The Art of Video Games

Review

of an Exhibition

by Emily Erwin-McGuire

Published on April 09, 2014, Modified on May 23, 2017

  • Description:

    The Hudson River Museum is a multidisciplinary museum within the diverse community of Yonkers New York. This spring, they are exhibiting “The Art of Video Games,” originally curated by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    Disclaimer: currently I am an intern at this museum, but this review was unsolicited by the museum, and all opinions are my own.

    Video Games have often been regulated to something that children play, and even thought of as a corrupting element of society. But as Chris Melissinos, the co-curator of the exhibition has said, “the nerds will inherit the earth.” We are playing more and more video games, but we may not think of ourselves as gamers. When you think about “playing video games,” you might think of a 20 year old playing World of Warcraft in his parent’s basement, not a young mother playing a puzzle game on her phone during her children’s soccer game. When you see families come together at the “Art of Video Games,” it is evident that most people have a connection to make to video games. They start to talk together about the games they play, and the games that make up their own personal histories.

    “Mommy used to play Pac-Man in a bar near Grandma’s house.”
    “Your uncle had an Atari, I used to play Space Invaders.”
    “My mother bought me my first Nintendo.”

    We start to see that gaming is a part of our cultural history, and we are all gamers, whether we admit it or not.
    The video games are divided into five sections by time period, then further into kiosks for each game system. Each game system showcases four games through still images and a video, each one representing one of four genres: action, target, adventure, and tactics. For example, at the Nintendo 64 station, there is a Nintendo 64 in a case, and a vertical arrangement of 4 still images. The top game is Mario 64, which is an action game, then Starfox 64, which is a target game, then The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time, which is an adventure game, and finally Worms Armageddon, which is a tactics game. Then to the left of these stills is the video screen with four buttons along the bottom. These buttons, when pushed, will play a video about each game which shows game play, as well as discuss the lasting impact of these games. The audio, including music or speech from the game, is fed through a phone like earpiece that the visitor can hold up to his or her ear, but if more than one person wants to follow along, or the visitor is hard of hearing, the transcript of the audio is also available on the screen as the video is playing.

    The overarching theme of the exhibition is the art of video games. It is the argument that video games can be viewed, interpreted, and critiqued just as we view, interpret, and critique novels, painting, plays, movies, and music. They are a fully realized art form that are created by artists to be more than an interactive Parcheesi. These games are often dealing with struggles of morality, hard choices, loss, and redemption. A downfall of the exhibition is that there are only 5 playable video games. A video game is inherently interactive, and the fact that the viewer is only seeing and hearing the action, without experiencing it, leads to some frustration. However, a museum filled with 80 playable video games would be a very different experience. By using stills of the video games, the exhibition is able to connect again to a museum audience. When we are in a museum we are asked to look at pictures, and that is what we are doing here. I think that by freezing the action, the curators are making the audience look more closely at those aspects that they are highlighting. You see Starfox’s ship flying through space, Mario mid run, or Pac-Man mid gobble. In some ways, there is less information to process, because it is a still image, so we can process it more fully.

    The viewer of the exhibition travels through the development of video games, and in doing so they can see the progression of complexity and the progression of the art form. Video games are often either thought of as kid’s toys, or thought of as representing the evil of our society. The games themselves are routinely ignored by non-gamers. The novices of the gaming world are often the ones who come away from the exhibition in awe of how far the games have come. They also begin to understand that there is not just one type of video game, but are as varied as the people who play them.

    The true highlight of the “The Art of Video Games” is seeing the joy that it brings to the audience. It is a way for a family to come together and experience a day at the museum that everyone might enjoy. They are sometimes even in wonder about the fact that the games they played are in a museum. The cross generational discussion has been robust. Parents are perhaps more willing to hear about the games that their children play once they are a part of a museum exhibition. Instead of being a babysitting tool, these are now something worthy of talking about together. The children are incredulous that video games used to look so simple, and so unrealistic, or that their parents used to play video games at all. Some parents are more excited than the kids to see their video games in a museum. I saw one father who was so excited to be at the museum with his infant daughter. He said he brought her to see the exhibition (but, honestly, must have been there for himself). I also saw a group of children, about 8 or so, who all came in in matching Minecraft tee shirts. They were a part of a Boy Scout group, and were very engaged in the space and with the games. They were able to make some interesting connections across the span of video games. One boy said that space invaders was just like Halo because it is about defending the earth by defeating aliens. He was thematically linking games that have no immediate visual similarities.

    Video games are the next generation of true art that we will study. They are soon going to be thought of like movies that we can play. As the Generation X’ers start having kids, they will be playing video games right alongside them. The nerds are rapidly inheriting the earth.

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