When Japanese video game designer Tru Iwatani sat down to make a new game in 1979, he set out to reach a new audience. If teenage boys were mostly interested in shooting things, could you reach a broader audience, even adult women, if the game was about something more palatable, like eating? As the legend goes, Iwatani ordered a pizza, had a couple of slices, and looked down at what would be his greatest creation, a pale yellow orb that could eat anything in its path. Pac-Man was born.
Fast-forward to 2013, and the Museum of Design Atlanta is showing XYZ: Alternative Voices in Game Design, an exhibition mainly focused on the presence of women in video game design. The galleries are filled with playable games on plugged-in consoles and computers, as well as a few videos and board-style games. One room is even designed as a den so that visitors feel comfortable settling into the couch and picking up the controller. The exhibition doesn't exactly vibe with Iwatani's oversimplified guess of what women would want from a video game, though it does strongly diverge from the shoot-'em-up style predominantly associated with games today. The result reads like an imagined portrait: what video games would look like without all the teenage boys.
At the exhibition's outset, we're greeted with the exhibition's oldest game, the loud, rapid-fire arcade game Centipede from 1981. If you think Iwatani's estimation of women's relationship to video games is reasonable, you may be surprised to find that this charmingly simple combination of lasers, explosions, and deadly insects is the product of collaboration between Ed Logg and Dona Bailey, one of the industry's earliest female designers.
The bulk of the exhibition, though, is more concerned with the contemporary pulse of games than historical curiosities like Centipede. A long wall of video screens shows short films about recent experimental games. In Kiss Controller, designed by artist Hye Yeon Nam, two players use a tongue device that allows them to play a game by literally kissing one another. In a panoramic installation of "Lapin d'hiver" from 2006, players stroke a cartoon bunny to "create pleasurable sensations that allow you to travel through a surreal visual landscape to the bunny's 'happy place.'" All of which, according to the wall text, is an elaborate metaphor for female masturbation.
The exhibition's highlight is the opportunity to sit down and play the games. Two games, in particular, are successful in offering game play that offers an experience specifically different than the one we've come to expect. The Path, a riff on Red Riding Hood installed inside a thicket of tree trunks in the gallery, instructs players to stay on the path and go straight to Grandmother's house. As it happens, that's exactly how to lose the game.
The other, titled The Night Journey, is practically hidden in a small room. Don't miss it. Video artist Bill Viola collaborated with game designer Tracy Fullerton and others at the USC Game Innovation Lab to create a blurry, impressionistic landscape based on Viola's videos; contemplation and stillness, rather than frenetic action, are rewarded with unexpected, beautiful visions. You might say that this is what would happen if Pac-Man became a philosopher.