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Next month, mortal combat is 30 years old. Step back to this 1992 arcade game and it looks almost quaint. Cartoonish 2D fights, pixelated blood. But what many gamers may not remember – or just weren’t alive to experience yet – is that mortal combat was the eye of a storm of violence in video games. Its heartbreaking gore was the subject of congressional hearings and helped create the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which to this day rates the content and age of games. Three decades later, mortal combat is a classic, and discussions of violence in video games are often seen as too hilarious.
Paola Antonelli, curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, thinks about it a lot. Not particularly on mortal combat, but on violence in art, and what it is used for. Currently, Antonelli is curator Never alone, an exhibition on video games and interactive design opens this weekend at the museum. When she arrived at MoMA 28 years ago, she argued that a Beretta pistol should be part of the design collection. Others at MoMA rejected the idea. Antonelli protested, saying that firearms were depicted in all kinds of work, why not have one in the collection? The reasoning was that paintings and sculptures often show representations firearms; to put one in the museum would be an endorsement of its function. “We apply the same principle to video games,” says Antonelli. “We had a lot of discussion about gratuitous violence versus targeted violence.”
To this end, Never alone does not include Assassin’s Creed Where Grand Theft Autobut it has This war of mine, a game from the perspective of a civilian trying to survive a conflict. MoMA collections specialist Paul Galloway describes it as “an incredibly violent game,” but that’s beside the point. “Some of the most interesting games deal with the issue of violence in a way that really moves us forward,” he says.
Antonelli and Galloway regard video games as cultural artifacts worthy of discussion. People have been discussing this for a long time, but the exhibition, which will continue until next spring, aims to give games a larger artistic platform. It’s not just about creating graphics or telling stories for games, but about showing that how people interact with them isn’t that different from how they interact with art.
This is true even in the title of the exhibition: Never alone. Derived from the game of the same name – which is part of MoMA’s permanent collection, like everything in the exhibit – it’s a testament to the fact that even though people want to portray gamers as loners shooting into their basements , video games can be community-building. This only became truer in the era of Twitch. Last week, as I walked through the MoMA exhibit while it was still under construction, it was easy to see the evidence. There are games—Pac man, space invaders-on display. But also the many interactive design tools, like a first-generation iPod and Susan Kare’s icon sketchbook for the original Apple Macintosh. It’s about, Antonelli tells me, showing that with games, art is made when a player interacts with the work of a designer. Each round is unique.