Hordes of young school children march up the steps to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC on a cloudless Friday morning. As they run around yelling and chasing one another, the security guard on duty echoes Ecclesiastes using only his eyes: there’s nothing new under the sun, he tells me. But I’m not terribly worried about the situation — surely these children are on their way up to see work from Annie Leibovitz or some other culturally suitable collection. But contrary to my natural assumption, they file into the elevators, and head straight up to grab controllers in The Art of Video Games exhibit. Things are starting to make sense to me, now: The Art of Video Games is all clearly a clever plot to lure children off of their couches and into a museum. Or, apparently, adults.
Annie Leibovitz vs. Super Mario
Stepping off the elevator into a long corridor, I spot a projector at the end playing clips of 8-bit games. I know that the exhibit has been in the works for more than a year now, and I’ve read its companion book already, but there’s something unexpected about seeing "the art of video games" stenciled onto a bright green wall in a fine art museum. In all of my years of visiting museums in DC I’ve never seen anything like this — there are no statues of Mario at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, or paintings of Sonic the Hedgehog at the Corcoran. So it’s probably excusable that The Art of Video Games exhibit is more celebration than critical commentary: video games are here now, deal with it. Of course, the massive societal adoption of video games and the wildly successful commercial industry behind it seems to already say that. So why are they here?
Well, why not? If video games are art, the same as any other form, then it would seem obvious that they belong in museums alongside traditional works. Admittedly, video games haven't been around long compared to traditional forms of art, at least not enough for there to be a widespread representation of the medium in the museum community. Some might argue that there still isn’t a serious conversation about video game art happening, as The Art of Video Games doesn't talk back much to the viewer or take risks with its point of view. There is no overriding thesis here except for perhaps the obvious notion that games are a new and unique kind of art. As such, it doesn’t prompt many critical questions about the cultural or societal role of video games, or really explore the boundaries that decide what makes a game art as opposed to, say, mere entertainment. But The Art of Video Games at least brings the language of the medium into the discussion for everyone. And that's exactly what guest curator Chris Melissinos wants.
"If you can view a work and understand the artist's intent, and find that personal resonance, then art has been achieved."
Melissinos greets me with a big smile and matching enthusiasm. As he walks me through the exhibit, it’s clear that this is a very personal project for him. There’s a lot of himself on display here, including many of the exhibit's console artifacts which he provided. His goal, simply stated, is to get people to think about games as art and arrive at their own conclusions. He tells me that video games are unique because of the "three authorial voices" present in the medium that enable the art: the game designers that create and tell a story, the game itself through its own mechanics, and the player who interacts with and responds to the experience.
He believes that his definition of art is "more serviceable" than others. "If you can view a work and understand the author or artist’s intent, and find that personal resonance," he says, "then art has been achieved." Melissinos argues that games will stand the test of time to become "the most important forms of art that society has" because they are "an amalgam of all traditional art." Video games are illustration, painting, sculpture, composition, narrative, and orchestration — he says "all the things we individually look at as art pieces are brought together in an amalgam that’s greater than its parts." In his view, people must interact with games for art to emerge.
Seeing the faces of excitement, frustration, and confusion awakened feelings of shared experience
He’s particularly excited about a wall with three monitors in portrait mode, each showing a person reacting to various moments in a game. People of all ages cycle through the display, and he points out his daughter and son when they come on screen. You can’t see what they are playing, but seeing their faces of excitement, frustration, and confusion awakened feelings of shared experience. And while it’s clear from seeing this display that games can provoke a range of emotional responses, Melissinos wants to know if people really understand the meaning behind what they are playing. That deeper meaning isn’t readily available, but he says that’s sort of the point: like abstract art, he says, "there’s a lot that’s difficult to discern."
But there’s not so much that’s difficult to discern at The Art of Video Games. The exhibit's content includes a selection of concept art, short films on the relevance of four games on each of 20 platforms, and stations that allow guests to play five of the most important games, including Super Mario Bros., Myst, and Flower. The entire catalog includes 80 games that were selected to demonstrate how games have evolved over the past 40 years, and while it’s a broad and neatly categorized list, it primarily includes commercial console games to the exclusion of arcade games, web games, and other categories. But Melissinos says that the goal of the exhibition is not "just to speak to the people who know about the most esoteric art games, it is really to have the conversation with the broadest population." And towards that end, the exhibit is successful.
The exhibit divides the 40 year history of gaming into five basic periods that are loosely based on hardware advancements, from the Atari VCS, to the Commodore 64, to MS-DOS, all the way up to next-generation consoles like the PlayStation 3. The narrative tracks common game mechanics throughout this chronology: Melissinos tells me that Nathan Drake's feats in Uncharted trace back to the vine-swinging days of Pitfall. It’s a narrow but practical heuristic that leads the onlooker from the comparatively "low-tech" aesthetic of gaming’s early days to today’s arms race for big budget effects and photorealism. And while Melissinos downplays technology as merely something that gives "more tools to the artist," tech plays a dominating role in the exhibit.
