Bleep-Bloops and Balzac! Highbrow Nerds Party With Video Games at MoMA

Courtesy MoMA/PopRally

“Hey does anybody have an extra ticket?” asked a man in a white button-down and a backpack outside MoMA last night. He walked down the line that stretched from the entrance closer to 5th Avenue to well past the former home of Folk Art Museum.

“Anyone?” he asked.

Near the front of the line, a man whose t-shirt read “MANA” just below the neck bounced on his heels.

The high-demand event wasn’t a Kanye West sculpture garden performance, or even a flash sale on heirlooms at the Modern. It was Arcade, a PopRally event hosted by Kill Screen, the thinking man’s video game journal that selected a handful of excellent games for the party. Some of the games were just barely of the video variety, but everything fit in nicely with the “Talk to Me” exhibit that opened last week.

Recent avant-garde notables like Canabalt and Limbo were on-hand, along with a handful of new games, some designed just for the event. Under Andy Warhol’s Ten-Foot Flowers in the lobby, twentysomethings dashed to slap each other’s bucket-sized buttons in a game by the Coppenhagen Game Collective. Occasionally they collapsed on each other, like a sanitized version of Twister.

A bystander complimented Kill Screen president Jamin Warren on his curation of the evening, but Mr. Warren was modest.

“It’s just editing, right?” said Mr. Warren, a former Wall Street Journal writer. “And I do that all the time. Anyone who’s edited a ‘top ten’ article is a curator.”

There was a lot to like. There was a rhythm game that used an iPad in combination with an Xbox Kinect to create a “full-body theremin,” according to its description. There was Echochrome, the heady Escher-like puzzle game on Playstation that benefited from its placement in a museum, even if it suffered slightly from its positioning next to the beer table (try walking a straight line on an ever-shifting plane). The most impressive piece was “Starry Heavens,” in the sculpture garden.

The first thing that caught your eye with this game were the seven or so white weather balloons that hung above it. On the ground below was a series of black, white and grey circles, laid out on tiles of varying size, linked with grey bridges and angled toward the center, a little like the Sputnik chandelier at Lincoln Center. Players moved to different colored circles, “banishing” each other  after receiving commands from the Ruler, in the center, with the ultimate goal of replacing him. The Ruler was on his own schedule, with a center balloon somehow involved, as it was pulled down at knotted intervals. The other balloons were not essential to the gameplay.

“But the person in the center would feel more exposed without them so we thought they were necessary in their own way,” said accented architect Nathalie Pozzi, one of the game’s designers, who stood off to the side watching the game. She smiled. “Well, though, I’m the architect so of course I think that.”

“For me the game is kind of a moral and political allegory,” said Eric Zimmerman, the game’s other designer, who sidled back to his partner after a few quick instructions to the team documenting the game with video. “The title comes from a quote by Immanuel Kant, which I’m not going to explain because she thinks it’s pretentious.”

I found the quote!” Ms. Pozzi said. “But I’m not going to explain it.”

“There’s a funny paradox of power,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “You’re all trying to overthrow the leader, but to do so, you have to kill your teammates.”

He sighed contentedly as a young woman exited the game in an exaggerated huff. She’d been banished by another player.

Bleep-Bloops and Balzac! Highbrow Nerds Party With Video Games at MoMA