers of people to be able to watch the game-play, which would not have been possible with small CRT screens. It was very important for us to use original hardware to run the games, however, since we wanted the experience to be as close as possible to the real thing. That was the single biggest challenge of the entire exhibition and I’m still amazed that it worked! All five of the playable games run off the original hardware – so behind Pac-Man there is a 30+ year-old arcade circuit board, and behind Super Mario Brothers is the original NES, and so on. Another challenge was capturing the game-play, though this was more of a challenge for the curator than it was for me. All of the video footage in the exhibition was captured by the curator (through the original hardware), and he often had to play a game for several hours to get to the point that he wanted. Since he also has a day job, he was spending a lot of his nights getting this done for all 80 games!

ColecoVision Kiosk
ColecoVision Kiosk

Trevor: Can you tell us a bit about the process of deciding what games and what platforms would be displayed in the exhibition and how decisions were made about what to actually exhibit? For example, the exhibition includes playable games and a series of kiosks which have actual consuls (Super Nintendo’s, Atari’s, etc.) on display under glass. Were there any other ideas for different kinds of objects to exhibit? Or, was it relatively clear from the beginning that there would be playable games and devices on display?

Georgina: The main focus of the exhibition is the evolution of video games as an artistic medium. This is the story that we tell in the last room of the exhibition, where you see 20 game systems. With each system are images and video for the four games on that system that won the public vote. The narrated video clips explore each game’s design, game-play, artistic intent, and cultural relevance. We did this through video rather than allowing people to play each of the games, because the story is important – we didn’t want the exhibition to turn into an arcade. It was difficult to limit ourselves to just 20 systems, but we selected the ones that were most significant in pushing the medium forward. Chris is still very upset that we had to cut the Turbo-Grafix 16, and I still miss the Amiga 500+ (Lemmings!), but we simply could not include everything in the space that we had.

The five playable games are a critical element. Since we are talking about the importance of the player in the experience of video games as art, then we had to give visitors the opportunity to play some of the games. We selected five, one from each era of game development, Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. Each of the games did something new and had a huge influence on subsequent games and the medium as a whole. These games were selected by the curator and the museum, and were not included in the public vote.

Trevor playing Monkey Island in the Exhibit

In addition to the 20 key systems and five playable games, the exhibition includes video interviews with game designers, concept art, sketches, early packaging, videos of people playing games, and “chip music” (music created using video game hardware).

Trevor: If I understand it right, through the process of developing the exhibit the American Art Museum hasn’t acquired any games for the permanent collection. Was acquiring games ever considered in planning the exhibition? Recognizing, as the exhibition does, that games are an important artistic medium, are there any plans to explore bringing games into the collection and if so what kinds of technical issues are at hand in doing so?

Georgina: An excellent question! We are exploring the idea of adding video games to the museum’s permanent collection, but at present, there is no definite plan for doing so. The American Art Museum has a significant collection of time-based media art and so is ideally placed to consider video games, too. The challenge will be deciding *what* to acquire. We will need the game itself as well as the appropriate hardware to run and display the game, obviously, but should we also obtain the source code? Design work? Developer notes? Strategy guide? Promotional materials? Big questions that are all currently under discussion.

Trevor: As a next phase, the exhibit is traveling to ten different cities. How will that exhibit differ from the current exhibit? Beyond that, were there any technical limitations imposed on the development of the exhibition that come from the fact that it needs to travel? If so, it would be great to hear about them.

Georgina: There are technical limitations with the five playable games. The way they are currently displayed in the American Art Museum is not how they will be displayed at the traveling venues, because the large pod-like structures are too big to to go on tour. Instead, we have designed and built smaller versions of these kiosks specifically for the traveling exhibition. In addition, for much of the supporting digital content (such as artist interviews, game player videos, digital concept art, etc.) we will be sending the digital content but not the hardware, so it will be up to each venue to decide how they want to display this. The 20 “genre kiosks” that have the game systems, images, and videos, will be sent as they are, but the venues may opt to display them in a different configuration. I’m excited to see how each venue re-imagines the exhibition design!

Comments (2)

  1. I remember the voting process and the outcome. Everyone had favorites and, like any compiled list of “Best ofs,” there will be grumbles and ongoing debates. Glad to see Ocarina of Time receiving proper recognition.

    My gripe? No Sierra games. I was completely astonished. They were the original adventure games–predating anything that LucasArts created (Indian Jones games, Monkey Island, or Loom), and King’s Quest was essentially the granddaddy of them all, and revolutionized the genre much like Pong, PacMan, and Super Mario Brothers.

    And yet, this was about video games as an art form–not the spirit of innovation or even the history of gaming–important to remember.

    All the same, I remember many sleepless nights, frustrated because I was stuck at a certain point in Kings Quest, Space Quest, or Police Quest because I simply could not figure out the correct phrase (“unlock door” vs. “use key” vs. “enter key code” vs. “use combination”), or placed the words in the right order.

  2. On another note, I am not entirely sold on the potential of video games as permanent exhibits. As commerical objects, they are mass produced, and while some have been reduced to antiques because they are symbolic of a bygone era…you have to ask yourself why film is not shown on permanent exhibit. Consider scenes from the works of Murnau, Lang, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Kubrick, or Scott–unless it is a temporary exhibit or a museum which focuses on film or the art of filmmaking, then it is easy to overlook such art because it can be easily accessed.

    That may be part of the problem with video games. Georgina addresses what content to include in such an exhibit, because there is so much material packaged with the product.

    It becomes a matter of *why*? Ignoring technology and innovation, there is aesthetics and storytelling. A picture is worth a thousand words. What is the picture, what are the words? People are drawn to paintings and scultpture because of their unique styles and stories.

    I think the best way to present video games would be to follow that approach–ignore the packaging and to with ones which offer aesthetics and stories. GTA III and Vice City are heavily stylized (and violent) and borrow from gang films and TV shows (Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface, and Miami Vice). I Am Alive, Fallout 3, and Red Dead Redemption borrow from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Blood Meridian. Alan Wake borrows from The Stand, The Shining, Christine, Twin Peaks, and the Twilight Zone. There’s a lot of potential out there, but it would be nice to show out one medium for storytelling transcends into another.

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