The Art of Video Games

The Art of Video Games: Colecovision kiosk
The Art of Video Games: Colecovision kiosk

I finally got down to the Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (just in time, as the exhibit closes this weekend).

Going in, I wasn't really sure what to expect--the way they ran the public voting to choose which games to include had me concerned that they'd be focusing on the most popular games, rather than the ones that best exemplified the artistic merits of the medium.

But the curators clearly put a lot of thought into which games to feature. They had a good mix of games that were iconic because so many folks remember playing them (Tomb Raider, Mario, Sonic) and those that are iconic because they did something innovative that changed the way people think of games and what they're capable of (like Myst, Portal, and a new game called Flower that's sadly only available on the glorified blue ray player it amuses Sony to call a console).

I wish the exhibit had taken a broader view of its subject. Perhaps because of the size/expense of the exhibit (it was tucked into a few rooms on the third floor, and each room was packed with screens and projectors), it focused almost exclusively on video games as a form of visual art, examining the interface between game and player in much the same way museums examine the relationship between painter and viewer.

I would have liked to see more of a focus on video games as a storytelling medium. 'Literature' is the wrong word for geat games in the same way it's the wrong word for great films, but when games are at their best, they're telling stories in a manner unique to the medium. After my friends and I finished our play through of Mass Effect 3, we spent hours discussing the endings. Which one was most appropriate for our Shepard; which one best fit the narrative arc of the game; ethical implications of making such huge decisions on behalf of billions of sentient beings.

Even games where the story is more linear open up their worlds to players in ways that films and novels can't. One of my favorite adventure games, The Longest Journey, has a single narrative. But exploring the world of the story as you play through, and discovering the world's history and culture by interacting directly with its people and places, is a very different experience than you'd have just reading or watching the main character's adventures. Myst, likewise, has only one 'right' ending. But it's not a beloved classic because of the puzzles or the mystery of the two brothers trapped in the books. Approaching its story not just as a puzzle to unlock but also as a landscape to explore is how it won its place in game history. Movies and novels can't do that. Only games can.

There's also the question of venue. I think the museum of American Art hosted the exhibit just because that's where the interested curators were, but it would have been nice to see some acknowledgement in the exhibit that video games are very much an international art form. Most of the titles that we think of as the classics and staples of the medium are not American at all, and there's something a little weird about an 'American Art' exhibit featuring Mario, Metroid, PacMan, and Minecraft without mentioning that they're not American.

Overall, it was thoughtfully-curated and a great trip down memory lane. One of the rooms had kiosks of consoles, arranged in a timeline from the eighties on up to the present day, with clips of some of the most iconic games from each.  The intergenerational aspect was also quite charming--watching children pick up controllers and try the games I played when I was their age was a real treat. Myst and The Secret of Monkey Island are classics to me, but there were kids at the exhibit who were seeing them for the first time. It reminded me how those games looked and felt when they were new to me.

The Museum of American Art is open until 7pm each evening, and it's right next to the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro. If you can get down there before the exhibit closes down on the 30th, it's worth the trip.


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Posted on September 26, 2012 .