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Smithsonian legitimizes games as art in major exhibition

The Art of Games exhibition, which runs March 16 through September 30th, 2012 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, showcases art, video, and interactive elements from scores of games ranging from Pac-Man to Mass Effect.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

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.

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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.

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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.

The very first game I built was about a spaceship that had to collect medical supplies for people on a space station. It was about avoiding asteroids so you could get the medicine to the people who needed it. Even at this early age there was a human interest there. I didn't know games were art but I knew that they were more than what people made them out to be.

It wasn't until I played King's Quest [a classic Sierra adventure game]on a PC that I said, okay, I've got it. I'm actually interacting with a fairytale, with a storybook that's communicating back to me the stories I'd learned as a kid. That's when I knew that games approached art.

What is the link between games of the past – black screens with just a few active pixels – and modern games, which are incredibly cinematic, that makes them both art?

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That's a great question. Even in the very first, simple games, it's not that a desire to tell an expansive story wasn't there. It's that the technology of the time did not afford them the ability to do so within the game. So you end up with abstract notions of environments, and of a need and necessity that propel the narrative forward.

Early games would ship to the public along with additional visual materials, like a comic in the game box. You'd read the comic, then you'd play the game and you'd realize that the square you see on the screen with the arrow sticking out of it represents the warrior you just read about in this epic battle.

The only thing that has changed is that the technology and tools now available to game developers allows them to more fully articulate their narrative. You can see the ties. Look at Pitfall!'s [Activision, 1982]Pitfall Harry grabbing a vine and swinging over a crocodile-infested lake, then look at Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [PlayStation 3, 2009] grabbing a vine and swinging over a watery area. The mechanical vocabulary of games persists over time. It's just that the evolution of technology has given game developers a much wider canvas and broader palette with which to paint these experiences.

Do you think there's a particular game or series represents the apex of games as a form of art? Is that even a fair question?

I don't think it's necessarily a fair question. I think the answer would be different depending on who you ask.

Look at a game like Flower [a poetic adventure for PlayStation 3] It's a game that's intentionally open in terms of its narrative. But in its mechanics it allows you to inform the game with your own voice and story. This is something that I believe few games have achieved. I grew up in Queens, New York. And as a kid you're always looking for colour in a city's muted grays and browns. When I was playing Flower I was going through this city environment and picking up all these flowers in the windstream you control in the game. And then there was this building that suddenly stood upright. It had colour brought back to it. It had an incredible impact on me. I had to stop playing the game. There was this wave of emotion I felt that transported me back to a time when I was a kid.

Video games have the ability to do this. They can reach into us and bring out the things that make us who we are. Our memories, our morals, our compass, if you will. I can argue that Flower has achieved this while most other games have not. Is that the pinnacle of the medium? It may be for me, but it may not be for others.

Film critic Roger Ebert famously declared that games cannot be art. Can people who don't play games ever be convinced that games are artistic?

Perhaps. I respect Mr. Ebert greatly for his encyclopaedic knowledge of movies and movie history. But to his own admission, he has never played a single video game. It's the equivalent of me looking at Gone with the Wind and saying it can't be any good without ever having experienced it. It comes from a place of casual observation rather than true understanding.

And that's fine. People can have opinions. I'm not looking to change people's minds about whether video games are finally art. Not only is that not my responsibility, but it's something that I should not be trying to force upon people. My goal is have people examine video games and determine for themselves whether or not they are art. It has to be a very personal conclusion.

I have a very serviceable definition of the word "art." It's served me very well. That definition is this: If I can understand the author's intent and find personal resonance, it becomes art. I've found this in Flower. I've found it in Final Fantasy. I've found it in countless games that I've played. But I can honestly tell you that I would be very hard pressed to tell you about a single painting I've seen that has moved me in the same fashion.

What's the next step? How will the medium evolve as a means of artistic expression? It seems to me the burgeoning indie game scene might have a large role to play...

Yes, I agree with you.

Democratization of technology, tools, and technique and dissemination of information have now put the tools for creation into the hands of anyone who wants to use them as a medium of expression. From that we're going to see inspired works that come completely out of left field. They will change the way we look at video games, and will change on a social level the interactive possibilities that games provide.

I believe that in the next three to five years we're going to see some of the most amazing video game experiences. And we can't possibly determine where they're going to come from. They're going emerge out of this shared love of the form and understanding of what this medium can mean to the world at large.

The preceding interview was condensed and edited for flow.

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