Episode 99

99. Museums in Video Games


August 8th, 2022

14 mins 20 secs

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About this Episode

The Computer Games Museum in Berlin knows that its visitors want to play games, so it lets them. The artifacts are fully-playable video games, from early arcade classics like PacMac to modern console and PC games, all with original hardware and controllers. By putting video games in a museum space, the Computer Games Museum invites visitors to become players.

But, players can become visitors too. Video games have been inviting players into museum spaces for decades. In the mid 1990s, interaction designer Joe Kalicki remembers playing PacMan in another museum – only this one was inside a video game. In Namco Museum, players navigated a 3D museum space to access the games, elevating them to a high-culture setting.

Since then, museums and their cultural shorthands have been a part of the video game landscape, implicitly inviting their players-turned-visitors to think critically about museums in the process.

In this episode, Kalicki presents mainstream and indie examples of video games with museums inside them: from Animal Crossing’s village museum to Museum of Memories, which provides a virtual place for objects of sentimental value, to Occupy White Walls where players construct a museum, fill it with art – then invite others to come inside.

Image: The Computer Games Museum in Berlin by Marcin Wichary (CC BY 2.0)

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 99. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum Archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums. Each episode is never longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

The Computer Games Museum in Berlin knows that its visitors want to play games. The central interpretive throughline, called Milestones, presents a timeline of the rapid development of the video game industry through 50 individual games: from Spacewar!, developed in 1962 at MIT to the latest console and PC games.

But nearby, tucked into corners and side rooms, visitors are invited to play many of these games on their original hardware with original controllers.

The museum even goes so far as to emulate the spaces in which people would have been playing these games their year of their release: games like Asteroids or Space Invaders are presented in a full arcade-like environment, early home computer games like Oregon Trail live inside your parents home office, while the home-console classics like Super Mario Bothers are in a space made to look like a basement in an early 90s suburban home in the U.S.

So you can play a Japanese video game in an American home inside a German museum — but what about putting a museum in a video game?

Joe Kalicki: I think we're in a very important place right now where we need to assess the value of fully digital educational experiences in the context of the museum. But particularly I also wanna explore the value for educating everyday people on how to appreciate and interact with brick and mortar museums as well.

This is interaction designer Joe Kalicki.

Joe Kalicki: Hello, my name is Joe Kalicki. I'm an interaction designer, musician, and podcaster.

Kalicki remembers the first time he encountered a museum-like space in a video game.

Joe Kalicki: In the late nineties, the Namco company published a series of games called Namco Museum, and this was earnestly the first attempt to create mainstream historical documentation for video games and it’s a very pivotal example for me in thinking about digital museum spaces.

Namco Museum was a digital version of the Computer Games Museum, but all the video games presented in the collection, like PacMan and Dig Dug, were originally made for Namco arcades.

Joe Kalicki: They actually had a fully 3D-rendered museum space. You would walk into the front, into the atrium where a receptionist would greet you. And then you would walk into the main hall and go into the specific wing of the gallery for a particular game. And you would walk around this space and you could do things like view concept art for the game or view documents and artifacts related to the game.

Joe Kalicki: And then of course you could go on and you could play the game. There was theming in each of the wings to represent something about the game itself. And as a, I guess I was probably six or seven when I played this, this was mind blowing to me. Not only was this game taking the time to put me into a place and contextualize these games that I was playing, it provided so much more value and actually frankly, kickstarted me really deeply caring about the history of video games and the history of these things that I was interacting with rather than just hopping in and playing a round of Dig Dug, and then turning it off.

Playing Namco Museum today, it’s easy to see the match between a museum space and the video game technology of the 1990s. White gallery walls are easy to render, and navigating through sparse 3D rooms and hallways is a prerequisite for any first-person shooter game.

And white walls with the occasional object is all it takes to read as “museum” and – as we talk a lot about on this show – “museum” conjures up a whole lot of cultural signifiers about how we should treat the information and objects presented.

The fact that Namco Museum decided to present its games in a virtual gallery space was a way to signal that these video games were important – a statement that these games were worth engaging with like historic or artistic object.

A 2021 project by game designer and programming instructor Kate Smith called Museum of Memories delibrary employs a gallery space to signal important objects.

Joe Kalicki: Kate Smith and a couple other developers created Museum of Memories as a project for a game jam. She had an open invitation to send in an item that people cared about. Send in an audio recording of yourself saying why you care about it. And then she put together a very straightforward museum space: classic pedestals and wall mounts and whatnot.

Joe Kalicki: And somebody would send in a reference photo or, so a cookbook, for example, and Kate and her team would create a 3D version of that item, put it on display and you can listen to why these objects are meaningful to the people that submitted them.

Then there are experiences that invite the player to create their own museum space – not just contributing objects and stories. Kalicki points to Occupy White Walls, where people construct a museum and fill it with art – then invite other players to come inside.

Joe Kalicki: It's a free-to-play game that was released a couple years ago and essentially you are dropped onto a plot of land and you have a building and it's kind of a rinky dink little art gallery, and you can essentially remodel it and take art that either people have uploaded into the game or exists in the public domain. And you can essentially decorate and design your space. And you could totally build a bunch of white walls and throw things up that you like.

Joe Kalicki: You can do it as densely or sparsely as you like. You can create sort of fantastical spaces and then present the work that you're placing into the 3D space in a way that pleases you, or maybe you want to create some sort of lack of harmony, and dissonance and you know, freak people out. And the really cool thing about the game is that you can hop into other people's galleries and you can go take a look.

