Things to Do

Art Review: "The Art of Video Games" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

A groundbreaking show reveals the evolution of art made from pixels, not paint.

A still from Flower, one of the games available to play at the exhibition. Photograph © Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Since “The Art of Video Games” is a groundbreaking, genre-busting show, it seemed appropriate to try something new when attempting to review it. With that in mind, we sent two writers to the media preview yesterday: associate arts editor Sophie Gilbert, who regularly reviews art exhibitions for, and assistant editor Michael Gaynor, who writes about science and technology (and has much greater insights into video games than Gilbert, whose expertise is limited to Tetris–the Game Boy version).

Michael’s take:

“Art” isn’t an easy word to define. In some ways, that’s because we’re so comfortable with our default examples of what art can and cannot be. Paintings are art. So are sculptures. A great movie can be great art, and a great director or a great writer can also be considered a great artist. Art is what appears in the halls of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

That museum’s newest exhibit, “The Art of Video Games,” is trying to prove its subject matter belongs in this definition, too. The cards have historically been stacked against them–the crassness and violence of video games has always been a popular political fallback, a scapegoat for school shootings, childhood obesity, the downfall of American culture, etc. Although the exhibit–guest curated by Chris Melissinos, former chief gaming officer for Sun Microsystems and an avid video game collector–doesn’t touch on these controversies in any overt way, it does succeed in placing the first building blocks in favor of the video-games-as-art argument.

Structured as a history of video games, the exhibit is centered on a room of 20 video consoles that display four pieces from almost every video game system since the late 1970s. As a nod to the interactivity of the medium, visitors can push a button on each console that shows them an extended video of one of four games. At times this can feel like little more than a table of contents, a crash course compressing decades of technological and narrative innovation. Narration over each video goes a long way in exploring the context and significance of the game, but in catering to viewers who may be seeing their first-ever glimpse of Sonic the Hedgehog, some important points are lost. There is little hint, for instance, of the oceans of tragedy and loss that surround the plot of a game like Final Fantasy VII— a passerby might see the 1997 PlayStation masterpiece as just another game with a spiky-haired kid with a big sword.

It’s a walking-on-eggshells mentality–it may be too much to convince non-players to sit back and watch the best parts of a game like Shadow of the Colossus, in which the player navigates a desolate landscape on horseback in search of 16 legendary beasts. The 2005 game is consistently cited as the best example of the medium’s potential for great art–instead of the bright-flashing-violent-shoot-em-ups that stereotype video games, Shadow of the Colossus is stunning in its solemnity and crushing sense of loneliness as the player is forced to fell powerful yet seemingly innocent monsters in what may be a vain effort to resurrect his lost love.

Games are, of course, meant to be played, and to deny someone the ability to wander that haunting, empty landscape will no doubt hamper the exploration of the medium’s true artistry. Melissinos, the curator, told me that the uniqueness of video games relies on their use of three authorial 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 interactiveness to experience it in a wholly different way than the next person.

Those three voices are on display in the exhibit’s other main attraction, five games that mark each video game era, playable to visitors. A few of the games do little to convince visitors that they are truly art– Pac-Man, though seminal in our culture and one of the first instances of mainstream society’s acceptance of the medium, in the end is really just about a yellow circle eating dots and avoiding ghosts. But in service to history, and perhaps playability, it’s there. Melissinos’s riskier choices may be able to do more, such as 1993’s Myst, a simple point-and-click adventure. Players point their cursor to read a book on a shelf or open a door. There are no enemies, only a silent mystery to unravel. But more important is the overarching sense of unease in the game, an alien strangeness that creates one of the medium’s first real explorations of what can be accomplished through just atmosphere and tone.

Even more touching is 2009’s Flower, which will most likely have the longest queue at the exhibit. 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. The inclusion of a game like Flower illustrates the hope that this may not be the last time we see a video game in the Smithsonian. Indeed, many of the 80-plus games on display are capable of eliciting a visceral, emotional reaction, much in the way paintings or sculptures have been doing for centuries. That head start may just be the perfect argument in favor of what “The Art of Video Games” is trying to accomplish: explore a medium that, still in its relative infancy, has already evolved and matured from yellow dots and ghosts to an emotional poignancy expressed solely through the gentle float of a flower petal.

Sophie’s take:

It’s fair to say that the demographic at press previews for new exhibitions usually skews a little older, so I was surprised (probably stupidly) to see so many young men at yesterday’s opening. Which is presumably the point: Much as theaters are constantly experimenting with innovation to try to draw in a younger crowd, by focusing on video games, the American Art Museum has guaranteed itself an edgy, attention-grabbing exhibit, which is harder than ever to do these days.

What this exhibition does, argues curator Chris Melissinos, is give viewers a comprehensive look at the history and evolution of video games, and then let them decide for themselves whether something deserves to be described as “art.” Full disclosure: I’m cynical about the whole thing, mostly because I find stills from video games to be garish, clichéd, and ugly. Ask yourself this: Would you ever want a scene from Tekken 2 or Fallout 3 on your wall?

This exhibition never really explains whether it’s asking you to judge video games on an equal footing with traditional art (not that art can ever really be traditional, but there you go), or whether it simply wants you to admire how much technology has allowed us to achieve. Some of the games in the show are beautiful, particularly Flower, which Michael mentioned. Growing up, I used to play a game called Snowboard Kids (no judgment, please) on Nintendo 64, and found it to be an immersive, joyful experience. Hurling yourself down the mountain was more akin to the real-life experience of snowboarding than you’d necessarily expect. The five games visitors are encouraged to play here are displayed on giant screens, meaning this immersive effect is heightened, whether you’re sending Mario after coins or scooping up flower petals like some kind of omnipotent natural force.

As a museum show, I’d say this is certainly innovative, smart, and a lot of fun. As an art exhibition, though, it lacks a central thesis, and as such, doesn’t raise all that many questions, apart from the obvious. Walking in, you’re greeted by a huge projection of different scenes from games, and videos interspersed throughout the first gallery. Far from the quiet, hushed reverence with which we usually approach art, it’s more like sensory overload–the same kind you get when you walk into a video game arcade. Sounds are pinging, people are talking, music of all different kinds plays over one another, and it can be a little overwhelming. It’s reassuring, therefore, to see what looks like recognizable, familiar art in the form of sketches, paintings, and other drawings from a variety of games, including a cheerful artist’s rendering of Earthworm Jim.

On the opposite wall, a video installation screens film of people playing video games on three monitors, allowing you to marvel at their expressions, which range from absolute focus to sheer dismay. Moving into the second room, the five interactive games dominate the space. In the third, monitors trace the evolution of the medium, revealing how technological advances have given video-game designers the tools they need to call themselves artists. Is an early Donkey Kong arcade game art? Nope. Is Myst? It’s a lot harder to say. What video games have become better and better at is creating landscapes and scenes that are almost photorealistic in their integrity, and in many cases, even better than the real thing. To me, they’re still not art, no matter how inventive or boundary-defying. But that doesn’t mean they can’t (and won’t) be marveled at, nonetheless.

“The Art of Video Games” is at the American Art Museum through September 30. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

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.