This weekend, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC opened the long-awaited exhibit The Art of Video Games. Walking into the museum, one immediately feels the whispered air that says: this is the home of Serious Art.
Museums like the Smithsonian take much from our everyday lives and set it aside, defining it as special. From the giant marble columns flanking the F Street entrance to the quiet, respectful hush filling most of the galleries, the American Art Museum in many ways mimics a cathedral. There is something almost sacred about the space where over two centuries' worth of painting, sculpture, folk art and more. And there, at the front information desk, is an enormous stack of maps and programs bearing an iconic and lovely screenshot of The Illusive Man from Mass Effect 2.
Fans had the chance to vote during the (northern) spring of 2011 on which 80 games would ultimately appear in the exhibit. In the end, these titles are arranged into four categories based on very loose genre and mechanical definitions. All games, it seems, can be summed up as "Action", "Target", "Adventure" or "Tactics". The groupings end up defining some things as "like" that a player might not expect, finding, for example, Pitfall!, The Legend of Zelda and Heavy Rain all grouped together as "adventure".
The exhibit is arranged as a timeline of console and technological evolution, with each selected console (and Windows OS qualifies as a console) standing in its own display, with videos and screenshots from the four games, one in each category, selected to highlight its life.
Criticisms of the exhibit from mainstream press have taken exception to the way in which The Art of Video Games sidesteps controversial issues, instead focusing on the history and existence of the digital art form writ large. Indeed, the exhibit is deeply nostalgic in a large way, a theme that was continually revisited during the panels by exhibit curator Chris Melissinos. The children who were playing with the first home consoles and home computers in the 1970s and 1980s are now in their 30s and 40s, and many have themselves become parents who now play games with their kids. The sense of lovingly and appreciatively handing over the old to a new generation pervades the exhibition space itself.
There are no mentions of gaming's challenges, other than the technological ones that are still being overcome. The exhibit never touches on discussions of violence or sex in games, never mentions any controversies or debates. It's a sanitised look at an art that often pushes boundaries, designed as if to say: "it's all right, this really is safe, we can justify putting this here because so much about it is good."
After visiting the museum and the exhibit, the eternal argument over whether and how games are or are not art begins to seem as pointless as it is frustrating. So many of the sacred spaces in our warehouses of history are created by time, but games, so dependent on the technology we use to create and play them, are always of the now — a fact highlighted, rather than hidden, by the five free-standing play kiosks. The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, Pac-Man and Super Mario Brothers feel like archaeological relics as compared to the newer Flower that stands nearby.
And yet, The Secret of Monkey Island is my favourite game, and I couldn't resist watching a queue of young players engage with the demo and encourage each other to choose certain lines of dialogue, or in where to explore next. That communal enthusiasm on the part of the visitors made the whole exhibit come to life.
Gamers love their hobby. We are a passionate lot and if anyone ever had any doubt about the level of dedication gamers feel for their art, Saturday morning's outdoor queues should allay it immediately. A half hour before the museum opened, the line waiting to get in to the G Street entrance crossed the building, went down the block, and turned the corner. The small group at the front of the line said they'd arrived sometime around 9 or 9.30; the doors opened at 11.30.
During all the hours I was at the museum on Saturday, the entire building was buzzing with energy and excitement. The sounds and sights in the massive courtyard felt like I'd stepped unexpectedly into PAX. Museum visitors wandering the halls, on spotting other patrons who looked like they were probably gamers, stopped and asked each other, "How's the exhibit?" From before opening until after 2pm, when I left, there were patient and excited groups of players everywhere.
While the videos, gameplay stations, quotations and artwork on the walls inside the exhibition span a range of opinions and eras, the visitors in all their enthusiasm form a crucial part of what the curators hoped the exhibit would say. A caption just inside the entryway reads:
Video games combine graphics, sound, story, and interaction to create meaningful and immersive experiences. Imaginative artists and designers use this medium to create worlds and tell their stories. None of this is possible, however, without the participation of the player. Everyone who plays a game puts a little of themselves into the experience, and takes away something that is wholly unique. This conversation among the game, the artist, and the player is critical to understanding video games as art."
In visiting the exhibit on Friday and Saturday, then, I became in some small way a part of it, as did the hundreds of other patrons I encountered. And that's the best feeling to be gained when visiting a museum: leaving part of yourself in it, and taking a new part away.
The Art of Video Games runs through September 30 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, after which it will begin a national tour carrying through at least 2016.