The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

This morning, PhillyJacobs, SirMikeofRoss, and I visited The Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  I’ve been following the development of this exhibition for about a year, and I was reservedly excited.  Being on their mailing list, I watched it develop from idea to execution, and, while I was pessimistic at first, by the time I received their most recent email, I saw its potential and decided to go.

First, I want to share the positives.

I think this is great.  Like its predecessor, film art, video games aren’t taken seriously by the majority this early in their development.  Most games exhibit elements of art, but they aren’t as deep or well-rounded as, say, literature or film.  They have their moments, and they have a strong underground culture that works to develop that.  The fact that the Smithsonian would take the time to sponsor and develop such an exhibition marks a turning point, and I’m glad they did.

The first thing to catch our eye was the live-action gaming aspect, where visitors could go through a series of platform-like mechanics in real life and real time:

A gamer hops over obstacles created by "robots" while a fake Dr. Robotnik hangs out nearby.

The other visitors watched, photographed and recorded the gamers, cheering them on.  A mellow techno played in the background as the gamer made their way through the different stages.  At the end, the “robots” danced and gave high fives.

I didn’t count, but nearly every console was available to play.  I immediately migrated to the Sega Saturn, only to find out that the controller was broken.  We also found an original NES, and we each took a crack at Super Mario 3, Level 2-1.

Philly runs after a mushroom.

SirMike tries to match for a power up.

Pac-Man was also around for photos.

SirMike and I with Pac-Man!

For the opening weekend, they had lectures and discussions with both Nolan Bushnell (the founder of Atari) and Hideo Kojima (the creator of the Metal Gear series). Kojima is known for his fusion of cinematics into gameplay, and the Metal Gear series, with its strong interactivity, gameplay and plot/character development, is one of the champions for video games as art.

While we found these things fun and interactive, we missed the “art” aspect.  When I visit a museum, I get a history and explanation.  Why is this piece important?  Who did this person inspire?  This exhibit didn’t have that.  If you’re going to take on such a controversial project, why wouldn’t you, at least, take the time to explain the artistic merit?

Where was the argument for video games as an interactive art?  How about story form in video games, and how to balance gameplay and character development?  Where do graphics fit?  There wasn’t anything artistic about this exhibit.  While I think it’s a step in the right direction, I still found it detrimental to the cause.  Mix in the fact that nearly half the room was devoted to arts and crafts for kids, and it’s a glorified children’s museum.

Like all art, there is a difference between what’s entertaining and what speaks to you.  A good game considers every element that goes into it and visits and re-visits them to near perfection, creating an experience that evokes emotion, invigorates you, or makes a statement.  This exhibition didn’t even consider those ideas or any of the many other definitions of art.

Sadly, The Art of Video Games was more like a middle schooler’s birthday party than an argument for video games’ place in the art world.


About tiamonster

Gamer. Reader. Writer. Tea enthusiast.
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