Smithsonian's 'Art of Video Games' exhibit field report

I step out of the third-floor elevator, and I'm immediately engulfed by opulence. The Great Hall of the Smithsonian American Art Museum houses portraits of 20th century Americans, in style of a luxurious turn-of-the-century mansion. Turning the corner, the walls become stark white, and the art changes to the fields of color and abstracted figures inherent in modern art. Another corner, and a large projector screen comes into view. The hallway leading to the "Art of Video Games" exhibit is home to various types of post-1940s art, rife with video screens and old found footage. It's an appropriate, albeit temporary, home for a new medium's coming out party. This exhibit represents one of the first times video games have been featured in such a context, not to mention in such a nationally recognized museum. Core gamers, the audience most likely to be reading this, probably won't learn much from the display. It doesn't delve deep into the medium, or showcase the experimental and independent, or address how a game itself can be a carefully constructed narrative experience. In short: this exhibit is not made for us, but it opens the artistry of our interests to a wider audience. That is something to celebrate. The first of three rooms displays various concept art and artifacts from series as diverse as Sonic the Hedgehog, Fallout, and Halo. A few monitors display cycling faces of players, young and old. The second room showcases the experiential nature of games, with several kiosks projecting gaming nobility: Super Mario Bros, Myst, and Flower, to name a few. Each has a specially-designed pedestal to house a controller or trackball, beckoning viewers to try the games themselves. The final room houses the history of games, and several major consoles are highlighted -- with the notable exception of handheld systems. The displays show the consoles themselves, with four games honored from each.

The faces of gaming

The decor doesn't match the rest of the American Art Museum. The lighting is dim and the walls are painted bright tones that might look garish if not muted by the low light. Even the framing bucks against traditional gallery conventions with irregular shapes. It may be trying too hard to appear edgy, sharing more in common with the Spike VGAs aesthetic than an art gallery. The historical section is easily the most popular room. Each console carries an emotional connection for players, and I could overhear these fond memories bubbling up as people spoke. "What's that, daddy?" a child asked, pointing to the Dreamcast display. The father explained how he used to own that system. "This was my first," a 20-something told his companion, presumably his girlfriend, about the Sega Master System. These exchanges illustrate the power of the exhibit: to make average people conscious of games as a creation, rather than a product. Carrying an emotional connection, in which you recall an experience to your son or talk about a console like an old lover, should give casual observers enough pause to consider why games might belong in an art gallery. That said, the gallery doesn't make a particularly compelling argument for games as an art form. It certainly showcases the artistry inherent in creating games, and how the final piece of software is a confluence of various artistic tools, but the experience itself isn’t given a lofty place next to some of the best artwork in American history.

A trackball-powered interactive display

This contributes to the sense that the gallery isn't made for those of us who have been through the "games as art" debate a thousand times. It's not speaking to people who are constantly neck-deep in video game information and discussion. We already know of the artistry, and we recognize it all the time. Depending on your personal feelings, you might also believe the games themselves are artistic works. This exhibit doesn't seem particularly interested in broaching that subject. Instead, it serves as more of a reflection on the machinations of the game-making process. In terms of displaying games as an artistic medium, it's a baby step, made more for beginners and casual or lapsed fans who haven’t put much thought into the question. That's not entirely a bad thing. For games to be considered an artistic medium, either by artistry or artifact, guiding the mainstream consumer to probe the question is an important early step. As the medium's showcase in a national art gallery, it serves its purpose. It is an introduction to the uninitiated. It is unfortunate, however, that the inclusions feel so constrained by hamstrung genre definitions. Each console includes a representative of Action, Target, Adventure, and Tactics. These four genres are defined so bizarrely, and in such a sweeping manner, that some games go unrepresented while others get a place at the table. No one would argue against the inclusion of games like Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, or BioShock. But the genre choice means we also see examples like Worms: Armageddon for the N64, or Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth on the Xbox 360. If a system had a wealth of great platformers or shooters, why restrict it to one example while praising other games that didn't do as much to define the console's identity?

The Super NES on display

This speaks to a fundamental problem in the exhibit's approach. Guest curator Chris Melissinos had the admirable goal of democratizing the process, but that approach requires fair play. Hence, it relied on genres that could not possibly sustain themselves across forty years of gaming. "The Art of Video Games" would have been better served if it had been truly curated and hand-picked. Melissinos may have wanted to avoid the kind of fervent passion that comes with overlooking a game, but the democratic approach led him to the same end. Those core complaints are unlikely to sway most people who attend the museum, though. For the vast majority of visitors, it will serve as an insightful look at the creative process, and a stepping stone to recognizing games as an artistic medium. If it helps foster more understanding of the medium, my minor complaints regarding tone and process are negligible.
[The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC is hosting the "Art of Video Games" exhibit through September 30. As always, the Smithsonian museums are free to the public. The exhibit will begin tour dates in October, which can be viewed at the exhibit site.]