Australia: Game Masters review and DAM: Melbourne

Eleanor Whitworth and I had been corresponding about Drinking About Museums, and coincidentally DAM: Melbourne, was having its first get-together at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and viewing their new “Game Masters” exhibition. It started off at ACMI where the organiziers of their new video game exhibition, Game Masters, gave us an introduction to the project and their goals in creating the show. We missed the beginning of the talk, but what we caught was exactly the kind of insider perspective that makes DAM such a valuable experience. Listening to the creators talk about their process, hurdles and decisions, and then being able to hang out with them is priceless.

ACMI

Game Masters presentations
Several years ago, the Barbican toured a video game exhibition called “Game On”, which at first blush would seem to have covered the topic pretty exhaustively. But “Game Masters” has adopted a different focus, giving game designers the kind of treatment usually reserved for auteurs in other media, and presenting video games like other forms of media art. Game designer as artist was a new way for me to look at familiar titles and it works and an interesting way to approach the topic that, I think, will broaden its appeal to an adult audience. There’s a great recap of ACMI’s presentation, which was a full-on, hourlong series of talks by ACMI folks on the technical, curatorial, and online aspects of the project.  Check it out here.  I’ll just add the two things that leapt out at me from the talks.

 Getting visitor participation right
I was impressed with ACMI’s willingness to reach out to a passionate audience to name their favorite video game designers. Given the conceit of the show, which is to focus on a small number of influential designers, a sort of Hall of Fame, it would’ve been very easy for the curators to talk amongst their peers and decide who was important and who wasn’t. Opening it up to the audience pointed them at different people, particularly in the indie game category, and it established their commitment to “getting it right.” It will be interesting to see how (or if) that participation influences their attendance or membership numbers. It seemed like a perfect example of the kind of participatory exercise that could build the sort of “brand” loyalty that many museums struggle to figure out how to accomplish.

Being intentional about working outside the field
The exhibition design was done by a firm with no game design or exhibit design experience, and that was intentional! Knowing how easy it would be for the show’s design to devolve into looking like a game, and knowing that they wanted something different ACMI purposely went with a firm that had no prior knowledge, and the design they settled on manages to be both fun and non-specific enough to work with games of many eras, without feeling too hokey.

Review: Game Masters @ ACMI

NOTE: This review will be a bit truncated since we had just spent an hour learning about the project’s challenges and successes, only had an hour, and were seeing the exhibition after closing time with the curators, so it was definitely NOT the usual visitor experience. And due to IP issues, no photographs, again!

Games Masters is in many ways the follow-up to Game On, and an interesting melding of a curatorial, art historical approach to a popular culture topic. This isn’t surprising when you realize that Conrad Bodman, ACMI’s Head of Exhibitions, was the curator at the Barbican who initiated Game On. Whereas the original exhibition focused on the genealogy of the games themselves, Game Masters aims to chart the development of video and computer games by highlighting the careers of 30-odd game designers, and presenting 125 (!) playable video and computer games from old arcade classics like Asteroid, all the way up to Minecraft, Rock Band, World of Warcraft and more!

The real thing
One of the first things one notices upon entering the exhibition is the abundance of games to play, and play in their original form on original hardware, no less! Old arcade machines, PC, consoles old and new – it’s all there, interspersed with video interviews of game designers, and fairly straightforward narratives about the era and the companies. I imagined I’d be seeing a lot of canned gameplay and emulated games. It’s obviously not the same experience at all, and being in a forest of arcade machines, consoles, and PCs was a visual and auditory treat and trigger of numerous reminiscences amongst the other visitors. It might also overstimulate some people. Jennifer, who is definitely not a computer gamer, took a while to adjust to the environment, and was “done” pretty quickly, though not until she and Eleanor had gotten their dance on at Dance Central. The full-body Fruit Ninja was also a big hit. I imagine it might be even more cacophonous on a busy day when all the machines are busy.

The design on the whole was minimalist and relied mainly on colors and abstract forms to organize the space. I appreciated that they eschewed a more obvious “gamelike” look and feel in the gallery. Bright colors predominate, and lots of spaces are defined by banners and other soft materials which did a good job of carving up the space into less intimidating chunks. It will obviously be easier to travel than loads of walls, too.

The things I felt to be the most problematic were the lack of good advanced organizers. I wanted to know what was ahead and had to settle for wandering around the space a few times to orient myself and grok the organizing scheme. Over here are the newest games, these are all what they’re calling “indie” games, etc… And for the more modern, story-centric games, it was hard to be dropped into the middle of one and get the real experience of the gameplay.

Chris Harris and I wound up talking for awhile at the end of the tour about the challenges of taking a show like this on the road. ACMI plans to travel the exhibition and I wish them well. I started my career setting up and taking down a very complicated robotics travelling exhibition, and I got a headache just thinking of the poor technician who will have to keep this menagerie of hardware and software operating. Chris seemed quite sanguine that they’d solved the important maintenance problems, and they probably have as much experience with exhibiting videogames as any museum of Earth, so good on ya, ACMI! If you’re in Melbourne, give it a whirl!

Drinking About Museums: Melbourne
After getting our games on, we retired to a nearby pub and about twenty of us hung out, swapped stories, talked shop and learned a bunch from each other. One thing I took away was how different and interesting it was to have the broader cultural heritage sector represented. DAM: Melbourne invites went out to the whole Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector. I wound up talking to someone from the Public Records Office about genealogy and digitization, a maritime archaeologist (Hi, Peta!) about theses and pirates, and a museum educator about school visits. Drinking About Museums: Melbourne had a grand inauguration and I wish them well!

Next post will be a longish review of our time at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, my new “You have to go see this!” museum.

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