Courtesy of SEGA
Video games have come a long way since the days of the Atari. The industry has gone from a fringe group of programmers barely making back their budgets to multi-billion dollar companies with profits rivaling their spiritual brethren in Hollywood. The games themselves have gone from simple tennis simulations to multi-chapter epics with hundreds of hours of story.
No one can doubt the meteoric rise of their popularity, but the interactive nature of games have led many to question whether they can rightfully be defined as art. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is currently making their comment on the debate with an exhibit entitled “The Art of Video Games.”
The exhibit runs from March 16 until September 30, and is run by volunteer guides.
“[Video games] are an amalgam of disciplines: storytelling, animations, music and cinematography, whose sum is greater than its parts,” said guest curator Chris Mellissinos in a quote plastered on the wall outside the exhibit.
Indeed, the exhibit focuses heavily on presenting the parts of video games in order for us to better understand the sum. Features in the three rooms of the exhibit include original concept art of various popular games such as “Fallout” and “Starcraft;” video commentary by game developers, executives and musicians of all eras; and stations for all the major consoles from the Atari VCS to the Xbox 360 with video and commentary on the top games.
Of course, no video game exhibit would be complete without some interactivity. There’s a room where “Pac-Man,” “Super Mario World,” “Escape from Monkey Island,” “Myst” and “Flower” are all set up and fully playable on projected screens.
The overall effect of the exhibit appropriately enough is one of stimulation. Video monitors line the walls, quotes are projected above them, and the sounds of developers and the games they created punctuate the narrow halls. A lot of content is fit into three relatively small rooms.
Although it can be somewhat overwhelming at times, the “sum” of the medium is well communicated. Those who are less familiar with video games get a crash course in their genesis and evolution, and gaming veterans get a behind-the-scenes window into the industry with the concept art and developer commentary. This balance between accessibility and valuable information is extremely important when the subject is something as controversial and foreign to some as video games, and the exhibit manages to toe that line deftly.
Still, the exhibit’s very existence at the American Art Museum is a major victory for the “games as art” camp. As the medium continues to rise and break its way into the mainstream, the question might start to become less and less relevant.