I wasn’t meant to go to the Musée des Arts et Métiers tonight. I was meant to be drinking in Oberkampf or some other hipster Parisian district, bantering in French while sharing a duck joke that I’d painstakingly translated from English into French to try to impress people (it’s a really good joke). Whatever. It didn’t happen. Like birth with a normal spine or the development of big, pillow-like tits, it just didn’t happen for me. So I ended up on a train to the museum to catch MuseoGames instead.
The mission of the exhibition, according to the website, was to showcase the histoire du jeu vidéo – the history of videogames. This excited me. There was a lot I didn’t know about videogames and I was hoping the exhibition would be able to provide some enlightenment. It didn’t. What it did provide was a superficial glance at the history of videogames up until, say, the early 2000s, capitalising on the popularity of “retro games” by projecting screen grabs of old games onto various walls, all the while providing little to no context for viewers to understand or appreciate the actual history of videogames.
Walking into the first room, gallery goers were bombarded with a wall of text, giant quotes, then more text on walls. There was one mounted TV screen that played interviews with game developers and scholars on loop, but no one stopped to watch. There was simply nothing engaging about this room beyond, say, David Cage’s face on the screen, but even then I only recognised David Cage because I’d seen footage of him from interviews. The video itself was actually quite interesting in terms of what the interviewees had to say about games, development, and their place in the world and, content-wise, it was probably one of the most important aspects of the exhibition; but god damnit, whoever produced it sure went out of their way to make sure it was the most boringly presented looped video in the whole museum.
The passage into the second room was lined with old gaming consoles… in cages. Why? What was the point of this? To be obnoxious and obstruct vision of the consoles on display? To obstruct the vision of the consoles on display that people had paid money to come and see? In fairness, the whole caged consoles thing had an interesting aesthetic, I suppose, but you know what else had an interesting aesthetic? Stalingrad.
I had mixed feelings about the second room, which was the main attraction of the exhibition. I thought it looked great. It reminded me of the 1989 film, The Wizard, specifically that scene during the finals of the gaming battles. Man, that was an awesome movie. It was sad that the kid’s sister died, though. Although I guess if she hadn’t died then he would have never become good at videogames. Or maybe he would have. I can’t really remember the plot at all. In fact, I’m not sure if that scene in The Wizard looked anything like the second room in this exhibition. Sometimes my mind likes to make things up and I am prone to believing it. But in any case, Room 2 looked rad.
Consoles old and new (although nothing newer than the PS2) were lined up on either side of a table, hooked up to monitors, and anyone could pick up a controller and play the games on offer, which ranged from Super Mario Bros. to Tetris, Pong, Pac-Man, and Rez. In the middle of the table, a bunch of old consoles were laid out on display, but it was a bit awkward leaning over people to get a closer look at them, and none of them were properly labelled with what they were, when they were released or whether they were country-specific. It was very much a case of “HEY LOOK AT THESE OLD SCHOOL THINGS LOLOLOL”. At each gaming station, there were little plaques that explained the history of the console that the gamer was playing, but only some stations provided information about the game that was being played. This was a bit weird.
On either wall there were projections of games that were particularly significant in the history of videogames – Top Spin made an appearance, as did Golden Eye and Rayman, but no Final Fantasy or FIFA. Under each of these projections was also a small plaque that provided some information on the game, but most people were occupied with playing the games themselves to read anything.
What really grated me about this exhibition was the wasted opportunity to be really informative and thorough while also being engaging and fun. It seems as though the curators had trouble consolidating information and gaming, and thus they kept the two completely separate. If you wanted to know more about the exhibition or the games or the consoles or anything to do with the actual history of videogaming, you could find this information in the form of laminated A4 sheets of paper that were placed at the end of the gaming table. Alternatively, there were thick booklets at the other end of the table about the console wars and the history of SEGA and Nintendo.
This baffled me. If I, or any other gallery goer for that matter, wanted to read fifty pages on the history of SEGA, I could Google it. I could read a massive Wiki page on consoles. I could read a book, or a games magazine, or check out a forum. I go to galleries and museums for a different kind of education. I go (and in this case, I paid) for a qualified curator to present information to me in a way that stimulates my senses and makes me feel like I’ve learned something without working for it. I go for a complete experience that combines visuals, sounds and text in such a way that isn’t jarring or dull. I don’t go to a museum expecting to look at pictures in one room, then to sit down with booklet after booklet of text in the next room, then to try to consolidate the two and figure it out for myself. I mean, if it’s the intent of the curator(s) to make me work this hard when I go to see an exhibition, then I guess they’ve succeeded (or maybe they’ve failed because nobody at the exhibition took the time to read any of the cards or booklets).
The final room (yes, this was a small exhibition) was the arcade room, which housed seven or eight arcade machines ranging from Space Invaders to some hologram thing that gave me a headache. In this room, there was no information on any of the arcade machines, nor was there anything on arcades themselves. It was merely a dark room where people could come in and play the games on offer. I enjoyed that every game in the exhibition could be played for free by everyone there – I think such a service (would you even call it a service? It’s more of a thing in an exhibition… yeah, a thing) is important in an exhibition of this nature because videogames are all about interactivity, and what better way to try to explain them than by letting the people experience the games for themselves? It was nice. But my main problem with this exhibition remains that one could easily go from beginning to end without learning anything new.
This exhibition is a glorified retro games showcase. There’s no real structure to the exhibition and nothing to guide viewers through the history of gaming. You’re thrown straight into a pool of retro games and that’s where you paddle the whole time. There’s no context for any of the games, no explanation about the significance of the move into 3D platforming, nothing on the introduction of certain genres, nothing on how videogames have changed the world (and how the world has changed videogames). If you knew nothing about games before you entered, you’d leave with only the knowledge that games these days don’t really look the same as they did back then. Who woulda thunk it.
I have no problem with this exhibition existing; I just wish the curators had tried a little harder to do videogaming a bit of justice. As it stands, this exhibition isn’t about the “histoire du jeu vidéo“, it’s more “Voici quelques jeux rétro” (“Here are some retro games“).
Full Price: 5,50€
Discounted (students, pensioners, etc.): 3,50€