Joe Kalicki: And I checked it out last night, for example, and I teleported to somebody's gallery and there were five or six other real people walking around and looking at things and chatting about the art. And the cool thing about it too, is there would be,something that I would've formally a piece of art that I would've associated with a Tumblr or a Deviant Art back in the day next to a Caravaggio or other Renaissance classics and whatnot.

In the same way that Roller Coaster Tycoon – a video game from the late 90s – encouraged players to think deeply about the logistics of designing a theme park, Occupy White Walls gives players control over a museum gallery in a way that’s really difficult to achieve in real life. But by doing so, it asks players to think critically about museums in the real world.

At a certain point, the cultural signifier of a museum space could become limiting – if designers and developers can make anything at all, why make white walls and display cases?

The latest versions of the Assassin's Creed series of video games feature something called a Discovery Tour. In the Discovery Tour for Assassin's Creed Origins, which takes place just before the Roman occupation of Egypt in about 40 BCE, the video game’s players – free from their assenination duties – walk around the crowded ancient cities of Alexandria or Memphis on a guided tour.

Joe Kalicki: And this era, which the game has built out for the purpose of you running around and, you know, killing people just to put it simply – they stripped away all of that and your avatar, your character could walk around the world and basically take a guided tour of basically every nook and cranny of Egyptian society at that time.

Joe Kalicki: So you could walk into a city and a nice, documentary style narrator would talk to you about the city and what the various classes of people would do in the city. You'd walk through the markets and observe that. But as you reach certain locatio ns, if you would go into a tomb for example, and there would be a sarcophagus, well, an image viewer would pop up and you'd be able to look through some of the high resolution photos that were used for reference modeling or other purposes.

In the Discovery Tour, the cultural signifier of a museum is replaced with the cultural signifier of a narrated guided tour. The level of detail – both in terms of historical research and digital recreation – is the primary selling point of the main game. But since studios had to put in all this work anyway, it’s not too much of a stretch to build an educational module on that same foundation.

Joe Kalicki: Every game that's created there's something called a like a content bible or development bible, or, there's various names for it. But the idea is it's kind of like the master guide for the world. And it helps when you're basing your game in an area of the world that's been heavily researched and documented and actually existed that can become very fleshed out very quickly. Especially these triple A where there's many, many, many millions of dollars, budgets, exceeding massive blockbuster films going into these games.

Joe Kalicki: So, why not create some additional value out of it? Personally, I would love if companies like this could release modes like that either for free or in some context where, yeah, you're not getting to do the thing where you're running around and, jumping off of ledges and assassinating people, but you can access this big, beautiful world that all this work went into.

We’re probably already at a place where museums in video games are easier to access than museums themselves. Since its initial series release in 2001, the popular video game Animal Crossing has featured a village museum where players can place culturally or aesthetically valuable items that they find in the world of anthropomorphic animal.

Joe Kalicki: for a child thinking about this in a, in a real, ground level situation where you are not a person that has the lifetime and historical context of what museums are.

Joe Kalicki: It's the early 2000s, and you're playing one of the first Animal Crossing games: you may or may not have even been to a museum yet. And you're going around the world and you're finding precious items that you care about. You’re excited that you caught the butterfly or you dug up a fossil or a rhinoceros gave you a painting or whatever it is.

Joe Kalicki: And when you donate those to the museum and then you see them represented and you see them respected and displayed proudly there's that may be a formative experience for someone even knowing what a museum is. And so that person then goes on a field trip or they travel with their family or whatever, and they're gonna go to a museum and they're gonna say, somebody had to find all this stuff. Somebody had to bring it here. And they had to decide that this belonged in a museum rather than keeping it in their house.

And one final point blurring the line between visitor and player. All of these games rely on video game engines – the foundational code on top of which these games are built. Occupy White Walls uses the Unreal Engine, while Kate Smith used Unity to render realistic museum spaces in Museum of Memories.

These engines, designed and tweaked for video games, are also the fastest and cheapest ways to develop interactive exhibits for museums. I use Unity for exhibits I develop because that gives me access to a whole toolbox of solved problems (like realistic lighting, 3D model support, and a stable tech stack) meaning I don’t need to worry about making a custom solution from the ground up.

At the Computer Games Museum in Berlin, even the interactives that aren’t the video game artifacts – interactives displaying information like text and images – are built on a game engine. And the interactives at your local museum probably are too.

I wasn't able to find a game in the Computer Games Museum that featured a museum-like space: so I could have the delightful recursion of being in a museum in a video game in a museum. But with more and more museum-like spaces popping up in video games, it’s only a matter of time.

Joe Kalicki is starting a podcast called Panoply – the first episode releases on August 15. The podcast is about learning through oblique strategies and will feature interviews with musicians, academics, and historians and is not afraid to be obscure and esoteric. You can subscribe now and listen to the trailer by visiting the awesome URL: panoply.space.

This has been Museum Archipelago.

The next episode of Museum Archipelago is episode 100. To celebrate this milestone, I want to hear from you! I’ve set up a place on the internet where you can send a voice memo to be included in the very special 100th episode.

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Visit museumarchieplago.com/party to join the celebration. Looking forward to seeing you, and thanks for listening!

Museum Archipelago is an ad-free, listener supported podcast, guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Thanks so much to everyone who supports the show by being a member of Club Archipelago. You can join them by going to http://jointhemuseum.club. Thanks again for helping make this show possible.

For a full transcript of this episode, as well as show notes and links, visit museumarchipelago.com. Thanks for listening. And next time, bring a friend.