Are video games art?
Chris Melissinos, the curator of D.C.’s new “The Art of Video Games” exhibit, certainly thinks so.
Fan boys, rejoice.
Melissinos said that, “We are invited by [an] artist to inject our own morality, our own worldview, our own experiences into the game as we play it. What comes out is wholly different for everybody else that experiences it, and that’s why it’s important — because there’s no other medium that affords the world this incredible opportunity.”
The celebration of this medium is tucked into the second floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Eighth and F Streets NW, a quick walk from the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop.
The exhibit is divided into three rooms, each with a specific focus. The first room includes pictures of graphic art and video interviews with 20 prominent industry developers, and the second room affords visitors an opportunity to play five classic games on large projector screens. The third room emphasizes the progression of gaming through the display of historic consoles and their top games.
Although the rooms are separate, a unifying futuristic theme blends the three parts together seamlessly. With blue lighting, fluorescent paint and rows of flat screen TVs, it felt as if I was in the Smithsonian circa 2050 not 2012. The theme may not mesh perfectly with the marble floors and high arches of the rest of the museum, but its whimsical setting works given the fantasy of the medium it represents.
For a Monday afternoon, the exhibit was much busier than I expected. Also surprising was the wide range of visitors. Whether gender, race or age — it seemed as though there were no dominating demographics, certainly indicative of the indiscriminate mass appeal of gaming.
The history the exhibit presents is interesting enough, but the experience truly comes to life through visitor interaction. Families were unabashed as they duked it out for high scores on Pac-Man and animatedly debated the respective merits of Sonic versus Donkey Kong.
Part of the allure of the exhibit, what differentiates it from others on sculpture or painting, is the ability to shake that stifling museum feeling — the feeling that you’re a little kid quarantined in an expensive antique store, bound to unbreakable silence.
I lost the feeling myself somewhere between my fourth and fifth game of Super Mario.
Perhaps where the exhibit is most successful, though, is in its ability to unite generations. Little kids and their dads walked through the exhibit together, one marveling at Atari and the other marveling at a PlayStation 3, but both sporting grins from ear to ear. The nostalgia in the room was nearly palpable.
Melissinos has high hopes for the exhibit, “I want everybody that comes to this exhibition and experiences the materials and work that has gone into this to understand that video games are more than what they thought they were when they came in,” he said.
It’s true that visitors probably won’t leave the exhibit drawing parallels between Da Vinci and that friend who spends his Sunday nights knocking out kill streaks on Call of Duty, hands lightly caked in Nacho Cheese Doritos powder. But, after spending just a few moments in the exhibit, it would be tough to argue that video games should not be considered an art form.
Also important is how games will undoubtedly impact future perceptions of our culture. As Shakespeare’s plays have been important to understanding 16th-17th century England, games like FIFA, Call of Duty and Wii Fitness will certainly reveal our own cultural nuances of recreation, global relations and health.
Certainly art and entertainment, video games are worth a certain level of appreciation from all. The Smithsonian’s “The Art of Video Games” exhibit, while not a typical display, challenges conventions and captures the essence of the gaming medium.