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The Art of Play: Touring the Smithsonian’s Video Game Exhibit

In an attempt to capture the aspirations and imagination of modern culture, the Smithsonian American Art Museum displays works of art from renowned artists such as John Singleton Copley, David Hockney, and Georgia O'Keeffe – and most recently, Tim Schafer, Sid Meier, and Ken Levine. The museum’s newest exhibit, “The Art of Video Games,” is a 6,000 square-foot show dedicated to showing off the artistic merits of over 80 games from the last 40 years. The show's March 16 opening drew nearly 23,000 visitors and was one of the museum's busiest days on record. We talk with guest curator Chris Melissinos about the exhibit and the rising influence video games have on our culture.

This interview originally appeared in Game Informer issue 230.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum featuring an exhibit on video games is a big deal. What is your goal for this show?
We wanted to build an exhibit that shows the artistic progression of video games over time. We wanted to look at video games as an art in itself, not just look at the art that makes up games. I think that’s an important distinction. We’re not just looking at the artifacts within games, the music and the art and the story. We’re looking at the video game medium as
an art medium.

People have debated that topic for a long time, but this exhibit lends legitimacy to games as an art form. Do you think this exhibit might finally silence some opponents?
Art is a highly subjective term, but I can tell you that after spending so much time in museums in the lead up to this exhibition, I’ve never had a painting or a sculpture drive me to become emotional. However, I have had games do that. Games have this way of reaching us on a level that most art cannot, because it is an amalgam of art. It is the best of what we can do with art all wrapped up into something that becomes greater than its parts. Within games we have illustration, sculpture, musical scoring, narrative, and poetry. Not only are they an amalgam of all these things, but also they are the only form of art that invites us – even requires us – to participate in order to fully express itself. I think that’s incredibly powerful.

When putting together the show did you receive any backlash from the old guard who maybe doesn’t understand how games could be perceived as art?
By and large, the museum was on board. However, there are always questions that arise from people who are not used to the experience. I think the reason there is such a kickback to viewing video games as art is because it’s such a recent medium. It’s hard to approach it with the same reverence that we all have for these older art styles. Video games are on the same trajectory that every other form of art has ever taken. When movies were introduced people said, “Why would you go to a movie when you could go to the theater?” But video games have had this kind of hyper-evolution in just 40 years. It has expanded faster and more impressively, and it’s touched more corners of the planet than any other form before it in that same amount of time. Society is used to having more time to adapt to new art forms. I think we’re finally at the point where we can have this discussion about games as art. We couldn’t have had this discussion 20 years ago. We can have it now.

How did you approach looking at video games as an art form?
We looked at creating a narrative that would demonstrate the evolution of the form over time while wanting to be able to hear the echoes of game mechanics that remain the same. For example, when you look at a game like Pitfall on the Atari and here is Pitfall Harry running and jumping on vines, and then you look at Uncharted 2 and you see Nathan Drake running through the jungle and jumping on vines, you realize that those core mechanics are very similar. What changes is the size of the canvas in which designers can paint the story. It’s not like games from the past were any less ambitious or any less involved; it’s just that the technology of the day was anemic. It could not accurately or fully describe the entire intent of the author, which is why early games came with elaborate box art, and comic books, and cloth maps.

You could have included a number of games in the exhibit. How did you trim down your list and settle on just 80 titles?
For the exhibit, we picked four very general genre buckets that we could lump a bunch of things into that would show the progression of video games over time. It would have been easy to just pick 80 games that I felt fit the narrative best, but I didn’t think that would stay true to the voices of video games. I believe we have three voices in video games. One is the designer and the story they’re trying to tell. One is the game itself and the mechanics that present the game to the player. And finally we have the voice of the player who, in playing the game, makes it art. I wanted that three voice premise to echo through the exhibit. So rather than just pick 80 games, I picked 240 games that would fit into the narrative arc, and I let the public cast a vote to provide some semblance of input – a representation of interactivity – that would be represented in the show.

What are some of your personal highlights?
We have games like Uncharted 2, Rez, Utopia, Minecraft, and Heavy Rain. We have a wide variety that demonstrates the art’s progression. One of my favorites is when you look at Panzer Dragoon Zwei and Saga. They were interesting because they came out during a transition era. In that era, we asked game designers and artists to move from a two-dimensional medium to a three-dimensional medium. Imagine if you were a painter and you were handed a chisel and hammer and told to go make your next creation out of marble. How well do those skills really translate? Not very easily. There’s no one-to-one. In games like Panzer Dragoon Zwei you can see the struggles the artists had in trying to convey their design under the limitations of the hardware. The world sits broken because the hardware couldn’t match the scope of the idea. I think that’s beautiful to observe. You flash forward to today and we don’t have that problem. We can fully render 3D worlds and convey the breadth of a story pretty well, so now we’re starting to see artists limiting themselves.

What exactly do you mean when you say, “artists are limiting themselves?”
Look at 3D Dot Game Heroes, Limbo, or Fez. They’re not pushing some kind of realism, they’re saying, “What if rather than create something photorealistic, what if we flipped it and used the technology to create a perspective that’s different and engages the audience in a way that can’t happen with photorealism?” Now video games are beginning to create more abstract notions of art. Look at Journey, which could have implemented full voice chat with your online partner, but it didn’t in order to influence your emotions in a different way. We have the technology to let players chat with each other while they play, but Journey doesn’t do that, and you still have this really cool immersive, connected experience. It’s a journey in the true sense of the word. It limited itself on purpose for the sake of the art.

Art usually has a deeper meaning than what we see on the surface. Do you think that holds true with games as well?
Absolutely. The problem with dismissing video games as just games is that you’re not really listening to the story that the artists intended behind the game. An example I use all the time is Missile Command. Everyone said, “Well it’s a benign but really cool target shooting game.” However, Missile Command was a statement about the Cold War. [Missile Command creator] Dave Theurer was approached by Atari to work on a missile game, but he said he would not build a game where he launched nukes at the USSR. He wanted to build a game about defending one’s country, because he felt it was a moral good. What was happening in the world, at the time, informed his game. The problem is that people dismiss the meaning behind the game because they dismiss games as games. The goal of our show was to peel back the gameplay veneer a bit and listen to what the designers were trying to say.

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