Video games, as their name suggests, combine the ancient human practice of formal play with moving pictures, a younger form. But the unsatisfying name we are saddled with for this medium - itself approaching middle age, if you date its history to the first home console in 1972 and apply the rule that middle age begins when you are older than every current Major League Baseball player - doesn't capture the essence of video games.
The defining feature of video games is interaction, the three-way conversation among designer, machine and player. "Applied Design," a new installation at New York City's Museum of Modern Art - and an important one because it is the first time the museum has displayed the 14 video games it acquired in November - attempts to isolate this relationship. The games on view, from Pac-Man to Canabalt, are naked, without their packaging or other nostalgic trappings. There are no arcade cabinets on view, no outmoded consoles or computers to gawk at.
Instead, each game is austerely contained on a screen set against a gray wall, with a joystick or other controller resting on a spare platform beneath it. The installation is "an experiment to isolate the experience of the interaction itself," said Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of the museum's department of architecture and design, comparing her decontextualized approach with Philip Johnson's in his 1934 "Machine Art" exhibition at MoMA, which set things like propeller blades against white museum walls.
This philosophy is markedly different from the one that motivated the Museum of the Moving Image's "Spacewar!" show, which closed Sunday. That exhibition, which presented a more focused argument, refused to separate the interactive experience of playing a game from the object it first appeared in. An iPad game would be played on an iPad, and Space Invaders and its ilk were on view, and playable, in their original stand-up cabinets.
MoMA's installation is also less didactic, and more modest, than the Smithsonian American Art Museum's show "The Art of Video Games," now visiting the EMP Museum in Seattle. Chris Melissinos, who organized that exhibition, wanted to make a case for the evolution of video games as a new art form that combined older forms like painting, sculpture and storytelling. So he relied on text and images, as well as video footage of gameplay and interviews with important designers, at the expense of interaction with the medium itself. Only five games are playable at "The Art of Video Games," although one of them, Myst, is included at MoMA in an unplayable version.
Like the movies, video games can include elements drawn from older media - plot, character, animation, music, illustration, dialogue, even descriptive and expository writing - without being ruled by them. A video game can include very little that we regard as essential to motion pictures and videos and still be identifiable as a game. (Will Wright's SimCity 2000, part of the MoMA installation, is a fine example.) Similarly, much of what we associate with nondigital games - competition, scoring, victory, defeat - can be removed without rendering the form unrecognizable.
But remove interactivity, the ability of the player to communicate with the machine (and by extension the designer), and you no longer have a video game. That's why it's disappointing that only 9 of the 14 games included in "Applied Design" are playable: Pac-Man, Tetris, Another World, Vib-Ribbon, Katamari Damacy, Portal, flOw, Passage and Canabalt. The other five - Myst, SimCity 2000, The Sims, EVE Online and Dwarf Fortress - are displayed as video demonstrations. (There is, perhaps, an excessive aversion to combat and violence in these selections, as well as the more than 20 others - Street Fighter II notwithstanding - that Ms. Antonelli has said she would like to add to the collection.)
Games that require deep commitments of time, or years of cooperation with other human players, can't be captured in a museum setting, Ms. Antonelli suggested. But playing the falling-block puzzle Tetris on a three-minute timer, as it is presented here, doesn't exactly allow for a visitor to commune fully with that game either. Nor does picking up a story-driven game like Portal or Another World in midgame, with the ability to restart from the beginning disabled.
More important, "Applied Design" is not merely an installation about video games. Most of the objects that aren't games emphasize function in a way that clashes with the games' dedication to recreation as its own virtue. An earthquake-proof table, a mobile homeless shelter made of gold polyester, a hybrid energy source that looks like ivy, not to mention chairs and lamps and even the @ symbol - these are elegant solutions to the problems the world presents.
But playing an emulation of the original black-and-white Tetris, made entirely from the characters on a computer keyboard (the walls consist of exclamation points and greater-than and less-than signs; the blocks are built from brackets) solves nothing other than boredom.
"This kind of indifference to direct functionalism that video games have is what makes them dear to me," Ms. Antonelli said. "They are pure experience."
Not all games resist function. Like any medium, games can be used to persuade and educate. But perhaps it's time to devote a permanent space - it could be small and provisional, like this one - solely for MoMA visitors to interact with games as an exciting, unpredictable, purposeless mode of pleasure.
"Applied Design" is on view through January at the Museum of Modern Art; (212) 708-9400, moma.org.