As a developer, Melissinos has a deeper connection to the hardware than players do
Melissinos is eager to tell me how he got started in the industry, and his eyes light up when he talks about getting a Commodore Vic-20 for Christmas when he was nine years old. He wrote his first full game, called Space Debris, when he was twelve. He waxes comically about how the Vic-20 had "just 3K of RAM." As a developer, Melissinos has a deeper connection to the hardware than players do, and this attitude manifests in the exhibit. He says that "video games have always been more than just playing the game. They were a sense of empowerment gifted to me when I was very young." He explains that "when you’re a kid, twelve years old, you’re told what to eat, when to go to bed, what to wear, who you can play with, when to do your homework, so you have all of these controls placed around you. But inside the machine," he says, "inside the computer, we could control those environments... we could bend it to our will." He boasts that the exhibit's playable game stations are all built using original hardware, except for the projectors that are required to make the game visible in the space. There are no emulators here.
Technology is also emphasized in the exhibit's companion book, The Art of Video Games. Tech is presented by some of the book’s interviewees, especially those involved in the early eras of gaming, as if the catalyst behind all game design is an effort to bridge the uncanny valley — a move from the clunky 2D gameplay of the early days to modern cinematics and a more accurate sense of embodiment. But some, like Double Fine founder Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango, Psychonauts), are more skeptical of the role of technology beyond mere means. "I don’t think technology has been a major inspiration for me," Schafer says. "Every round of technology will bring new games that wouldn’t have existed before, but for the things I care about, story and character, they can be done in text or using technology that we had twenty or thirty years ago."
That the book ends with a juxtaposition of an interview with Schafer and a profile for thatgamecompany’s Flower is no mistake — there’s a message here that video games don’t have to be all about hoarding points or men shooting other men in the face. Game designer Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Epic Mickey) says that "I think we’ve proved pretty conclusively that games are more than a way to waste a couple of hours. Video games are a serious medium of expression." And Schafer says that "what the video games industry needs are different points of view, different voices, making all kinds of games... designing ways of interacting with subtle emotions or experiences would be a way of expanding games’ potential, certainly more than what they offer right now."
Melissinos wouldn’t acknowledge any challenges in convincing the museum to host the exhibit (to which I have my doubts), but his pitch on Missile Command gives me an idea for how he managed to convey video games to the fine art community. He explains how Missile Command "seems to be a very benign target game, but it is really one man’s statement on the world at that time. He was making a statement on the Cold War: it’s a game of defense, not a game of attack." He says that "this is somebody who saw the world and imbued this game with his sense of morality," and that "in this you have self-reflection, morality, artistic intent... you have a social conversation that’s occurring within the framework of this game. How is it different from any other artist working in any other medium?"
As Melissinos explains, "the inspiration for this exhibition was really to tease out the humanity of these games... and understand what it is these designers, artists, creators are trying to say." He says that "none of this is done accidentally... there’s intent behind any of this."
"Games sit adjacent to our real world: they are literally an alternate universe, a universe behind glass."
Though he sees the world of video games as a developer, Melissinos is also a player. Right now he’s playing Skyrim, Uncharted, and SSX, though he says his tastes have changed as he began to play games with his family. He loves what Mojang is doing with Minecraft (he’s known Notch since 2001), but won’t play favorites with studios or developers.
As I wrap up my interview, Melissinos turns the tables. He asks me to describe the first game I remember playing. Oblivious to his point, I go on describing in detail a point-and-click horror adventure game that haunted my dreams as a child. He then asks if I remember where I was when I first played, what the chair I was sitting was like, and what desk the computer was on — all things I realize I’m able to recall in vivid detail. Melissinos says that "video games, because they sit adjacent to our real world — they are literally an alternate universe, a universe behind glass — everything about your environment goes into this, because they shouldn’t be there." He says there’s no other form of art that does this.
I’m not sure I buy that last bit. Those who can fall effortlessly into literature, or film, or even those who have simply had an embarrassing moment might find similarly powerful memories. But it’s certainly true that by being able to recall those experiences so vividly, they represent a powerful source of meaning. And for now, that’s what The Art of Video Games represents: the acceptance of meaning from generations of people who grew up with video games, and the affirmation of a new cultural heritage that deserves consideration.
That validation won’t live or die by this exhibit, but it’s a great first step.
The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect
Chris Melissinos, Patrick O'Rourke
Welcome Books; March 5; $40