A new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is billed as “The Art of Video Games.” Visitors will encounter beautiful production art, a chronological look at the major video-game platforms and their key games, tidbits of wisdom from various designers, and even a handful of games playable on giant public screens.
What they won’t find is much of a case that video games are, in fact, art. Instead, the exhibit, which opened March 16, serves more as a beginner’s history of the form - how it grew from a handful of hobbyists crafting simple pixel puzzles to armies of well-paid professionals building immense immersive worlds with Hollywood production values and novel-sized plots.
Even this information is limited to the very basics: the dominant gaming systems and how they fit into their respective eras and a brief narrated overview of the pivotal games from each — but, with a few exceptions, little opportunity to play. It’s a quick reference guide more than a critical analysis, a backgrounder rather than an extended exploration.
That’s especially frustrating given that extended exploration of virtual worlds is what video games are all about.
The first thing visitors encounter is a brief statement by curator Chris Melissinos, who talks about his own first experience with gaming on an old Commodore VIC-20 in 1980. Since then, Mr. Melissinos writes, games have transported him to “worlds that I could create, control, and type into existence.” But this is exactly what’s lacking in the exhibit.
Surprisingly for a medium that depends on interactivity, visitors have little opportunity to experience these games for themselves: There are just five playable games in all, each representing a different milestone in gaming history, each with just a single station at which a single player can play.
Those games take up the largest of the exhibit’s three rooms. Of the other two, one is a sort of introductory portal, with a few scattered pieces of production art and a short video essay about the production side of gaming. There’s little information here and even less context: Some of the production art isn’t even labeled. Other pieces — including sketches used in designing the game “Fallout 3” — fail to explain their relevance. Why not use art from the game, which was set in a detailed virtual mock-up of a postapocalyptic Washington, D.C., to talk about the artistic challenges of re-creating a virtual version of a real-world city?
The final room offers a tour of the history of gaming, from the earliest text-based games to the world-weaving modern wonders. At each console, viewers can watch brief video descriptions of four of the system’s games. These capsule summaries offer a few plot details and perhaps a sentence or two about any innovations in technology or game mechanics. But these short overviews still manage to leave out important and interesting details: The segment on the classic sci-fi strategy game “Starcraft,” for example, fails to note that the game spawned a massively popular professional competitive league in South Korea. Instead of any discussion about the rise of professional competitive play or the difference between sports games and narrative games, it dully relates how “the designers applied different visual styles” to each of the game’s character types.
The same problem plagues the rest of the exhibit: We learn a little bit about various games and systems, but very little about the impact games have had on the world, or how they create meaning for players.
And yet it’s clear that both the impact and the meaning are real. Video games offer digitally mediated, individualized experiences that reflect and illuminate our increasingly customized and digitized world.
Those experiences have led not only to record-setting sales for blockbuster games, but to massive investments of individual time and energy. Some of the most complex games can easily chew through more than 100 hours on a single play-through; the most popular online multiplayer games can take an even greater time commitment. These games can keep players busier than full-time jobs, provide a greater wealth of experience or meaning than any novel and build real communities within virtual worlds. Millions of people are living second lives through the virtual worlds and characters made available by video games.
Yet the only reminder of these experiences at the exhibit is what the crowds bring with them. During the opening weekend, the exhibit was filled with visitors fondly reminiscing about their own favorite games. They’d spent hours in these worlds and took the exhibit as an opportunity to indulge in a little nostalgia for the virtual lives they’d led. It’s fitting, and more revealing than anything else in the exhibit: The gamers in the crowd turned a relatively static display into an interactive portal to their own lives and experiences.
Do those experiences count as art? The fact that so many games engage so many players while creating meaning in their lives suggests that they do. But you’d hardly know it from this exhibit.
WHAT: “The Art of Video Games”
WHERE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets Northwest
WHEN: Through Sept. 30, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily