Thursday, August 9, 2012

At the Smithsonian: The Art of Video Games

A while ago I visited the Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. I spent about two hours looking at all of the exhibits and was generally pleased with the experience. It's nice to see video games getting some national recognition from such a reputable institution (and by extension, the government), validating the notion that video games may indeed constitute art. After all, video games are just as expressive as other visual art forms, but with the added element of interactivity potentially enhancing the individual's experience.

The exhibit itself is divided into three main sections: one section chronicling the history of video games with video displays of iconic examples from every notable gaming platform; one section with playable demos (on large-screen projections) of about a half-dozen games; and one section for concept art and displays of specific gameplay mechanics. It's quite an impressive set-up, but I have to wonder how educational it really is for gamers and non-gamers alike. As cool as it was for me to see and experience everything, I didn't feel especially enlightened when I walked out of the exhibit.

I would have liked to have seen a little more emphasis on the underlying characteristics of video games as art. For the most part, the exhibit felt like it was glorifying video games themselves, as specific entities, rather than the medium as a whole. They have a handful of monitors set up rotating video loops of developer interviews and commentary which is where most of the deeper substance is to be found, but these often felt like they were preaching to the choir, telling me things I already knew or understood. Still, they were interesting to watch, and I imagine they'd be more enlightening to a non-gamer.

I feel like they could've tapped the subject matter a little better by discussing things like how games are created, the challenge of making effective games, how developers specifically approach artistic decisions, and so on -- the things you don't get to see in the games themselves. That would've been a little more interesting for someone like me. Either way, it's an impressive exhibit with a lot to experience, so if you find yourself in DC before the exhibit closes at the end of September, it's worth checking out. I've got more pictures and descriptions in the full article.

Click the images for full-size versions. Visit the official website for the exhibit here, or check out the Wikipedia entry. The Wikipedia article has the full list of games featured and nominated. For further reading on the exhibit (which goes into much greater and more eloquent detail on why I didn't feel particularly enlightened by it), read the review by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post (scroll down to the second headline). The exhibit is free admission (as are all Smithsonian museums) and runs through September 30th, 2012. 

The main attraction chronicles the history of video games, starting with the Atari VCS all the way up to current consoles. Nearly every single gaming platform over the past 30 years got its own display case (like the one on the left), with the console encased in a glass display and a video monitor that plays a 3-4 minute video on each of the four games selected as iconic representatives of that console. The idea was to showcase one game from each of four loose categories (action, target, adventure, and tactics) for each console. I think I spent over an hour in this room alone.

There was a conspicuous lack of PC gaming on display, with I think only two displays being dedicated to PCs -- one for "DOS/Win95" and one for "WinPC" (whatever that is). For what it's worth, there wasn't a single mention of mobile or arcade gaming devices, either. But still, I was rather pleased with the selections for the "DOS/Win95" display: Doom 2, Diablo 2, Fallout, and Starcraft. I was really, really annoyed that Fallout 3 made the list for "WinPC."

Of the numerous quotes they had projected onto the walls, this was one that stood out the most to me, because that statement actually isn't true; it's one of the things that's actually most disappointing in video games. Even games that emphasize open-ended exploration have boundaries and restrictions on where you can go, and all games have inherent gameplay limitations in terms of what you can actually do in the environment.

This display was pretty cool. Titled "Advances in Mechanics," it features five screens side-by-side showcasing how specific gameplay mechanics worked in five different "eras" of gaming. The simultaneous comparisons are pretty neat to see how things evolved. The mechanic on display in this picture is climbing, I believe. Others I can recall were movement and jumping, among others.

Assorted video game memorabilia for M.U.L.E., The Bard's Tale, and Halo. While I was looking at this display, an older man was standing next to me looking at the Halo box (a retro mock-up for the Atari 2600). He commented to his wife, saying "I didn't know Halo went back that far." I didn't have the heart to tell him it was not vintage.

A wall of concept art. There actually wasn't that much concept art on display (I think there were only three such collections on walls, and a few individual drawings in display cases). I would have liked to have seen more of such concept art, considering how much "traditional" art goes into the process of making a video game. 

A woman playing Myst. They have identical stations for Super Mario Bros, Pac-Man, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Flower. Each station has its own control panel and lets you play a small demo segment of the game (typically one specific level) while other people can watch. The Myst and Monkey Island stations had much, much smaller lines than the others -- go figure. 

These three monitors are supposed to showcase people's facial expressions while playing games. The kid on the right is playing a Wii game, so he's also moving around in the frame. I think the point of this was to demonstrate visually that people are an integral component in video games, since they demand player input on top of evoking emotional involvement/responses.

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