How Video Games Found a Place in the Art Museum

In March of this year the Smithsonian launched an exhibit on video games. This exhibit was not part of its Museum of American History where one normally finds pop culture objects such as Archie Bunker’s chair and Julia Child’s kitchen. Instead it was put on by the American Art Museum. New York’s Musuem of Modern Art (MoMA) added several video games to its permanent collection this year as well. Some contend that video games have no place in the art museum. The museums themselves have defended their inclusion, acknowledging that this is a departure from what has been considered art in the past. In fact, what is considered art and therefore deserves a place in an art museum has long been in flux.

Steven Conn’s Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 dedicates a chapter to the change in art museums in the late 19th century from a place where industrial art and design could figure prominently, to one where only fine art, which was easily identifiable as “authentic,” was allowed.[1] The fear of the inauthentic, and learning how to identify a fake, was a major cultural concern in the 19th century, and it makes sense that museums in this era would want to avoid them.[2]

What is troubling some about the current trend toward considering video games art is that they cannot be considered fine art because they are by nature not only pieces of craft, but also reproductions and mass produced reproductions at that, cheaply available and understandable to all.

Walter Benjamin in his influential “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” argues that reproducible art lacks the “aura” that surrounds a work of fine art that has a specific history to the one original copy. MoMA in particular seems cognizant of the importance of having an original, with their ideal objects being “copies of the games’ original software format (e.g. cartridges or discs) and hardware (e.g. consoles or computers) whenever possible.” The also have original source code, annotated by the author, on their wish list. This is analogous to wanting the original negative to a photograph or film, which, if I am not mistaken, most art museums do not require to consider a film or photograph an object of art that can stand alone in its collection. These requirements also preserve the market value of the games as most of them are available on the web. Having the original packaging and hardware not only helps give the game a history, but also values it higher on the market vs. reproduced games played on emulators.

Video games are very much like film and photography in that they are massively reproducible, and the context in which the art is consumed is widely variable. Much of Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay discusses film as a form of art that enables “tactile appropriation” that is “master gradually by habit.” The messages are given and reinforced without a contemplative effort by the observer. This was at a time when film was still fairly new, and its status as an art form under contention. Video games fill the acculturation purpose too, only more so because the observer is not just an observer but feels as if he is a participant in the world the video game has created. Ian Bogost argues that these immersive worlds educate players in “procedural rhetorics,” which are shaped by the structures of computers and software. In this way players are taught to anticipate events based on rules and constraints.

Benjamin wrote about certain forms of art (film and architecture) as being integral to aiding “the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history” which echoes James Cook’s contention in The Arts of Deception that art served the cultural purpose of allowing people to adapt to new ways of seeing necessary in the nineteenth century urban world.[3]  Both authors argue that art, both high art and popular art serve to help people habituate to new ways of seeing. Eventually, these new forms are accepted into the temples of high art, as video games are now gaining acceptance.

While some purists may bemoan the fact that video games are finding their way into art museums, the idea of only singular works being valued as art has not been around long, and it has been challenged since its inception by the introduction of mechanically reproduced objects that do cultural work.


[1] Steven Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 216-217.

[2] James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 103-104.

[3] Ibid., 248.

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