Never Alone: Video Games as Interactive Design Catalog Review

I recently wrote about the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) new exhibition Never Alone: Video Games as Interactive Design in a recent article for Ars Technica titled “Video Games Invade the Art World in MoMA’s Never Alone Exhibition.” The exhibit is accompanied by the excellent catalog, Never Alone: Video Games as Interactive Design written by Paola Antonelli, Anna Burckhardt, and Paul Galloway. I did not get a chance to discuss this book in detail in my article. I’m correcting this here.

What is Never Alone

Never Alone is more than just a book whose primary purpose is to accompany the exhibit that shares its name. Yes, it prepares audiences for the exhibit, but it does so by way of clever descriptions of the 36 video games on exhibition. It imparts relevant background information and is a primer to the concepts and ideas that inform the exhibit. Readers of this book can enjoy it even without going to the exhibit as it is a great introductory text on interactive design and video game history.

Jesper Juul defines compelling games as those that place agency at the heart of each model. All of the video games present in the catalog are compelling in their own way, but are they compelling as interactive design or even art? The elements specific to video game design as presented in Never Alone are:

  • Behavior: what is taught and elicited from players,
  • Aesthetics: The “elegant code”; visual elegance as a tool,
  • Space: manipulate and change the player’s perceptions of space, and
  • Time: split into Chronos (the measure of time) versus Kairos (the right moment akin to photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment.

There are many challenges posed when acquiring interactive design artifacts, such as video games. MoMA’s first video game-esque acquisition in the interactive design department was John Maeda’s Reactive Books in 2006. Since that first acquisition, the various challenges inherent in acquiring such artifacts make it a prolonged process. They include overcoming internal museum systems and protocols, as well as how to physically store computer code and data.

Video games are comprised of many different media, some of which are considered art. Video game designers must abstract to simulate and show aspects of reality within a game that otherwise would be impossible to recreate. Never Alone highlights this by elucidating three key concepts that inform and shape video games into interactive design: the Input, the Designer, and the Player.

The first of these concepts is where the controller (“The Input”) is an extension of behavior and a tool of interaction between the player, the game, and gaming culture. Pac-Man and Tempest are two of the games discussed in this section for their utilization of specific controllers and command inputs that revolutionize how we play games. Using the joystick to move in Pac-Man is second nature and even newcomers can pick up its control scheme quickly. Its simplicity is startling when compared to many modern games that require over 20-plus button inputs that include pressing shoulder buttons on controllers outside of the purview of players.

Toru Iwatani. Pac-Man. 1980. Source:

 “The Designer” focuses on a designer’s theories and manipulations of player experience. This can range from either a dopamine rush of a game filled with eureka moments at every turn or a frustrating insurmountable climb like in Getting Over with Bennett Foddy. Another example of the designer at work is seen in Dwarf Fortress’ no-cost community approach. A game accessible to most if they are willing to scale the barrier to entry. The game Passage, also in this section, is seen as a “memento mori” – a video game as time capsules as a result of its interactive nature. There are auteurs highlighted in the pages of Never Alone: Jenova Chen, Lucas Pope, and Will Wright. Each of these designers has two or more games in the exhibit, with Chen’s Flow, Flower, and Journey making him the designer with the most games in the exhibit.

Design masterpieces are created by intentionally transforming constraints into strengths. Design solves a problem, the designer creates variables, and the player’s choices affect the outcome. Video game designers can become architects of the experiences of players that play their games. They can make immersion a positive state; a place to forget, unwind, relax, and let go. They can also utilize the breaking of immersion and put players in uncomfortable situations as part of the game experience. This can elicit emotion and reactions. By giving players different experiences, games can serve as a way for players to inhabit a role.

The last section, “the Player” is a place where those that play games have the agency to shape gaming culture. They build communities in games like Minecraft, The Sims, and Eve Online. This section could have easily been titled, the Performer, as playing video games is as much performance as play. Video game code and musical scores are both dependent on players to input needed commands (notes in the case of music). By doing so the player brings video games to life just as a pianist touches the keys of a piano and makes Bach’s Goldberg Variations audible for us to hear.

What to Take Away from Never Alone

There is a phrase that sticks out in the Never Alone exhibit catalog, “power for good.” The catalog presents design as an enzyme for progress. Revolutions are made part of life through design. Nathalie Lawhead’s Everything is Going to Be OK, also playable in the exhibit, tackles this exact point through its labyrinthine and overwhelming vignettes. Is something this serious supposed to be relegated to being boxed in as art or a game? Lawhead struggles with this very idea.

Nathalie Lawhead. Everything Is Going to Be OK. 2017. Source:

Never Alone is meant to amplify the voices of those that make video games. Yet Never Alone, the catalog and the exhibit, run the risk of creating or reinforcing an established cannon. There is irony in MoMA not presenting video games as art but as interactive design. Those who seek validation by having video games viewed as art still have their dear pastime anointed by an international institution like MoMA. The same institution that brought Mexican muralists to the attention of U.S. audiences, has “one of the most comprehensive and panoramic views into modern art”, and is among the most visited museums in the world.

Never Alone tries to eschew nostalgia or paraphernalia, two pillars of gaming culture. Divorcing video games from nostalgia is a way of mediating the baggage and preconceived notions that the public brings to these artifacts. Even with the effort made, Never Alone will verklempt audiences who have strong feelings towards the games on exhibition.

The various design objects, including games, in the exhibition, are present in the book to make us get a sense of awareness of our increasingly digital lives. Let us not forget that though now primitive, Asteroids and Tetris are tech. We shouldn’t panic about complex technologies like computers because we don’t know how to code. The digital world, machines, and video games are made by people. When one’s perspective is changed by a video game it’s not a machine that is influencing us it is people that shape our perspective through video games.

The games listed in the catalog make Never Alone a pollyannish exhibit. It is full of variety and wears optimism on its sleeve. Interactive design as presented in video games has a high barrier to entry. They require would-be players to learn a language and culture that might be too difficult for many. Yet, this is a most accessible book that succeeds in demonstrating that video games are interactive design.

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