March 16th marks a milestone in the world of video games. The fledgling medium of interactive entertainment will receive recognition as a legitimate and significant form of art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. via The Art of Games, a major exhibition that will run through September 30th, 2012.
The show displays still images, video, and interactive elements from scores of games that appeared on 20 platforms over the last four decades. Selecions were made via a public poll that garnered millions of votes from 175 countries. It’s a celebration of the medium worthy of pilgrimage by anyone who's ever been touched by a game.
I recently had a chance to chat with Chris Melissinos, the exhibition’s curator and founder of Past Pixels, an organization dedicated to preserving games and game history. A lifelong player, he’s also the co-author of the show’s companion coffee table book, The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect, a beautiful 200-page volume filled with gorgeous game art and personal interviews given by the people who create it. If you can’t make the show, the book’s the next best thing. It's available at major Canadian retailers for $45.00.
During our discussion Mr. Melissinos spoke with passion about what he hopes to accomplish with the exhibition, the sort of emotions that games are capable of eliciting from their audiences, and how no painting has ever had the same impact on him as a game like Flower.
What do you hope a major exhibition of game art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum will accomplish within popular culture?
My hope is that anyone who comes to the exhibition will leave believing that games are more than they thought they were when they came in. There is real humanity, poetry, and beauty in video games. It can be easy to be dismissive of games, but if you look a little deeper you’ll see these things.
Do you distinguish between a game as being a work of art and the disciplines involved in their creation? Can a game be a work of art in and of itself, or is it just its constituent parts – visual design, sound design, narrative – that are artistic?
That’s actually the question we used as the basis of our narrative. We didn’t want to look at art within video games, but instead celebrate video games as an artistic medium. We are exploring video games themselves as a form of art.
The exhibition, as well as the companion book I’ve had the pleasure of leafing through over the last few days, seem to chart not just the art of games, but the history of the medium. Was that intentional?
It’s not meant to be an exhaustive history of the video game industry or video game development. It can’t be, not in the narrow selection we’ve chosen.
What we intended to do was look at video games in American culture across their representative eras. What are the games people really think of and identify with when they think about video games? We used this narrative construct to show what games were important to American culture at particular times. We used the industry’s history as a way to show the form’s evolution over time, from it’s rudimentary beginnings to the art that it is today.
In the book, you mention that your Commodore VIC-20 was your introduction to games. At what point did you start thinking of games as a form of art?
As a child, coding games and pouring myself into the system, trying to understand all the secrets it wanted to tell me, I lacked the vocabulary to determine that it was art. I always knew it something bigger than what I was experiencing. I always knew that there was something more important behind the screen. It was something that I couldn’t see or touch, but I could affect it. It was the opportunity to build expansive worlds of imagination and social reflection.