GLAMi nomination: PlaySFMOMA: an experimental games initiative

nominated by: Erica Gangsei, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA
institution: SFMOMA
category: Groundbreaking

The games initiative PlaySFMOMA was founded during the museum’s closure for expansion on the understanding that games, like film, have an expressive potential beyond their mainstream commercial applications. The program aims to introduce museum audiences to examples of avant-garde games, and to provide an arena for artists who are working at the conceptual cutting edge of the medium. The program also experiments with games as a means of participatory audience engagement by encouraging the development of artist-made games for and about the museum. The program currently has four parallel strands of activity:

1) A Hub: Create a hub for local artists working in the medium of games, and foster dialogue through workshops, lectures and community building events. There are hubs like this in major cities such New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Copenhagen, Paris, but not in the Bay Area.

In 2016, PlaySFMOMA hosted two Creative Research Workshops (CRWs) in which 12-15 industry thought leaders, game makers and museum staff came together to discuss topics of common interest. Workshop #1 was more generally on Games and Museums. Workshop #2 focused on games and AR.

2) A Game Design Residency: Each fiscal year, PlaySFMOMA offers a game design residency to select game designers doing interesting work in the medium. Each cohort of residents uses different tools and strategies to create iterative versions of games for visitors to play. Live playtesting is an integral part of the residency, and occurs at the museum during public hours at appropriate moments within the development process. Select completed games are incorporated into the museum’s publishing infrastructure and made available to wider audiences. 2016 saw two very different residency cohorts:

In Spring/Summer 2016 we welcomed Rod Humble, an artist who makes PC games, as SFMOMA’s very first game designer in residence. Humble has worked for many of the large video-game companies in a senior-level capacity — Linden Lab (Second Life), ToyTalk, Electronic Arts (The Sims), and Jam City (formerly SGM) — and has also maintained a parallel practice in which he’s developed several of his own games as a form of art and self-expression.  As one of PlaySFMOMA’s inaugural Gamers in Residence, Humble dreamed up a new game for the museum, which he presented to visitors during a public playtest in the White Box on August 11, 2016. The game has since been published online here:

In November 2016, SFMOMA hosted two weekend long Augmented Reality game jam. With the recent pervasiveness of Pokemon Go, there is likely no genre of game design more fiercely debated in the museum and game design worlds. Does AR enhance or detract from an in-gallery experience? Why do we always conflate platform and experience when we talk about AR and games? Rather than taking sides or prescribing answers, the AR Game Jam explored these topics through experimentation. Over two consecutive weekends, 12 game designers and code artists from diverse backgrounds worked with Google’s revolutionary Tango technology to develop AR games designed to be played at the museum. Since there is only one Tango-enabled consumer device on the market, SFMOMA worked with Google to secure loaned devices and developer support. One game associated with the game jam was supported through further development, and was play tested to the point of creating a functioning playable demo. The story of the game jam can be seen here:

3) Live events: In addition, PlaySFMOMA hosts one large public-facing games event per year, often in conjunction with the annual Game Developer’s Conference, such as 2013’s Ahhhcade (pre-closure) or 2017’s Mixed Reality Pop-up Arcade.

4) A Lightning Rod: Working with the Games Advisory Network, a local group of trusted creative leaders in the field, the program assists all SFMOMA staff in finding interesting games and game designers. Through a collaborative creative process, games and game designers are being incorporated into the public-facing programs such as Public Dialogue, Performance and Film, and large, arts-activated donor and member parties.
During SFMOMA’s 3-year closure for expansion, we did an extensive survey of the field. We found that most GLAM sector institutions present games according to existing curatorial paradigms or educational goals, as opposed to honoring the unique qualities that make game play an important expressive medium in its own right. PlaySFMOMA centralizes the play experience, puts process not product on display, and prioritizes audience engagement about games as a key deliverable. In addition, PlaySFMOMA games are developed in whatever form best fits the play mechanic; paper-based or digital, facilitated or unmediated, related or unrelated to the museum’s collection. The medium is fast-evolving because of the widespread development of computer, console and now mobile games, but play has obviously existed since the beginning of human history. PlaySFMOMA honors that ancient impulse, to play, to connect people not just explicitly but implicitly with the physical, social, cultural and intellectual spaces of the museum.