By Jonathan Higgins / June 11th, 2012
Of all the means in the world there are to entertain, the video game is often the most misunderstood. As longtime fans of games, we’ve no doubt grown accustomed to certain controversies, such as the tired “violent video games yield violent people” debate. None of these controversies is better traveled than the question of whether or not video games qualify as art. I do not write this tonight with intent to answer that question for anyone. Nevertheless: I felt compelled to travel some distance in order to see the Smithsonian’s The Art of Video Games in Washington D.C.
I have followed every piece of news about this exhibit since the beginning. I was one of thousands who voted for each of the games represented, which were picked from a list of critically acclaimed titles, for their artistry. Each game was placed into two different categories: one attempted to pinpoint certain “eras” in the history of video games (such as Start, 8bit, BitWars, Transition, and The Next Generation), while the other category was more focused upon which genre a certain game was placed in.
The pictures above show an example of how each game was represented in the exhibit. They were all given a summary that explained its purpose, its plot, and its artistic merit to the medium. Everything from Pac Man, to Final Fantasy VII, to Mass Effect, was explained in great detail, providing insights to the patrons that visited the exhibit. Most of what was said are things long-time video game fans are well aware of, but each blurb was insightful nonetheless. I believe every game represented was done justice.
In addition to the main room, dedicated to the four games represented from each major home console, the exhibit also has concept art from certain games (everything from Sonic & Knuckles to Epic Mickey 2).
The most impressive part of the exhibit was the circular room devoted to game demos. Several of the most recognizable games from each console (like Super Mario Bros, Pac Man, Flower, or even The Secret of Monkey Island) could be played by anyone and everyone. In an adjacent room, there’s actually recorded video of people’s facial expressions as they played these games. The main purpose of the exhibit, in addition to representing the artistic merit in each game, seems to be: convey the importance of the connection between the gamer, the game, and the artist. This space devoted to the “gamer” (demonstrated by a series of facial expressions from each person) wasn’t necessarily my favorite, but it was certainly the most fascinating in my opinion.
I have a few major problems with this exhibit. One: there is a noticeable lack of handheld systems and games, which could present an evolution of art in and of themselves. Every way the exhibit chose to represent console gaming could be reflected in handhelds as well. When mentioning artistry, I imagine the move from black and white graphics to color to the high definition visuals of today’s handheld is just as monumental as it is on the big screen. I imagine the budget of this project is what led to handheld games being excluded, but the point must be made, especially since I pride myself as a hardcore handheld gamer.
The other problem I have with The Art of Video Games is far more semantic in nature. The creators played it way too safe with this one! Any given museum no doubt chooses to convey a certain message by including everything about a particular subject, including more controversial matters. But the Smithsonian stayed away from any game that would dare to raise an eyebrow of the average consumer. Occasionally you’d get a few more mature titles like Shadow of the Colossus or Fallout 3, but… the way to push the envelope is to include games like God of War or Gears of War, which offer some of the same artistic qualities as the other represented games, but do so with a little more of an… edge. Games like these have the power to address both artistry and more controversial matters (read: somewhat excessive violence), which would make so much more of impact on an audience that is willing to learn.
I wonder how patrons and docents treat this particular exhibit. Do they treat The Art of Video Games as some sort of black sheep in their wonderful museum, or have they suddenly developed a respect for games and the audience they’re attempting to reach out to? Are they truly willing to learn, or do they just cautiously observe? With the impressions this exhibit has left me with as a whole—I sincerely doubt they’ve come to respect our passion. While I ultimately feel this is an effort well-spent on behalf of the wonderful people who put it together…it could have been so much more. It should have been so much more. This is the first chance that games have to reach out to a more general audience as works of art. But representing art without controversy leaves me with a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth.
It succeeds in the point it was trying to make, though. To be honest, you’re better suited buying the companion book versus visiting the museum itself. But, I enjoyed my time there, and I may or may not consider continuing to support the fine folks at the Smithsonian so that one day, they might be inspired to…push the envelope a little farther next time around.
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