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Next month, Mortal Kombat turns 30. Look back on that 1992 arcade game now and it almost seems quaint. Cartoonish 2D fighting, pixelated blood. But what many gamers may not remember—or were simply not yet alive to experience—was that Mortal Kombat was the eye in a violence-in-video-games storm. Its spine-ripping gore was the stuff of congressional hearings and contributed to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which to this day puts content and age ratings on games. Three decades later, Mortal Kombat is a classic, and debates about video-game violence are often seen as too much hand-wringing.
Paola Antonelli, a curator for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, thinks about this a lot. Not particularly about Mortal Kombat, but about violence in art, and what purpose it serves. Currently, Antonelli is curating Never Alone, an exhibit on video games and interactive design opening at the museum this weekend. When she came to MoMA 28 years ago, she made the case that a Beretta gun should be part of the design collection. Others at MoMA shot down the idea. Antonelli protested, saying that guns were depicted in all sorts of work, why not have one in the collection? The reasoning was that paintings and sculpture often show representations of guns; putting one in the museum would be an endorsement of its function. “We apply the same principle to video games,” Antonelli says. “We had a lot of discussions about gratuitous violence versus targeted violence.”
To that end, Never Alone doesn’t include Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto, but it does have This War of Mine, a game from the perspective of a civilian trying to survive conflict. MoMA collection specialist Paul Galloway describes it as “an incredibly violent game,” but that’s not the point. “Some of the most interesting games deal with the issue of violence in a way that is actually moving us forward,” he says.
Antonelli and Galloway see video games as cultural artifacts worthy of discussion. People have been discussing them for a long time, but the exhibit, which runs through next spring, is meant to give games a more prominent artistic platform. It’s not just about the case that creating graphics or storytelling for games are worthy pursuits, but about showing that the way people interact with them isn’t all that different from the ways they interact with art.
This is true right down to the exhibit’s title: Never Alone. Derived from the game of the same name—which is a part of MoMA’s permanent collection, like everything in the exhibit—it’s a testament to the fact that although people want to paint gamers as loners shooting away in their basements, video games can be community-building. This has only become more true in the Twitch era. Last week, as I walked around MoMA’s exhibit while it was still under construction, it was easy to see evidence of this. There are games—Pac-Man, Space Invaders—on display. But also the many tools of interactive design, like a first-generation iPod and Susan Kare’s sketchbook of icons for the original Apple Macintosh. The point, Antonelli tells me, is to show that, with games, the art is made when a player interacts with a designer’s work. Each turn is unique.