Posted by Gold_Skulltulla (184 posts) -

This past weekend the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened The Art of Video Games: a history-spanning account of the life of the medium. It's a big coming out party for games-as-art champions who get to see the games they love stand in the limelight on a national stage. The show was put together with great care and respect by guest curator Chris Melissinos, but perhaps the most significant thing about The Art of Video Games is that it exists at all.

The title of the exhibition is so purely descriptive it seems like it should be the subtitle to something written in leetspeak. I imagine the reasons for such a bland header are multifold. There's a wide audience of museum goers who know nothing about games and the straightforward title lets them know what they're in for. It plays it safe, which could be used as a descriptor of the entire show. It isn't surprising that SAAM would want to avoid controversy, especially in the wake of the hot water their housemate, the National Portrait Gallery, found themselves in with their Hide/Seek exhibition. Also, the Smithsonian can be a stuffy place, and The Art of Video Games is a sign of goodwill on the part of games advocates who are willing to keep the crazy in the box in exchange for a solid dose of recognition.

The exhibition consists of three rooms: a "visual art of games" display, a hands-on arcade space, and an archival console timeline. Aside from the hilarious video footage of gamers' faces as they play, the initial room seems geared towards showing the visual appeal and traditional craft of game aesthetics. Concept art and storyboards are installed salon-style, and a 5-channel display shows the graphical leaps in video games hardware over the past few decades. I imagine the first room gives non-gamers something to latch onto that's a bit more familiar for an art museum.

Moving forward, visitors enter a wide open space with a handful of large projected games to play, each contained within a giant half-cylinder "arcade cabinet." The whole room is aglow in purple, blue, and black stenciled lights, offering an aesthetic that's very roller rink/lazer tag arena. During the opening weekend there were lines for the multi-generationally recognizable Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. People were playing Myst and The Secret of Monkey Island too, but the nature of those adventure titles made them more suitable for a less crowded setting. Along with Flower, these are the only playable games in the exhibition.

The third space, the console timeline, seems like the centerpiece of the show. In this room, again bathed in purple, vertical structures display video game consoles individually behind glass and pair them with four games each. The games are divided evenly into Action, Target, Adventure, and Tactics categories, offering a better glance at genre evolutions than necessarily the best or most important games on a particular system. Each tower has a button per game that plays a video with voiceover describing why the game is of significance and additional contextual details. Unfortunately, some of the game selections feel like an unnecessary stretch to prove their worth. The video for TRON: Maze-Atron even admits that the game wasn't very good, yet, here it is. It may have been a noble effort to democratize the selection process, but it's difficult to see that as a plus given some of the resulting picks; I'm looking at you Worms Armageddon.

It's frustrating to see an exhibition of video games both spread itself too thin and miss essential pieces at the same time, but The Art of Video Games does just that. Everyone could have their list of impossible-to-satisfy omissions, but I find it hard to stand behind the absence of all fighting games and, by extension, arcades. On the other end of the spectrum, the broad survey of games is rooted in understanding chronological history more than communicating a clear argument for why we should view games as artworks. Perhaps "games are art" is the inherent assumption, given the context of the exhibition in an art museum, but I was hoping for a little more intellectual rumination on the subject.

I love video games, but I realize this show is only partially meant for me. I don't go into an art exhibition expecting to adore every piece, but I do need to find resonance in the core conceits of the artists and curators who bring everything together. This is a sentiment that The Art of Video Games ultimately achieves. Melissinos has painted a history of games that may not be a mirror reflection of actual events, but it is a narrative that makes sense, and is actually digestible. The show is a foot in the door for the medium that will hopefully lead to increasingly daring efforts in the future.

The opening of The Art of Video Games was supplemented by talks and panel discussions as part of Gamefest covered here previously.

#1 Posted by Gold_Skulltulla (184 posts) -

This past weekend the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened The Art of Video Games: a history-spanning account of the life of the medium. It's a big coming out party for games-as-art champions who get to see the games they love stand in the limelight on a national stage. The show was put together with great care and respect by guest curator Chris Melissinos, but perhaps the most significant thing about The Art of Video Games is that it exists at all.

The title of the exhibition is so purely descriptive it seems like it should be the subtitle to something written in leetspeak. I imagine the reasons for such a bland header are multifold. There's a wide audience of museum goers who know nothing about games and the straightforward title lets them know what they're in for. It plays it safe, which could be used as a descriptor of the entire show. It isn't surprising that SAAM would want to avoid controversy, especially in the wake of the hot water their housemate, the National Portrait Gallery, found themselves in with their Hide/Seek exhibition. Also, the Smithsonian can be a stuffy place, and The Art of Video Games is a sign of goodwill on the part of games advocates who are willing to keep the crazy in the box in exchange for a solid dose of recognition.

The exhibition consists of three rooms: a "visual art of games" display, a hands-on arcade space, and an archival console timeline. Aside from the hilarious video footage of gamers' faces as they play, the initial room seems geared towards showing the visual appeal and traditional craft of game aesthetics. Concept art and storyboards are installed salon-style, and a 5-channel display shows the graphical leaps in video games hardware over the past few decades. I imagine the first room gives non-gamers something to latch onto that's a bit more familiar for an art museum.

