I have seen exhibits before focusing on concept art, and other more “traditional” aspects of the art of video games, but the Smithsonian’s “The Art of Video Games” exhibition, on display now at the American Art Museum in DC, focuses on video games themselves as art form.
The exhibit is divided into three sections. In the first section, the exhibit attempts to show the intersection of designers, gamers, and technology. Video interviews with game designers discuss the power of video games, and the potential the form has for personal expression, innovation and creativity, as well as the idea of video games as artworks, as art form. A lot of the interviews, and small quotes / soundbites, were really quite powerful or interesting – Atari pioneer and Pong creator Nolan Bushnell, for example, is quoted as saying “video games foster the mindset that allows creativity to grow.” It was only a few years ago that we were hearing all about what a bad influence video games were for our children, and our society. Reminds me of the arguments against comicbooks back in the ’50s. Certainly, the sedentary nature of videogaming is dangerous, but video games stimulate our minds in many meaningful, positive ways. As for the recognition of video games as art, Kelee Santiago is quoted on the walls of the exhibit as saying “we’re at the precipice of a whole new medium” – a whole new medium of artistic expression.
Video games can, of course, be visually beautiful, and concept art, character designs, and the like are truly integral, essential, to any game. Mind-blowingly gorgeous cut scenes and background scenery have been a mainstay of the Final Fantasy series since FFVII, which itself when it first came out represented a huge leap forward in video game visuals. Half the appeal of World of Warcraft for me was always simply exploring and enjoying the beautiful sites and scenes, from castles to jungles. Games like Final Fantasy Tactics, which do not rely on flashy, cutting-edge, 3D-rendered graphics, but instead use the “backwards” “outdated” form known as sprites, are still plenty beautiful in their bright colors and artistic style.
But, it goes beyond that. Games can often be surprisingly innovative, inventive, elegant, or conceptual in their design, as well. Why can’t something like Heavy Rain, or Flower, engaging, entrancing, elegant, creative, beautiful, and expertly done, not only in its visuals, but in its structure, its concept, its execution, be “art”?
Video games are really not so different from interactive films, digital art, or audience-participation installation art, are they? I guess one could argue that what sets them apart is that they’re commercial. But that’s a pretty weak argument; the idea of art separated from commerciality or commercialism is really a rather new one in the West. (East Asia has been paying lipservice to that idea for centuries, but never mind.)
I wish that I had copied down more about these video interviews – there really was a lot of really good stuff there. But, on the plus side, all of these interviews are now a part of the Smithsonian archives or museum collection, and very much available to anyone doing serious research on topics related to video games.
The first room of the exhibition, with video interviews, concept art, and a set of screens showing how video games have evolved over the years.
The first room also contained a series of video clips labeled “Advances in Technology,” showing the evolution of the depiction or treatment of specific elements in games – such as flying a plane or spaceship – as video game technology has advanced over the last several decades. On the opposite wall, a series of videos of gamers’ faces as they play show their personal, emotional, investment. All of these are accompanied by concept sketches and other examples of “traditional” art forms related to video games. // In the second section, visitors are given the opportunity to play a series of games, hands-on, on the original systems for which those games were designed. They take you from Pac-Man, up through Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, and MYST, to Flower, an example of the newest directions video games have taken.
The third section, in some ways the main section to my mind, consists of twenty displays, each highlighting one video games system, and four innovative games from that system. Beginning with Atari and ColecoVision, the exhibit moves up through the NES, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, and on through PlayStation, PS2, PS3, N64, Wii, and the XBox 360, tracing the evolution of genres through examples voted for by gamers themselves. In a series of one-minute videos, curators describe how each game was innovative, or represents certain developments or approaches. Of course, this being a popularity contest, the pattern of which games are and are not included doesn’t exactly match what might have been a better selection of examples that were truly innovative. On the surface, it seems a smart idea to allow a populist vote – after all, video games are a populist medium, and this would be a great way to get people involved – and, perhaps most importantly, to guard the exhibition against criticism from the gamer community that the curators don’t know what they’re talking about, and selected the wrong games. That said, I think that Harold Goldberg was right, in his NPR post, to compare this to MoMA allowing the people to vote as to what to show. Art historians and museum curators are experts in which artworks were the most influential or historically significant, not the masses, and the same goes for video games. Sure, there may be ultra-experienced, devoted gamers out there who really know their stuff, but those few individuals are not the 100,000+ people who voted on what to include in this exhibition. Like the art historians who know Cindy Sherman from Thomas Kincade, there are scholars out there, real researchers, who understand the historical development of games, from Nolan Bushnell to Kitase Yoshinori, better than the vast majority of basement-dwellers.
I don’t know that this exhibit is as much the single first-step breakthrough exhibit that the Smithsonian touts it as – I’m pretty sure I have seen “the art of video games” exhibits before, after all. But, nevertheless, especially as something supported by an institution of the Smithsonian’s stature, this exhibit is an important step towards greater, wider, appreciation of video games as an artistic medium. How long, I wonder, did it take before films were seen as more than just frivolous entertainment, and began to be seen as a medium in which true artistic accomplishment could be recognized? How long will it take for video games to start appearing in art history textbooks?
The Art of Video Games is showing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (near Chinatown/Gallery Place Metro stop) in Washington DC, until September 30. Admission is free, and photography is allowed!! After closing in DC, the exhibit will travel to Boca Raton, followed by Seattle, Phoenix, Syracuse, and a whole bunch of other places.