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Dwarf Fortress is changing how the MOMA preserves art

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Below New York's Museum of Modern Art a colony of dwarves is waiting patiently for their next chance to see the sun.

In 2012 the MOMA added a series of video games to their collection, including Myst, SimCity 2000 and the less succinctly named Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress.

The collection of these and other "born digital" works created multiple philosophical and logistical problems for the museum, issues they are still grappling with today. Polygon talked with MOMA staff to find out how video games are taking their place alongside other mediums of modern art.

"If somebody bombs the Dwarf Fortress team tomorrow, we would be the one sure repository of everything that has been made thus far."

Deep within the bowels of New York's MOMA is a vault. Only a portion of the museum's vast collection can be on display at one time, and so inside this vault priceless works of art wait for their turn. Carefully catalogued, they are kept secreted away, guarded by a sophisticated security system and held at a specific temperature and humidity.

Not far away is another room, a much louder room filled with servers. This is where Dwarf Fortress lives. This is its true bastion.

"Our idea," says Paul Galloway, the study center supervisor at the MOMA's Department of Architecture and Design, "is that if somebody bombs [the Dwarf Fortress team] tomorrow, blew up everything that they had, we would be — if nowhere else in the world — the one sure repository of everything that has been made for Dwarf Fortress thus far."

Alongside Dwarf Fortress sit other video games, like the original Tetris. Developed in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov, the MOMA's copy of Tetris runs on an Apple computer that, with the help of The Tetris Company, mimics the specific Soviet-era computer it was designed for. It is a singular work, frozen in time.

Tetris_MOMA
The original 1984, Soviet-era version of Tetris as archived at the MOMA.

But Dwarf Fortress is a game that runs on modern computers. It is also currently in development, quite famously nowhere near finished. That ongoing, ephemeral work creates a very modern challenge for the museum, one that they have solved in a very modern way.

"Our media conservator wrote a script," Galloway says. "Every time they post a new version of Dwarf Fortress we instantly download it. And we're archiving it. It goes into the same kind of heavy-duty, super secure art storage thing that all of our digital works go into, whether that's art pieces or design pieces or architecture pieces. All of it goes in there.

"I think it's worthwhile to think of Dwarf Fortress in a very different way, because it's almost more like an artist-made game versus a commercial made game."

The most recent version was released just last month and represents the first major update in nearly two years. That version of Dwarf Fortress is in the MOMA's vault now, as well as every previous version ever made. That's because, Galloway says, the making of Dwarf Fortress and other video games represents the creation of digital artifacts worthy of admiration and study.

"I think it's worthwhile to think of Dwarf Fortress in a very different way, because it's almost more like an artist-made game versus a commercial made game."

"There's actually quite a lot of precedent in [evolving] art," Galloway says, "There's many instances where an artist had a piece that was part of an ongoing work, that just kept evolving and changing over time." The closest analogue in the MOMA's collection, Galloway says, is a series of nearly 40 prints by Nicholas Nixon. The Brown Sisters is a series of photographs, taken every year since 1974, of Nixon's wife and three sisters.

For more than three decades, Nixon has captured their likeness, in the same order standing left to right. According to one art historian The Brown Sisters represents a "systematic progression of images within these specified parameters [that] exposes a visual record of not only the relationships between the sisters, but also the sisters' relationship with Nixon and his camera."

Similarly, Dwarf Fortress reveals something about its maker, but also about its viewer. Galloway says that's part of what makes games such a complex kind of artistic work to display in a public space.

dwarf_fortress_moma
A world map from Dwarf Fortress as depicted in the online collection of the MOMA.

"Showing video games in an art museum is kind of the wrong way to do it," Galloway says. "It's wrong for them to be here in a way, because they're out of context. A painting is meant to be hung on a wall and looked at. A video game is not meant to be hung on a wall and looked at. It's meant to be played with.

"You're supposed to do it at an arcade. You're supposed to be doing it at home," he says. Part of the MOMA's mission with video games, and other born digital works, is to present them in a context that makes sense to the viewer. One that feels organic and appropriate. Galloway and others at the MOMA therefore serve as a kind of interpreter for Dwarf Fortress and other video games.

"How can we bridge that divide? How can we, on the one hand, say look, they do belong here. They are part of this grand trajectory of modern creativity. They belong in the same building as the Picassos and the great films of the 20th century. How can we kind of meet all of these conflicting needs?"

"It's not feasible right now to let somebody live in our museum for four months and play Dwarf Fortress non-stop," Galloway says.

The average amount of time a visitor to the MOMA will spend with any given item on display is 4 seconds, and one of the goals of the first exhibit of video games at the MOMA sought to capture museum goers for longer than that. It featured Dwarf Fortress as well as Eve Online as interpreted through cinematic trailers meant to convey to the public the important parts of their core experience. But the museum is working on other ways to display these kinds of works going forward.

"We're going to try again, we're going to keep going. These things are here forever."

One challenge on the horizon for MOMA, Galloway says, is machinima and other forms of in-game art.

"The first one that really piqued everybody's interest around here was that guy who's walking to the end of Minecraft," Galloway says, referring to the work of YouTube user kurtjmac. His ongoing series, titled Far Lands Or Bust, is an attempt to walk to the edge of a Minecraft world. The journey was started more than three years ago.

"He's gone something like 12,000 kilometers," Galloway says. "He's documenting it every day. And the game, of course, just keeps procedurally generating in front of him.

far_lands_or_bust
It wasn't until episode 31 that Far Lands or Bust even had a name.

"That's an extremely artistic thing to do. I can imagine so many conceptual artists of the '70s, if they had been in our current environment, this is exactly what those kind of guys would be doing. Richard Long would not just be making his walk through the U.K., he would be making a walk through Minecraft. Or through Grand Theft Auto. It's the exact same artistic impulse just coming out in a different way.

As game developers and game players continue to express themselves through their virtual world, Galloway says the MOMA will continue to collect them and store them next to Dwarf Fortress.

"It's something we're all still thinking about. We're thinking about what the heck is happening here! This is really fascinating and weird."

Read more about the MOMA's efforts to preserve and interpret video games here.

Edit: This article has been edited to reflect that the MOMA is running Tetris via emulation on an Apple computer, not on the actual Soviet-era computer it was designed for.