the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Smithsonian Exhibit: The Art of Video Games

Smithsonian Exhibit: The Art of Video Games

This past weekend held the grand opening of The Art of Video Games, an exhibit held at the American Art Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. The exhibit was chaired by Chris Melissinos (founder of Past Pixels, frequent gaming enthusiast, and advocate for applied technologies), and is comprised of selected titles designed to explore the evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with focus given towards visual effects and the creative use of new technology. At the exhibit, visitors will encounter 80 different games, that were elected to represent their systems within specified criteria, catch developer interviews, view some special behind the scenes design documents, and even try their hand at a game or two. It’s a fairly well presented homage to some of gaming’s greatest successes, and does boast a variety of available titles to showcase the breadth of gaming over the past 40 years to the uninitiated. It would be untrue to say that everyone in the world can tell the difference between a Halo game and a Mario game without playing them, and an exhibit within the Smithsonian will surely teach outsiders a thing or two they may never have thought before about the games industry.

This is unfortunately where my praises for the exhibit end, as I’m afraid the exhibit ultimately does very little to showcase either the artistry found within video games, or further in any way the ongoing debates of video games as an artistic medium. Selection of the games involved was perhaps flawed from the beginning, obscured further due to the difficult sorting process for qualifying inclusions, and further limited due to the involvement of the general public to which the final list nearly relays a revisionist history of the games industry, overly praising certain areas while omitting others entirely.

To give a bit of background on the selection process, the curator worked with the museum and an industry insider group to develop a list of 240 potential game candidates. I feel as if this would’ve made for a great start if not for the forced adherence to the guidelines laid out for inclusions. Games were chosen for most every console, ranging from the Atari 2600 to the Playstation 3, and for each system three nominations each were filed into four different genres of “Action,” “Target,” “Adventure,” and “Tactics.” I will admit that video game genres are a hard nut to crack when attempting to categorize certain things, and I can certainly understand the need to combine areas to make more sense to the non-gamer, however the selected genres work to blur the overall strengths of each console to present a level of conformity that simply hadn’t existed. Entries for some systems include games that were not necessarily artistic, technologically innovative, or really even that memorable, however were voted through as they better identified with that genre’s representation on the console, such as Spy vs Spy for the Sega Master System, or Brutal Legend for the PS3 (both in the “Tactics” category). Meanwhile, the considerable number of stylistic action games to be found on the Sega Genesis blew right past Sonic the Hedgehog, who’s Genesis games didn’t even get nominated (although Sonic CD did). No matter how many JRPGs published on the SNES, or how few tactical games published on the N64, the exhibit gives each equal attention. To give you an idea of how badly this could have turned, Ikaruga was nominated (but fortunately lost) as the best “Target” game for the Xbox 360, despite being a product of the previous console generation.

Pac Man 2600
Pac Man for the 2600, now hanging in the Smithsonian

Further to that, I’m saddened to see that the exhibit as a whole neglects two of gaming’s biggest areas; arcade cabinets, and anything on computers prior to 1994. The exhibit is very console-centric, leaving a wealth of deserving PC and arcade titles to either be written off into oblivion, or jump ship to squeeze on the ballot for a participating console, making inferior versions of games the ones to be displayed, such as Pac-Man for the 2600, or SimCity 2000 for the Sega Saturn. The first acknowledgment of PC gaming seems to come in the form of DOOM II, to which I’d question its lasting visual or innovative relevance over the original. To neglect these two valuable areas of gaming history (at least the arcade version of Pac-Man is available on site), does a disservice to the exhibit as a whole as they very much led the pack as far as technological innovation and visual spectacle up to the mid-90’s, with consoles struggling to keep up.

Likewise if you enjoy portable gaming, you won’t find a single game or console represented within the chosen 80. But that’s no big deal, as nobody really plays games on the go, right?

These were flaws at the outset, but the exhibit suffered again in further narrowing down to the 80 games chosen by the hand of gaming’s most powerful enemy; gamers themselves. We are a fickle bunch, and are not to be trusted as far as what we want – a hard truth about our little community, but in bringing the selection process to the masses (people voted between February and April last year), innovation and artistic visuals took a backseat to what ultimately became a popularity contest. As much as I love the series, the exhibit does not need five Legend of Zelda games on the show floor, for example, or need to explain who Mario is four times over. The voting process assured that any good intentions made during the nomination process, games that would align well with the exhibit’s core ideals for example, would be replaced by the mainstream fanbases (Psychonauts had to fight a losing battle against Halo 2, to give you some idea).

Psychonauts
Sorry Raz, Halo 2 was clearly the more artistic choice

Lastly, and this is somewhat of a sidenote; I find the choices for playable games to be somewhat questionable. Two of the five games (The Secret of Monkey Island, and Myst) are adventure games, and require a fair amount of time and thought to be invested in, to which their “playable” status within a crowded exhibit hall can come off as somewhat limited.

Many of us here at Gaming Symmetry are fans of Top 10 lists, and we know full well that game choices aren’t everything. Gamers like to nit-pick over individual choices, and when they don’t see their favorites, they get angry. However, that’s not to say that I don’t feel my criticisms of the exhibit are any less valid. In truth, I do think the exhibit was a valiant yet flawed effort to condense 40 years of history into something relatable to the general public. There’s also a design map of Ultima IV, which makes me giddy, so it’s not all bad. I simply believe the exhibit suffers from an identity crisis. In allowing for gamers to choose its contents, it caters to the gaming population, however in creating an overarching structure that denies much of the industry in order to become more relatable, it attempts to relate to everyone else. Neither of these outreaches should prove very effective.

What perhaps concerns me the most is how many may use the exhibit to further the ongoing “Games as art” debate, and it doesn’t lead to an ideal outcome. Some may see the exhibit as a level of validation as games are now hanging in the Smithsonian, while at the same time the exhibit does not necessarily offer gaming’s “best foot forward” to persuade any contrary opinions, either focusing on the visual arts, or through the creative use of technologies. The Roger Eberts of the world may attend the exhibit, to only look around and say “This is not art,” and sadly, I’d have to agree.

The Art of Video Games will be open March 16th – September 30th, 2012 at the 3rd floor North of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, followed by a national tour concluding in Janury 2016. For more information, please refer to the exhibit website.

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