This past weekend the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened The Art of Video Games: a history-spanning account of the life of the medium. It's a big coming out party for games-as-art champions who get to see the games they love stand in the limelight on a national stage. The show was put together with great care and respect by guest curator Chris Melissinos, but perhaps the most significant thing about The Art of Video Games is that it exists at all.
The title of the exhibition is so purely descriptive it seems like it should be the subtitle to something written in leetspeak. I imagine the reasons for such a bland header are multifold. There's a wide audience of museum goers who know nothing about games and the straightforward title lets them know what they're in for. It plays it safe, which could be used as a descriptor of the entire show. It isn't surprising that SAAM would want to avoid controversy, especially in the wake of the hot water their housemate, the National Portrait Gallery, found themselves in with their Hide/Seek exhibition. Also, the Smithsonian can be a stuffy place, and The Art of Video Games is a sign of goodwill on the part of games advocates who are willing to keep the crazy in the box in exchange for a solid dose of recognition.
|3-channel video showing gamers' faces as they play|
Moving forward, visitors enter a wide open space with a handful of large projected games to play, each contained within a giant half-cylinder "arcade cabinet." The whole room is aglow in purple, blue, and black stenciled lights, offering an aesthetic that's very roller rink/lazer tag arena. During the opening weekend there were lines for the multi-generationally recognizable Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. People were playing Myst and The Secret of Monkey Island too, but the nature of those adventure titles made them more suitable for a less crowded setting. Along with Flower, these are the only playable games in the exhibition.
|A giant playable version of the original Pac-Man|
It's frustrating to see an exhibition of video games both spread itself too thin and miss essential pieces at the same time, but The Art of Video Games does just that. Everyone could have their list of impossible-to-satisfy omissions, but I find it hard to stand behind the absence of all fighting games and, by extension, arcades. On the other end of the spectrum, the broad survey of games is rooted in understanding chronological history more than communicating a clear argument for why we should view games as artworks. Perhaps "games are art" is the inherent assumption, given the context of the exhibition in an art museum, but I was hoping for a little more intellectual rumination on the subject.
|Video game history on display in chronological order|
The opening of The Art of Video Games was supplemented by talks and panel discussions as part of Gamefest, covered here previously.