Recently, I was in Washington, DC. As I walked by the Smithsonian, a sign caught my eye: “THE ART OF VIDEO GAMES.” I had completely forgotten about the exhibit in the months since I had voted in it, yet the moment I saw the sign, I rushed into the museum, ascended in the elevator, and found myself facing a wall, upon which a projector was playing enormous-sized clips from games old and new. It was awe-inspiring and a little bit dizzying. On another wall walking in, there was a message extolling the virtues of games, talking about the importance of all three experiences: That of the developer, the game itself, and of the player. If only the rest of the exhibit lived up to its entrance…
In the first room, there was a row of screens, each flashing clips from a certain era of video games, from the pre-8bit days to our modern consoles. Also within the room, I eyed a small collection of concept art from various games. I was interested, until I noticed something odd- a good deal of the concept art came from only a few games and franchises: Sonic, Metal Gear Solid, and World of Warcraft, to name a few. Somewhat wary, I eyed two additional monitors on either side of the room, which were playing what were essentially dev diary mashups.
Slightly disappointed yet still hopeful, I walked into the next room. To my surprise, the dimly lit space contained five playable games: Super Mario Brothers, Flower, Myst, The Secret of Monkey Island, and last but not least, Pac-Man. Each game had a placard next to it explaining its history and the game itself. Unfortunately, my patience waiting in the long lines wore thin- you can only watch people fail to clear level 1-1 so many times- and I proceeded to the final room of the exhibit.
Taking a form almost opposite from the dim ambiance of the middle stage of the exhibit, the final portion was bright and chaotic, with walls completely taken up by a multitude of screens. It was here that the winners of the online vote were exhibited, four buttons alongside each screen to hear a description of the four champions of each console.
Spying an opening at the NES station, I put the earpiece to my head and selected Super Mario Brothers 3. A small video containing clips from the games played while a polite-sounding person explained the basics of the game, including the definition of a sprite.
The exhibit had left me uneasy before, but this was the tipping point. The Art of Video Games may be an interesting experience- if you aren’t a gamer. For those of us who have made these games a part of our lives, there is very little to learn from the exhibit short of a few interesting yet inconsequential facts, such as the inspiration for the characters in Star Fox, a tidbit that was repeated in the videos for both 64 and Assault.
Despite being put off by the simplicity of the information, I can see the reasoning behind it- many people who venture to the Smithsonian, a reputed institution of art and learning, are not familiar with video games, and to fill the experience with gamer jargon and expert information could be alienating to many who would come to see the exhibit. Anyway, the entry-level information contained within the exhibit isn’t even the reason that I was left with such a bad taste in my mouth. The truth is, the exhibit does almost nothing to truly explore video games as an art form.
Even the beginning of the exhibit acknowledged that the player is one of the most important parts of a video game, so why was this third factor after creators and games, one of the most important, almost completely ignored? The rhetoric of game design and the beauty of a work in motion are almost nothing if you aren’t able to actually experience them. The five games selected for playing may have incorporated the player to some extent, and I must give credit for that, but it was simply not enough.
Games are a visceral media, capable of evoking emotions in ways that books, movies, and the like can only dream of. A video cannot capture the joy of grabbing a leaf and, after a running start, taking to the air for your first time, ending up high among the clouds. A demo certainly cannot come close to replicating the sorrow and anger felt when a beloved companion, after countless hours of adventuring together, is suddenly and unexpectedly felled by a villain’s blade. These experiences are what make games unique, what make games a form of art, and to simply ignore these feelings is just ludicrous. Ninety percent of the exhibit does this, and it baffles me that the most important part of the equation was largely left unengaged and forgotten.
I suppose that the inherent nature of video games that causes this problem. Nobody can show how games are art simply by showing a few videos, placing some placards around, and tossing a couple of demos into a museum and calling it a day. Instead, the true exhibition that proves games as an art form may be closer than you think- in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere within your home. Approach a friend, pick up a cartridge, and talk with him about what this video game means to you as individuals. That was the one (albeit, most likely unintentional) aspect of the exhibit that I was truly impressed with: seeing so many different people enjoying games, from the mid-twenties gamer remembering some good times, to the young child discovering a game three times her age. The amazing thing about games is that, while each experience is shared among thousands, if not millions of people, every person that picks up a controller embarks upon his own individual journey, taking a path that is distinctly theirs. If that is not a thing of beauty, I don’t know what is.