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The Art of Video Games Opens This Week

The Smithsonian American Art Museum showcases the evolution of a new, high-tech artistic medium.

© the American Art Museum.

About two years ago, film critic Roger Ebert informed his readers in the Chicago Sun-Times that despite any love they may harbor for their Nintendos or PlayStations, he believed in a blunt, contentious truth: “Video games can never be art.” Two months and just under 5,000 angry Web comments later, Ebert was forced to issue a concession: Considering what the future might hold for the technology, he resolved, “It is quite possible a game could someday be great art.”

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, that day has already come. The museum’s new exhibition, “The Art of Video Games,” showcases four decades of the medium’s evolution from blocky pixels to sweeping, photorealistic vistas, and the new mode of artistic expression that emerged along the way.

The exhibition grew out of a 2009 Smithsonian conference on how to use technology to excite a new generation of museum-goers. A panel member at that conference, Chris Melissinos—former chief gaming officer for Sun Microsystems, frequent speaker at gaming and technology shows, and avid video game collector—was asked to guest curate.

“Video games are more than what people believe them to be,” says Melissinos. “These are not pieces of content spit out of a soulless machine. These are works that are born out of people’s imagination and dreams and their desire to tell stories that reflect society and mores.”

Melissinos says video games are a unique art form because they involve three different voices: the designers who craft the world and tell the story, the game itself and the mechanics of how it’s played, and finally the player, who may use the medium’s interactive nature to experience it in a wholly different way than the next person. Says Melissinos, “That’s what sets video games apart: the ability to maintain the authority of an author or an artist yet still impart something personal and specific to the player, allowing them to explore the world at their own will.”

Keeping in mind the importance of the player to the art form, the Smithsonian allowed the public to vote for the 80 games that will be on display, which include Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers 3The Legend of Zelda, Earthworm Jim, and Fallout 3. Four games from almost every console—from the ancient Atari to the sleek PlayStation 3—will be presented through still images, video footage, and even some available for visitors to play.

One of these playable games is PlayStation 3’s Flower, a simple but beautiful game in which the player controls the wind, scooping up fields of flower petals and whisking them over dying pastures and decaying buildings, restoring their vibrancy and color. For Melissinos, it’s the one piece to show naysayers like Roger Ebert who claim a video game can’t be art.

“I grew up in Flushing Queens, New York,” says Melissinos. “And when you live in the city as a child, the environment can be very gray, very muted. So you’re always looking for color in the world, for magic, for inspiration. I was playing Flower and I had just breathed life back into this gray building, and it hit me very emotionally. I had to stop for a moment, because it transported me back to a time as a child, looking for that color in the world. I believe it is in those moments that art is achieved.”

“The Art of Video Games” opens March 16 at the American Art Museum. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

An edited version of this article ran in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

Staff Writer

Michael J. Gaynor has written about fake Navy SEALs, a town without cell phones, his Russian spy landlord, and many more weird and fascinating stories for the Washingtonian. He lives in DC, where his landlord is no longer a Russian spy.