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Why we care about videogames

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Videogames have always been a key part of our programming, but they aren’t always as visible as our film and contemporary art activities.

From 2003–2008 ACMI had a specialist Games Lab with a dedicated games curator, which allowed ACMI to host small videogaming exhibitions ranging from explorations of Sonic the Hedgehog to historical retrospectives. With the opening of Screen Worlds in 2009 games have had a lighter presence in the historical part of the exhibition, combined with an open plan Games Lab-lite with a slow turnover of titles aimed at a general family audience. After hosting the Barbican’s Game On exhibition in 2008, ACMI developed its own videogames exhibition in 2012, Game Masters, which has been travelling the world as a touring exhibition — most recently in Philadelphia. Three Best of the International Games Festival exhibitions were presented in our small Gallery 2 space in 2009, 2011 and 2012, and we recently curated the Code Breakers: Women In Games exhibition, which forms the beginnings of a new series of critical conversations around videogames and the games industry. And throughout its history ACMI has been championing videogame literacy through school education and general public talks, forums, conferences, competitions, performances, workshops, master classes and range of other activities.

A picture of a customised computer interface in acmis code breakers exhibition

Flat Earth Games custom control interface for Objects In Space (2018) as displayed in Code Breakers (photo: ACMI)

Less well known is that ACMI has also been collecting videogames. We house, preserve and care for significant holdings of Australian titles from the 1980s which were accessioned and researched as part of the Play It Again Australian Research Council project.

So why do we care about videogames?

As a part of ACMI’s major renewal project, we have been thinking a lot about what we exhibit and what we present, as a key step in thinking about how we need the newly redesigned museum to enable us to do more. In May 2018 a small group of videogame-interested staff across ACMI co-authored this manifesto which has helped guide where we are heading.

At ACMI we believe

  • videogames are an artform that demands celebration, exploration, and critique in a national museum

  • videogames are an important part of contemporary media and art as well as leisure pursuits and modern consumer culture

  • videogames are an increasingly diverse form of contemporary media and art

  • videogames explore increasingly elaborate, sophisticated and complex ideas, concepts, and themes

  • that, like film and other moving image art forms, the craft and design of games and their attendant systems, interactions, and interactivity are at the core of our institutional remit

  • players will benefit from ACMI actively supporting and developing a critical culture around videogames

  • non-players, like non-cinephiles, will develop their curiosity for the games from exposure to our curatorial choices

  • some videogames need to be played to be understood

  • some videogames need to be understood to be played

  • that a videogames literacy is a part of a suite of necessary literacies to participate fully in contemporary culture

  • that ACMI has a central role in supporting families in making more informed media choices with regard to all forms of moving image, including videogames

  • that ACMI has a central role in developing and supporting teachers and students in critical and creative discovery of videogames

  • that ACMI has a central role in supporting the local industry and the tertiary institutions that are a talent pipeline to that industry

  • that ACMI has a central role in supporting a diversity of makers and increasing the diversity of the local industry

  • that ACMI has a central role is shaping a local culture around videogames and players that is enthusiastically supportive of all forms of diversity and open to critical analysis

  • that it should be written as ‘videogames’ not ‘video games’. At this point in their critical maturity, ‘videogames’ are now able to be formally (and semantically) distinguished from ‘video games’ as they are not a subcategory of games, and some of the most interesting videogames show little or none of the competitive characteristics that define games more generally

In 2020 you’ll be able to fully experience our new approach to videogames, and in the meantime you’ll notice that we are experimenting with them more — in our recently re-curated Games Lab, and also in our three months of videogame testing in the Audience Lab series of events.

Seb Chan is ACMI’s Chief Experience Officer. He is currently the most avid player of videogames on ACMI’s Executive Team and last century used to write for several videogaming publications.