The Smithsonian Institute has some of the United States' most prized possessions. Containing the Hope Diamond, the Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz", and the original Star-Spangled Banner that waved at Ft. McHenry in 1812, it's a fairly prestigious collection that has academic research running through its every object. One of the Washington, DC based locations is the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art. This is a place where every president's portrait is stored, from Washington to Obama. Currently there is a collection of Annie Leibovitz photography outlining American Immigration both from outside, and within the country.
Amongst all of this fuss and formality, is a limited exhibit. One on the Art of Video Games. I honestly walked into the exhibit not expecting much. I mean really, when you give a group of academics the task, "Make something about video game art", you can't think that something good is going to come of this. However, what they did is rather remarkable. They managed to capture the essence of why people loved games since day one. In addition to the looping documentary-style interviews with game programmers and designers, there is a large amount of actual artwork from the development of games such as Starcraft and World of Warcraft. They even had a Halo 2600 cartridge and box under glass. They took video of people of all ages, from about 8 to 68 actually playing games (probably with a camera behind one-way or darkened glass) to show the range of focus and emotion of players. They also showed how we got from the opening salvo of video games from Pitfall to After Burner, all the way to Mass Effect 2.
The opening art made way to five large-format projections of interactive games, containing Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, flower, Myst, and Escape from Monkey Island. They were limited-time copies, as to allow all visitors to get a chance to experience the games. They also had appropriate controllers for the games, except that Myst and Monkey Island had trackballs instead of mice; a small gripe, but at least they were the large, Golden-Tee-esque trackballs. There was something about both playing them on a large screen (I got to play Pac-Man, the wife went right to Myst) that was spectacular. What made it even more for me was watching a boy of about 8 play Super Mario Bros, the way it was intended. A D-pad and 2 buttons. Given that a modern controller has something like 8 buttons, 2 analog sticks, motion control, and a D-pad, it has to be a bit of a shock to the system. The child was actually a bit confused by it, the simplicity of the controller, and the predictability of the enemies. Things don't do that anymore. Also, they're a lot prettier.
The end of the exhibit brought a sample from every video game console and platform from the Atari 2600 thru the most modern Xbox 360 and PS3. And when I say console, I do mean it. They were unusable, and under glass, but they had all of the consoles except a select few (CD-i, 3DO and Jaguar, I'm looking at you). There are not many places where you can have Space Invaders, Marble Madness, Sonic the Hedgehog, Tomb Raider, Shenmue, Halo 2, and Minecraft all in the same place.
Overall, I thought it was a well-done exhibit. Given who was doing it and how it was done, I was very impressed with how it displayed the passion of both gamers and designers as well as the true art we're only now just beginning to see. This isn't to say that the original Pac-Man maze isn't art, rather that we have developed the moving picture in the form of a video game to the point where it is just as easy to create the next great work of art.
The exhibit will be at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, DC until September 30, and will be packed up to go on a national tour shortly afterward. For more information, or to find when it will be at an art museum near you, visit http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/.