Before you even walk into The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer, a new exhibition at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, you play a game.
On the balcony overlooking the exhibition proper, an iPad beckons visitors to try their hands at Rohrer’s immersive 2009 puzzle game Primrose. While they arrange neon-colored tiles in pursuit of an elusive clear board, their games are projected on a wall in the main gallery–a giant, simultaneous display of the kind of immersive, often philosophical games Rohrer is famous for.
“We wanted people to walk in and not be spectators or viewers but immediately become players,” says Patrick Jagoda, a media studies professor at University of Chicago, who co-curated the show alongside Davis Museum curator Mike Maizels. Together, Jagoda and Maizels designed an exhibit that they bill as the first solo art museum retrospective for a video-game designer. (MoMA and the Smithsonian have both held group video game shows.)
With this newfound acceptance of video games by the mainstream art world comes the problem of displaying them in a space they were never intended for. Like video and digital art, video games are an experiential medium, and Jagoda and Maizels recognized that they would need a venue that allowed visitors to engage with the games. But unlike more conventional art exhibitions, which have hundreds of years of history to build on, the curators had to start from scratch.
Complicating matters more was the the fact that video games are necessarily a player-driven medium–the design had to include players just as much as it focused on Rohrer, Jagoda says. “It complicates the centrality of the artist when it comes to the form of video games,” he says. “What the players themselves are doing is crucial for understanding them.”
As a result, the exhibit was designed more like a high-brow arcade crossed with a conventional gallery show. It features 15 games total, four of which have been built out into large-scale installations by the Boston-based architecture firm ikd, complete with wooden player stations and projectors that display the games on nearby walls.
While players explore the games themselves, they’re also journeying into Rohrer’s world, where games are a vehicle to explore complex emotional themes. “He uses mechanics and rules to think through ideas about idealism, regret, creativity, storytelling, infinity, police brutality, just to name a few,” says Jagoda. Take his 2007 game Passage, which is featured in the MoMA’s permanent collection. The game is essentially a metaphor for life: Players are dropped into an online world that they can navigate however they like, but as time progresses the avatar grows older, finds love, suffers loss, and ultimately dies.
Rohrer’s games are cerebral, but they’re also intended to be visceral and entertaining, and they were never conceptualized as anything other than video games. “He’s been distributing games online since 2005 and has widespread player groups,” says Jagoda. “He’s not creating games for museum context.” Though many of the games can be played in five or 10 minutes, others take hours or even years to finish; to complete the multi-layered Inside A Star Filled Sky, Jagoda says, would take about 2,000 years.
To give visitors an environment where they feel comfortable sitting down and playing the games, the design of the exhibition features several different play stations. A line of wooden boxes snaking through the center of the room provides seating and surfaces for laptops loaded with games. On one side of the room, four wooden walls create a lean-to like structure, inside which visitors can play Cordial Minuet, a multi-player game inspired by poker.
On the other side of the gallery, wooden dividers line the floor and sheets of glass embedded with blue lights hang from the ceiling, giving visitors the sense of being inside a video game. Visitors can play Diamond Trust of London, a game in which two countries are competing over diamond acquisition in Angola, seated beside each other facing the same screen. Meanwhile, the single-player Inside a Star-Filled Sky, a complex, worlds-within-worlds arcade shooter game is projected on a wooden wall in the far corner, its soundtrack broadcasted from speakers throughout the room. All of the games come with a set of instructions written by the curators so the visitors can learn fairly quickly.
According to Jagoda, it was important that visitors felt comfortable being players because since players are a central part of the video game world. In the exhibition catalog, he interviews Joshua Collins, one of Rohrer’s top players who has found work-arounds and cheats in Rohrer’s games that have forced him to redesign them. “There’s an interesting partnership between player and creator,” Jagoda says, “that’s not like that between a painter and a painting.”