Moving forward, visitors enter a wide open space with a handful of large projected games to play, each contained within a giant half-cylinder "arcade cabinet." The whole room is aglow in purple, blue, and black stenciled lights, offering an aesthetic that's very roller rink/lazer tag arena. During the opening weekend there were lines for the multi-generationally recognizable Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. People were playing Myst and The Secret of Monkey Island too, but the nature of those adventure titles made them more suitable for a less crowded setting. Along with Flower, these are the only playable games in the exhibition.

The third space, the console timeline, seems like the centerpiece of the show. In this room, again bathed in purple, vertical structures display video game consoles individually behind glass and pair them with four games each. The games are divided evenly into Action, Target, Adventure, and Tactics categories, offering a better glance at genre evolutions than necessarily the best or most important games on a particular system. Each tower has a button per game that plays a video with voiceover describing why the game is of significance and additional contextual details. Unfortunately, some of the game selections feel like an unnecessary stretch to prove their worth. The video for TRON: Maze-Atron even admits that the game wasn't very good, yet, here it is. It may have been a noble effort to democratize the selection process, but it's difficult to see that as a plus given some of the resulting picks; I'm looking at you Worms Armageddon.

It's frustrating to see an exhibition of video games both spread itself too thin and miss essential pieces at the same time, but The Art of Video Games does just that. Everyone could have their list of impossible-to-satisfy omissions, but I find it hard to stand behind the absence of all fighting games and, by extension, arcades. On the other end of the spectrum, the broad survey of games is rooted in understanding chronological history more than communicating a clear argument for why we should view games as artworks. Perhaps "games are art" is the inherent assumption, given the context of the exhibition in an art museum, but I was hoping for a little more intellectual rumination on the subject.

I love video games, but I realize this show is only partially meant for me. I don't go into an art exhibition expecting to adore every piece, but I do need to find resonance in the core conceits of the artists and curators who bring everything together. This is a sentiment that The Art of Video Games ultimately achieves. Melissinos has painted a history of games that may not be a mirror reflection of actual events, but it is a narrative that makes sense, and is actually digestible. The show is a foot in the door for the medium that will hopefully lead to increasingly daring efforts in the future.

The opening of The Art of Video Games was supplemented by talks and panel discussions as part of Gamefest covered here previously.

#2 Posted by Strife777 (1432 posts) -

Very interesting read, thank you.

It seems to make sense that we would now have a museum or atleast an exposition dedicated to video games. It is probably the youngest entertainment medium by a significant margin, but it's evolution and growth is so rapid and rich with interesting things to show to people.

#3 Posted by selbie (1781 posts) -

I remember seeing the Game On exhibition that toured Australia in 2008. That was an awesome event that showcased the history, culture and growth of video games. Hopefully we will see more video game exhibitions that try to focus on the intellectual side of the industry and not just the spectacle and marketing that the public is normally exposed to.

#4 Posted by theartofbalance (15 posts) -

My brother lives in Alexandria and he went into D.C. to see this exhibition. He's told me that the exhibition largely focuses on a broad overview of video game history and there weren't too many interesting things for him to see. However, he does believe that this is another watershed moment for video games in which they are introduced to mainstream crowds who have very little knowledge about them. Personally, I am very excited that something like this exists in the Smithsonian. I feel like moments like this bring video games ever closer to the forefront of mainstream media and hopefully this will allow people to understand games in a new way.

#5 Posted by Gold_Skulltulla (184 posts) -

@Strife777: @selbie: @theartofbalance: Thanks for reading. I pretty much agree with all the sentiments expressed.

#6 Posted by Claude (16251 posts) -

Was Roger Ebert there?

#7 Posted by Skald (4366 posts) -

@Claude said:

Was Roger Ebert there?

Part of the exhibit is his visage, just scowling at you and video games in general.

#8 Posted by jking47 (1191 posts) -

While I do wish they would be a little more in depth with these things, it would probably turn off most of the museums normal patrons. This is a step in the right direction at least.

#9 Posted by Claude (16251 posts) -
@Skald said:

@Claude said:

Was Roger Ebert there?

Part of the exhibit is his visage, just scowling at you and video games in general.

Perfect. That's history for you.
#10 Posted by Example1013 (4749 posts) -

Just because it's titled "The Art of Video Games" doesn't mean it's stating that video games are art. Every video game ever has art in it, but that doesn't make the game itself art. The title could also be highlighting the art of producing games. There's a lot of artistic creativity that goes into the whole process of making games, but basically none of it makes games art.

#11 Posted by Gold_Skulltulla (184 posts) -

@Example1013: You're right that the "games are art" stance isn't inherent, but I do believe that's the sentiment here. Listening to curator Chris Melissinos speak throughout the weekend, that was definitely his intention. I do wish this notion was extrapolated further in the show though.