EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re very happy to bring you our first guest post here at Game On today. Dale Leorke is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and is currently travelling in the USA for research. The opportunity to run his insightful review of the recently-opened The Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian proved too great to resist.
Washington, D.C. is renowned for its museums and cultural institutions recounting America’s history of revolution and democracy, and its mausoleum-like memorials commemorating dead presidents and public figures. So it isn’t exactly the first city you think of when it comes to hosting a highly anticipated exhibition on the history and evolution of videogames as an artistic medium. But that’s precisely where you’ll find The Art of Video Games, a fascinating, exquisitely designed and somewhat problematic exhibit which opened last weekend at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Art of Video Games is curated by Chris Melissinos, founder of Past Pixels, an organisation dedicated to preserving the history of videogames. It showcases 80 games spanning the past forty years of videogame history – from the early days of 8-bit gaming to the current generation of game consoles. The games featured were chosen by a public ballot from an initial list of 240 games games.
The games showcased represent each major home console to be released in the past forty years – beginning with the Atari VCS and ending with the Playstation 3. While none of these are playable, there is a central room in the exhibit where five games are set up to be played on a giant screen: Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. Scattered throughout the exhibit there are also beautifully shot and generally enjoyable video interviews with game designers, scholars and writers – among them Henry Jenkins, Nolan Bushnell, Jenova Chen and Melissinos himself.
Upon entering the exhibit – if one can navigate the labyrinthine and poorly signed corridors of the American Art Museum, that is – it’s immediately clear that this is a well crafted and vibrant space. The exhibit itself is divided neatly into three main sections. The first room serves as an introduction to the medium of videogames: it opens with a quote from Bushnell, a key ‘founding father’ of the videogame industry, and some impressive hand-drawn artwork depicting scenes from popular games like the Metal Gear Solid and Warcraft series.
While it’s perhaps a little too spare and static – even ‘gallery-like’ – for the first room of an exhibit about videogames (which are, after all, an inherently interactive medium), visitors will be pleased to hear the thumping booms and digital bleeps of classic games greeting them immediately upon entering. The lighting and interior design of the space similarly evoke the vivid world of electronic game visuals, with widely spaced walls lit by a neon pinkish-mauve hue.
The next two rooms are more replete with game culture and technology. The second – much darker and more confined than the first – seemingly mimics the interior of a game arcade and allows visitors to play the five games mentioned earlier. They are projected onto a large flat screen, so they can be experienced in somewhat larger scale than they were originally intended.
So far, the exhibit undoubtedly captures the essence of games – from their origins and surrounding fan culture to some playable classics. The third and final room, though, is where things become a little more problematic the exhibit and its curators’ broader aims. The room is designed to present a chronological history of videogame consoles, with each console – among them the Atari VCS, Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Mega System, Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo Wii, to name a few – represented by four significant games from their lifecycle. Handheld consoles, though, are completely absent – a bizarre decision, given the enormous success of consoles like the GameBoy and its cultural impact, though one can assume this is due to spatial constraints.
Visitors are directed around this portion of the exhibit by a linear line on the wall running the course of room, which divides the history of videogames into five key ‘eras’: ‘Start!’, ‘8-bit’, ‘Bit Wars!’, ‘Transition’, and ‘Next Generation’. Consoles like the Atari VCS and Mattel Intellivision appear in ‘Start!’, Sega Saturn and Microsoft DOS in ‘Transition’ and Xbox 360, Wii and Playstation 3 in ‘Next Generation’. The four games chosen for each console also correspond to a particular ‘type’ (essentially a broad umbrella term covering various genres): ‘Action’, ‘Target’, ‘Adventure’, and ‘Tactics’. For instance, games like Super Mario and Metal Gear Solid are ‘Action’ games; Diablo and Starfox are ‘Target’; The Legend of Zelda and Phantasy Star are ‘Adventure’, while Starcraft and Spy vs Spy are ‘Tactics’.
The curators have done an admirable job in setting up this history of videogames and structuring it according to key ‘moments’ and games from each period. The underlying decision behind this section, however, poses a substantial dilemma for the exhibit – and, more broadly, for any museum exhibition about the medium of videogames.
Videogames are, by nature, interactive beasts that beg to be played, touched and experienced – visually, aurally and physically. So when you enter a gallery where the consoles are sealed away behind glass, with screens showing short, non-interactive videos of a select few games from each era, you’re bound to be at least a little let down.
This is a concern for any exhibition that seeks to capture the qualities of a medium as dynamic and immersive as videogames. But the problem with The Art of Video Games lies in its neat, ordered chronology of gaming hosting. This achieves its ‘curatorial’ goals, but loses something of the chaotic, turbulent evolution of the gaming industry and its spectacular fall in the late 1970s and even more monumental explosion in recent decades. Instead, visitors are greeted with a staid, clinical account that focuses overly on the consoles and games, at the expense of the broader shifts and machinations that went on throughout their development.
This is compounded by both what is present in the exhibit and, more tellingly, what’s absent. The choice of both the ‘eras’ and the ‘types’ or genres of games makes sense from a curator’s perspective, but discounts the dynamism of games and gameplay itself. The types of games – ‘Action’, Target’, and so forth – are much too broad and are a fairly obvious attempt to categorise games according to the chronology predetermined by the exhibition’s curators. And while the five ‘eras’ are certainly accurate, the exhibit has little to say about how each unfolded from the next – and the collapse and emergence of the companies behind the consoles and games.
But most disappointing of all is the selection of games themselves, which are all decidedly mainstream and will be familiar to most gamers. If the aim of the exhibit is to introduce a wider audience to games and their history, the examples chosen are the way to go. But if, judging from the visitors who were there on the day I attended, they’re likely already gamers themselves, few will encounter any games they haven’t already played or heard of, and will find little new in the experience apart from some fond nostalgia.
The chance to see and play classic games like Super Mario and Pac-Man will excite younger gamers – but these are already widely available to download online or through digital distributors. Likewise, seeing retro consoles like the VCs and Commodore 64 is a highlight, but arguably earlier exhibits like Game On in Melbourne have done a better job of presenting these consoles in their former glory, instead of enclosing them behind arcade-like cases.
The games chosen are also problematic on a deeper, more ideological level. Absent from the exhibit – ironically given its title – is any actual game ‘art’. Experimental or independent ‘artgames’ – like Braid, Limbo, and Passage – don’t rate a mention and don’t feature in any of the 80 games selected by popular vote. Nor do game-inspired art works and mods like Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Cloud or machinima such as Red vs. Blue.
The Art of Video Games is by no means a failed exhibition. It showcases the evolution of games in an engaging and accessible way, and does an admirable job of democratically selecting (typically for a Washington-based exhibit, perhaps) 80 wonderful games from the past forty years. However, what is presented is a mainstream, populist and industry-driven view of games which effaces both the more riveting and controversial events in their history as well as lesser known experimental and ‘avant-garde’ games.
It is this ideologically-driven account that will undoubtedly bring videogame culture to a wider audience as it garners attention and tours the U.S. more broadly. Disappointingly, though, it also excludes and – in the process – plays down the more intriguing, non-mainstream developments that are just as vital to its history and ongoing development.
Dale Leorke is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, writing about location-based games and play in public space. Find him on twitter at @Surplus_Matter