The Art of Video Games


of an Exhibition

by Sarah Stierch

Published on March 22, 2012

  • Description:

    Sarah Stierch
    Exhibition Review #2

    The Art of Video Games: Smithsonian American Art Museum

    March 16, 2012 – September 30, 2012, Washington, DC

    During early 2011, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened up their exhibition planning process to the public through crowdsourcing. Through social media promotion, SAAM sought input from the public on what 80 video games it would feature in its upcoming exhibition “The Art of Video Games.” Approximately 119,000 participants votes were crowdsourced. This March the exhibition opened in Washington, DC.

    Through this exhibition, SAAM not only touches on the history of video games by interviewing video game creators and scholars, but also examines the art within the 80 video games selected. According to the thesis on the exhibition website, video games are “An amalgam of traditional art forms—painting, writing, sculpture, music, storytelling, cinematography—video games offer artists a previously unprecedented method of communicating with and engaging audiences.”

    When I decided to visit the exhibition, I was curious how SAAM would embrace the history, tech and art of their chosen subject matter. Curatorial culture is known for being rather traditional and not necessarily embracing of technology, so I feared that the Nam Paik June exhibit next to the entrance of the special exhibition hall would outshine the exhibit. I was wrong, as the two exhibitions blended perfectly into each other and non-regular SAAM visitors might believe that Paik’s “Megatron/Matrix” was a freaky contemporary look at video culture with its digitized animations and bright colors that match electric shades of Atari and Nintendo games. I was also wrong on the curatorial front. Curatorial staff at the museum didn’t curate this. The museum brought in a guest curator, Chris Melissimos, a video game collector and founder of Past Pixels, an organization that oversees the preservation and documentation of classic video games. But, while the curator in me wanted to examine the specific details of every aspect of the exhibition, I came with a mission: to examine the interactive aspects of the exhibition.

    From the halls of the contemporary floor of SAAM you could hear voices and buzz of activity. While I am familiar with the layout of SAAM, if I was a first time visitor, I could have found The Art of Video Games without any signage based on that buzz. I briefly stopped in Paik’s installation “Megatron/Matrix” to prepare myself for the attention deficient moments I knew I would shortly experience surrounding by video game galore.

    At the entrance you are greeted by a massive television screen with blasting electronic video game music. Credits zoom across the screen, looking like video game credits from the early days of Nintendo. As I watched the names zoom across the screen I realized I was watching the credits for sponsors and donors for the exhibition. I shook myself out of being enamoured, as I have never been the type to really care too much about who sponsors an exhibition unless I am the one seeking those sponsors. I was impressed though: SAAM succeeded, but despite having me stop in my tracks for at least 40 seconds, none of the sponsors stuck in my head, but the flashing colors sure did.

    The first exhibition space features a series of videos and artworks related to video games. There were a few televisions playing interviews with famous video game figures, such as the founder of Atari. While I tried to listen to his interview, the speaker was so high up in the ceiling (just one medium sized JBL speaker) that the sound seemed to bleed off into the background and I had to strain to listen. As a visitor that is partially deaf and is of short stature, I think the space could benefit by having a parabolic loudspeaker to control the sound and keep it easily listenable. I also could have benefited from subtitles. I left the video, finding myself more interested in three TV screens depicting video game players facial expressions in slow motion playing continuously.

    The second room of the exhibition overflowed with sound, distracting me from finishing my exploration of the first room. The second space looks like a nightclub, with dark lighting and the electronic beats of video games from the past thirty plus years emanating throughout the room. The collection displays feature games being projected onto white walls, such as Pac-Man and Myst. Each game features wall script about an important moment of video game history which it might relate too, and a label about that specific game. A console is placed in front of each projection, and visitors can play the games – and oh how they did! People were having a blast and I have never seen so many people interacting with museum installations. Of course, it helps that these are video games, and this is the opening week of the exhibition. At least 50 to 60 people were in the exhibition space and each game had a group gathered around the console waiting to play. While waiting to play games, visitors would often read the wall paneling and of course, watch each other play. I tried my hand at Pac-Man, with my only complaint being that the joystick stuck when trying to move Pac-Man around. But, this could easily be fixed, and with this being the first week of opening, SAAM hopefully will invest in maintaining these consoles. I eventually handed my game over to a few teenagers who failed to win the round. We laughed, celebrated our failed victory and then moved our separate ways. I don’t remember the last time I interacted with strangers in a museum exhibition that weren’t security guards. As I checked out the other games, I was on a high, satisfied with my experience and happy seeing others interacting.

    I also found myself not really interested in the wall text and labels. When big, glittery video games are free to play on a wall the size of your living room, you’d rather play video games than read text. I don’t believe SAAM could do anything differently with this issue of “learning about the history” versus “playing games instead.” They do offer special tours, lectures and opportunities, and I do believe serious video game enthusiasts will take the museum up on those opportunities.

    The third and final room of the exhibition is where details about the history and art of video games come together. It’s a less interactive space as visitors walk through a gallery featuring a collection of every video game system made to date. Each system showcases four of the 80 video games selected by the public, with a television screen and a selection of four buttons for each game based around a specific theme such as action and adventure. When you push a button, you get a game from that video game system based around that theme. A video of the game plays with subtitles (yay!) and a hand speaker is to the side allowing you to listen to the curator discussing each game’s history, theme, and related themes. I was grateful for the hand speaker, as I was able to block out surrounding sounds. While these were not super high tech, they seemed reliable and sturdy, the type of sustainability a highly visited exhibition needs.

    The gallery was packed, with people moving around all of the different video game systems and watching and listening. I was impressed to see people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying the games and interactives. I found myself reminiscing with fellow enthusiasts about Super Nintendo, again, another rare chance to interact with visitors in a gallery space.

    Around the corner from the displays was another screen displaying sponsors and credits. I was happy to see the display give a shout out to the crowdsourced participants in the poll for what games to be featured. Next to it, was a notebook for visitors to write their thoughts down. It was nice to see an analog writing device in a room of video games, the latter historical pieces in their own right that seem to be sustaining and growing in popularity and drowning out the paper and pen. As a young couple wrote a comment in the book, I noticed a sign stating that visitors could take photographs. Another surprise – as all of the content in the exhibition is copyrighted. Of course, SAAM has been supportive of photography in their museum, and it was nice to see a sign in such a copyright drenched exhibition support that.

    As I left the exhibition, with my eyes resting from the colors and my heart rate slowing from the lights and music, I was satisfied. While I left, perhaps only a tiny bit more educated about video games, I found myself very happy with my interactive experience. It was nice to be in an environment where all the visitors seemed so happy and excited to be there. I decided I would revisit the exhibition as the buzz calmed down (if it does!) to actually learn about the history and artwork of video games. A refreshing exhibition in a city filled with intense and often serious art and history exhibitions.

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