The Art of Video Games


of an Exhibition

by Liz Fort

Published on March 20, 2012, Modified on May 23, 2017

  • Description:

    While I am no gamer, I had been eagerly awaiting the opening of The Art of Video Games (TAVG) at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) for several months. Why would a non-gamer be so excited, you ask? Well, the release of a couple of trailers online, lots of Twitter buzz from the museum community, a class in Museums and Technology, and finally, a boyfriend (MCL) who is an avid gamer all add up to a recipe for anticipation and high expectations. Additionally, I figured this would be an excellent opportunity to examine an art museum’s integration of technology within an exhibition. It was with these elevated expectations that MCL and I entered SAAM last Sunday afternoon.

    The Art of Video Games is located on the third floor of the museum. Immediately upon exiting the elevator, you are met with swirling colors and music emanating from TAVG exhibit, which is located just to the left down the hall from the elevator. The opening text is very simple and provides the briefest of introductions to what the visitor is about to see. Most importantly, it asks the viewer to decide for his/herself whether these video games should be considered art or not—an unexpected twist for a Smithsonian museum. A QR code tag located next to the introductory panel encouraged me to learn more…at the SAAM website which is where the code took me. This was a bit of a letdown, especially right at the beginning of an exhibit. There was way too much going on for me to peruse the website! Instead I bookmarked the site and continued into the exhibit.

    One doesn’t have to go far to encounter technology in this exhibit. It is literally EVERYWHERE you look! A QR code is also present at the next panel—which is actually a scrolling projected image. This panel invites me to snap a QR code tag to donate $10, after which, I’ll immediately have my name added to the scrolling list of exhibit sponsors. The bigger the donation, the larger the font size. This was a neat way to get the visitors involved and certainly had immediate feedback/reward for the visitor. While I didn’t see anyone doing it at the time, the list was quite long so I would assume that some people must donate on the spot.

    Immediately following the donate projection, is a HUGE wall with a projected video and loud video-game music mash-ups. The flowing images and music really set the tone for the exhibit—MCL and I are really excited and rush around the corner and into the exhibit.

    The first room is dedicated to the artwork, development of the storyline, and planning phases of video game-creating process. Several mounted monitors play movies of interviews with game designers, pioneers, developers, producers, and engineers. All of these were playing, but because the music from the huge introductory projection was so loud (not to mention the fact that the exhibit was crowded) meant that I really couldn’t hear the videos. I have to rely on the closed captions or stand really close to the screens. Another QR code lets me know I can watch the videos at home—I decide to do this rather than struggle to hear the videos in the exhibit. The QR code and videos extend and enhance my visit since I watched them at home after my visit—I ended up watching all five of them. My only critical comment was that they are a really good introduction and explanation of the exhibit that I would have appreciated during my visit, but at least I didn’t miss out on them entirely.

    Display cases, along with mounted panels, highlight original artworks and drawings for several games. Another bank of screens shows a video of the faces of gamers of all types—highlighting the emotional response in players elicited by the games. It was a fun and interesting thing to watch—especially considering one is usually focused on the screen/game and not on the person playing it.

    The middle room of the exhibit has five huge projection screens and kiosk where visitors can actually play video games. This room is fairly dark (to enhance the games on the screens) and loud, but not totally overwhelming. Each game is in its own semicircular alcove which cuts down on the noise bleed issue. MCL—along with the other gamers—old and young alike—gleefully rush to their favorite games and queue up to play. The playable games are Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. These five games represent the five major eras in game development and highlight many innovative techniques that set the stage for subsequent games.

    For the uninitiated (like me) basic instructions on how to play are shown on the screen before the start of each game. Several game-enthusiast volunteers are on hand to assist to players and fix any issues. All the games were working and being enjoyed while I was present. Lines are managed by a time-limit on game play. The game automatically ends and restarts after about 5 minutes. Providing instructions, volunteers, and time-limits are a great way to manage the technology so that the maximum number of people could enjoy the interactive and hands-on elements (and arguably most popular aspect) of the exhibit. For instance, while MCL was playing Myst, he was having trouble unlocking a portal. The volunteer helpfully pointed out the trick for making the portal open—allowing MCL (and me, the passive viewer) to advance to the next level and more thoroughly enjoy our experience with the game, rather than getting frustrated and giving up.

    Our experience was definitely enhanced and expanded by the variety of games available to play. Even though I didn’t play, I was fully engaged and entertained by the stimulating atmosphere and by my companion’s excitement and engagement. The screens/alcoves are large enough to accommodate a small crowd so that those not playing can still participate and engage with the interactives. However, MCL said that the screens were so large that it was difficult to play as he couldn’t see the entire screen at once (or maybe that was just his excuse for dying so quickly), so perhaps an improvement would be to allow the player to adjust their position with the control. Instead of having the controller statically fixed to the base, it could be on a retractable cable. Another potential improvement might be the addition of a second controller at some of the games that support multi-player modes so that more than one visitor could be fully engaged at a time. This might promote more social interaction between visitors.

    The final room in the exhibit again piles on the technology. This room is filled with 20 or so kiosks that showcase the history of video game development. A case in each kiosk holds the actual game system while a video monitor (with optional handheld audio amplifier) highlights the evolution of video games over their 40 year history. The room is very loud, but captioning and the handheld amplifier help me to hear and understand the videos. I loved this concept for presenting the history and evolution of the games. At each kiosk, the visitor can choose which of the four themes to listen/watch (Narrative, Strategy, Tactics, and Action—I think).

    Once again, all of the kiosks are working and visitors are thoroughly engaged. I notice both individuals and groups positioned at the terminals. Many older visitors laugh or exclaim when they see the old systems and games—often pointing out to younger visitors how these where the thing to have back in the day. The opposite happens as younger visitors encounter the latest models. I am struck by how this exhibit has very successfully attracted a large and extremely diverse audience. I would bet that many of the visitors were not regular art museum-goers. What a fantastic opportunity for them to be fully engaged by an exhibit about something in which they are deeply interested. And perhaps, they may have even taken in some art while they were there.

    I had the opposite reaction. I am an avid museum-goer and enjoy art, yet, here I was in a totally foreign environment (the gaming world) inside a museum! Nevertheless, I absolutely enjoyed my visit and I especially appreciated the final segment of the exhibit the most because it appeals to my affinity for history. The exhibit takes a very minimalist approach to text panels and written information. Consequently, I might have been lost had I not be there with an experienced gamer. However, now that I’ve watched several videos online at home and read many of the articles and blog posts, I am excited to go back and use my newly discovered interest and knowledge of video games. MCL can hardly wait either…though that might be to show-off his prowess at Mario Brothers 3.

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