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by Paul Marzagalli

If all the world’s a stage, then “The Art of Video Games” is Stage 1…or World 1-1 if you are of a certain persuasion. The newest exhibit of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “The Art of Video Games” is an important milestone for the video game industry – a recognition and discussion of video games as a viable artform in today’s culture. It is the perfect entry point for the general public to discover video games and for all to begin building a dialogue deeper into the history and circumstances of them.

The exhibit is a collaboration between the Smithsonian and guest curator Chris Melissinos, Vice-President of Corporate Marketing at Verisign and founder of Past Pixels, his personal website dedicated to the recognition and preservation of the video game legacy and discussions of the industry’s future. Together with the Smithsonian’s Georgina Goodlander, they set out to create an exhibit where, according to Melissinos’ mission statement which greets visitors, “(u)sing the cultural lens of an art museum, viewers can determine whether the games on display are indeed worthy of the title ‘art.’” Though the exhibit will naturally attract gaming fans, it is compellingly designed for the everyday museum visitor, quite possibly someone who has never touched a video game before.

Just getting to the exhibit is a sensory explosion. The layout of the museum has attendees wandering down a long corridor. The austere white of the lighting, marble, and painted walls of the museum give way to a dimly-lite, purple-hued mystery. A cacophony of noise, like the ambient hum of an arcade, grows louder as one gets closer. Most strikingly, the wall at the end of the corridor has images of multiple games projected onto it. The lines for opening weekend were long (though they moved very quickly), and many times the “waiting in line for a ride at Disney” comparison was heard. It was an apt analogy.

After rounding the corner and into the exhibit, the first room is a bazaar of video game knowledge. Video screens capture images of peoples’ faces as they play different games – furrowed brows, exultant cheer, and agonized grimaces. Artwork peppers the walls and design cases, from illustrations by Walt Disney (used for the video game “Epic Mickey”) to box art from the game “M.U.L.E.”. The centerpiece of the room is a series of five screens arranged one next to the other, showing the earliest video games and chronologically working their way up to modern blockbusters. It’s a video game version of F. Clark Howell’s famous “March of Progress”. It also serves to define the exhibit’s way of breaking down forty years of video game history into five categories: Start!, 8-Bit, Bit Wars!, Transition, and Next Generation.

The next room is the centerpiece of the exhibit: a series of five kiosks where people can play games ranging from “Pac-Man” to “Flower”. Exhibit designers David Gleeson and Michael Mansfield designed these kiosks to convey the hyperreality of video games. Oversized screens displayed the action and the walls around each kiosk had an encompassing feel which let visitors experience the sensation of tuning out the real world and journeying into the fantasy of a created realm. As Mansfield describes, “We designed the cubes to put you into a game. When you are in a game, the text is a different size, you sort of meld into the game. We wanted to provide that sensation for people.”

This hits on the underlying theme of the exhibit: of video games as an art created by three dynamic forces: designer, gameplay, and player. As described by Melissinos (and displayed on a wall for all to read):

“Video Games combine graphics, sound, story, and interaction to create meaningful and immersive experiences. Imaginative artists and designers use this medium to create worlds and tell their stories. None of this is possible, however, without the participation of the player. Everyone who plays a game puts a little of themselves into the experience, and takes away something that is wholly unique. This conversation among the game, the artist, and the player is critical to understanding video games as art.”

Mansfield describes how they worked to capture that conversation in the exhibit, “Created a footprint for the show…curatorial narrative, very specific decisions about where things are in relationship to everything else…The entrance is the pre-show area, your table of contents. This (playable games room) is describing the ways creativity explodes in video games between the players, the designers, the technology and the conversation that happens there is really important to what we think is the creative art in video games. (The entrance) is the educational space and it prepares you for what you experience here in the playable games room.”

Noticeably absent from the playable games area are any multiplayer experiences (you can’t even choose 2-player on “Super Mario Brothers”). When asked about this, Mansfield reiterated that this exhibit is meant to be the beginning of the conversation about art, and that, “There’s a lot of room for growth.” This tracks with other absent elements, such as any discussion or coverage of gaming’s myriad controversies through the years or elements of the industry not represented (arcades in particular seem to get the short shrift).

The final room is the most traditionally “museum”. It is an array of different consoles and computers from the era of home computing and video gaming, each of them showcasing different games. Each game has accompanying video and text which describes its impact at the time and down through the years. In true gamer fashion, the video games on display were voted on by the public to the tune of about 119,000 votes. This led to some unusual choices (three “Panzer Dragoon” games?) no doubt driven by passionate and sometimes niche fanbase participation. Still, those kinds of results speak to Melissinos’ contention that it is the collaboration between designers, mechanics, and players that create the art.

From there, the exhibit unceremoniously dumps the attendees back into the museum proper. Gone are the dark hues and stentorian clamor of the video game industry, back are the august marble and brightly illuminated rooms of the American Art Museum. It is in this moment, to borrow an old-fashioned gaming phrase, Melissinos and Goodlander “let the dice fall where they may.” Is what visitors just experienced art or is it not? The triumph of the exhibit is that it introduces video games into that conversation.

As Melissinos said in his opening remarks, this exhibit’s time could only come now because that first generation who grew up with video games (referring to himself and others as “bit babies”) now have children of their own and are passing on these traditions and appreciation. Citing video games’ place in “the deomocratization of technology,” this era where the ability to access and spread information is unparalleled in human history, Melissinos notes how culturally relevant the industry and these games are regardless of how they are perceived. Whatever opinions people leave the exhibit with, there can be no denying that video games are full of sound and fury signifying…something. Thanks to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the conversation has begun in earnest on what that “something” is.