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Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art of Video Games Is a Gamer’s Delight

Essay

Back in March, I reviewed The Art of Video Games, the companion book to the exhibit of the same name at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. At the time, there was no way for me to attend the exhibit myself, short of the invention of transporters (ahem, scientists — I’m still waiting on that). But through some happy circumstances that would take too long to explain, last week I found myself in DC, standing at the steps of the museum itself. What I discovered within was a heartfelt (though imperfect) tribute to an emerging and rapidly evolving artform. Though the exhibit has a few bugs that could use patching, if you love to overthink games as much as I do, or if you’ve got a nonbeliever to convert, The Art of Video Games is well worth the trip.

The exhibit begins by walking the visitor through a brief introduction to game history and development. This included short video interviews with game developers, designers and composers, which were shown throughout (I was happy to see some women included in the mix — not many, but I think that has much more to do with the industry rather than the exhibit). The first room held one of my favorite displays: three video panels rotating through footage of gamers in the thick of play. Far from a succession of glassy-eyed stares, the panels cycled through faces of all ages and genders in various stages of intense focus, dismay, confusion, and delight — a combination of emotions that is instantly recognizable to any gamer. I could feel my own brow furrow in sympathy. A few steps away was a small collection of concept art, featuring sketches from games such as Fallout 3, StarCraft, and World of Warcraft. I would have liked to have seen a larger selection on this front, but I was nonetheless geeking out over an early version of Kerrigan, as well as a rough drawing of Ironforge. When I thought of how many long-lasting friendships I’d formed within that dwarven stronghold, that little penciled sketch held a lot of nostalgia for me.

Unlike other forms of art, the wonder of a game cannot truly be appreciated until the outside observer takes an active role in exploring it. This is a difficult aspect to include within a museum setting, but the exhibit tackles this by offering visitors the chance to actually play for a few minutes. I thought the selection of playable games was spot-on: Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. A perfect sampler platter of not only genre, but of artistic growth. The controls were often manned by kids, as one might expect, but I was glad to see a few grey-haired folks step in to take Flower for a whirl.

The meat and potatoes of the exhibit is the final room, which showcases dozens of games through video displays. The press of a button outlines each game’s artistic relevance, noteworthy components, and how it fits in to the evolution of the medium. The little snippets of footage and narration feel as if they were taken straight out of an art history course, and I think it would be hard for anyone who worked through a few displays to argue that games are anything but a valid means of creative expression. Overall, I felt the content was more celebratory than analytical, but that wasn’t necessary a bad thing. Though I would have enjoyed a more in-depth approach, it was perhaps the right way to present an artform that is still struggling to achieve cultural recognition.

As I viewed the footage for BioShock, a woman roundabout my age (let’s just say the 26-35 bracket) appeared beside me. She said, “I love BioShock. I must’ve played it ten times by now.” It took me a second to realize that she was addressing me. As we fell into a brief but animated chat about our experiences with the game, I felt a sort of warm understanding for why she had needed to strike up a conversation in the first place. Every geek or gamer has had that feeling, the feeling of being so excited by the briefest reminder of something you love that you have to tell somebody about it right freaking now, regardless of whether you know them or not. I had the same feeling myself a minute or so into the conversation, as she told me that after practically wearing out her console on BioShock, she had been recommended Mass Effect as a follow-up. By that point, we were both talking over each other and grinning too much to worry about saying much of substance. There’s a reason why I prefer writing about these things. It’s nice to have enough time to calm down and form complete sentences.

I witnessed similar behavior among many of the exhibit’s visitors, so much so that it was easy to pick out the gamers in the crowd. People darting around between displays, gesturing wildly as they explained the games they loved so much to their patient companions. The guestbook near the exit shared the same exuberance. Page after page of hastily sketched fanart, multiple warnings that the cake is a lie, quotes and references to favorite games (I felt it necessary to add my scrawl of support to the thread of folks declaring undying love for Liara T’Soni). In some ways, it was a camaraderie similar to what you can find at conventions, or on Wednesdays at comic book shops, or at midnight movie screenings. But there was an air of acceptableness to it that I’d rarely felt. Not to say that conventions and comic shops aren’t legitimate social venues, but they do have that sense of being separate from the mainstream, our own little bastions of geekery. By contrast, that fellow gamer and I had been encouraged to have a conversation about BioShock within the Smithsonian, of all places. Right out the exhibit door were domed halls full of gilt and culture, the things that are supposed to be real art, meaningful art, the stuff that we’re told is actually good for us. Being in that exhibit was the first time I’ve had a strong sense that video games are finally being taken seriously by people outside of gamer culture.

But on that same note, I found myself wondering how effective the exhibit was for non-gamers. While people of my generation are perfectly content pushing buttons and watching video screens (and none moreso than gamers), I wondered how likely people ahead of us in years are to seek information through an interactive display. As exciting as it was to see my favorite hobby treated with reverence, I felt that the real value of such an exhibit would be to educate people who aren’t familiar with games, people who see games as childish, empty entertainment. I worried that some might pass the exhibit by entirely, thinking it was simply an homage to pixels. And while digital art is as much of a craft as anything else, a game is so much more than that. The true artistry lies in the synergy between visual art, music and sound, storytelling, gameplay mechanics, and the input of the player. That’s obvious to a gamer, but not to the casual passerby who doesn’t feel drawn to press a button on a bright, blinking display.

I asked my mom (who was along for the ride, and who is not a gamer) about this as we sat on a bench in the middle of the exhibit. If she had been there alone, would she have gone through and pressed all the buttons? “Probably not,” she said. “I wasn’t even sure coming in here what questions I should be asking.” She added that she had learned a lot that day, and was thinking about games in ways she hadn’t before, but credited it more to me dragging her around explaining things (to my memory, I was a rambling mess, so I hope I got something right). I wondered then if a more traditional approach to the exhibit might have been more effective for people who aren’t gamers — big, canvassed screencaps on the walls, explanatory text printed in ink alongside. But there’s a problem there, too. If you look at a picture taken from Portal, for example, you can appreciate that it’s got some aesthetic charm. But a still image of Portal does absolutely nothing to explain what Portal is, or why it’s so magical. For that, you need a few minutes of watching Chell play with momentum and jump through walls. You need the video part of the video game. So while I’m not sure if the approach of the exhibit was best for reaching a broad audience, I don’t know what a better solution would be. Perhaps that’s the difficulty level of creating an exhibit for a new form of art, and indeed, for those making the art in question. The rules are still being written.

Image source: Wikipedia (because my camera died)

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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