“The Art of Video Games” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of the first exhibitions to explore the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium. Featuring 80 games and 20 video games systems, starting with the Atari VCS in 1976 and ending with today’s Sony PlayStation 3, the exhibit walks through the tremendous advances in design, technology and storytelling.
Last year, the museum invited the public to help select the video games to be included in the exhibition. From a list of 240 games chosen by guest curator Chris Melissinos, who worked with the museum, game developers, designers, industry pioneers and journalists, more than 3.7 million votes were cast (by 119,000 people in 175 countries) to choose the 80 games.
Art Beat talked to Melissinos about the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 30.
So why exactly are there are video games in an art museum?
Chris Melissinos: The answer in my opinion is very simple. Video games are an amalgam of what we consider to be traditional art. Within video games we see illustration, narrative, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, and all of these things conspire to create a form of art whose output is greater than the individuals parts. It is has never been a question that video games would be in art museum; it was at what point would we see them. And here we are today.
Who then are the artists? What kinds of skills or talents go into making this art form?
Chris Melissinos: When we look at video games, depending on the era, the term artist could be defined in different ways. In the earliest form of video games, the programmer was typically not only the programmer but the artist and the designer and the musician and the coder, and would even do the artwork on the boxes of these particular games. Today, video games, because of their complexity, because of their ability to tell very large, grand stories, we may see teams of artists and designers and developers of 200 or more working toward the goal of a single vision. So much like you would see a very large movie by Steven Spielberg — it was not just Steven Spielberg who created the movie. There are other artists and people with vision who were in concert with Steven to bring those forward. It is not that different for the largest and most expansive video games that we see today.
So many of the people that are creating video games today are just like you and me. They are everyone. They are everywhere. I think the democratization of tools have allowed for the platforms for game development to exist at the hands of just about anyone. And while many game developers may not be a household name yet, there certainly some who are. So designers like Shigeru Miyamoto, anybody who grew up playing Mario in any of its forms could probably tell you who Shigeru Miyamoto is. So, again, while we do not have necessarily the artists as front and center of the experience that people have in their home, they are certainly present and there many more than people believe.
In an art museum you see different kinds of art. There is realism, expressionism, abstract art, surrealism and on so. Within the genre of video games, are there different kinds of art that you see?
Chris Melissinos: Within video games one may discover many different types of traditional art. From surrealism in games like “Myst,” to woodcarving and painting such as in “Okami,” to abstract art to photo realism. You can take a look at the earliest games, because the technology was so limited and the power of those platforms were so anemic, that the developer had to work in very abstract terms to convey the mystery of the story that they wanted to impart. Which meant that the player had to go ahead and bring their imagination to fill in the void, to fill in the gaps the technology did not provide for the narrative to occur. You can find just about every form of traditional art reflected in video games today.
What is the relationship between the artwork, or the video game, and the person who plays the game?
Chris Melissinos: Video games become art through distinct voices. The first voice of a video game is that of the author, the artist or the designer. They have a story that they want to tell the world. The second voice in games is that of the game itself. How it presents itself to the player, the mechanics of that game, the possibility of space that the game provides to the player. But it becomes art in the playing of the game and that’s where the third voice, the voice of the player comes in. Because what video games allow to occur is a narrative arc that retains the authority of an author or a storyteller, but allows us as players to laterally explore the environment, to pull bits of the game out that are personal to us, that are important to us and thereby creating a unique form of art for each individual person who plays.
What makes one game more artistic than another? What are the qualities that stand out?
Chris Melissinos: In my opinion, the term art is a very subjective term. It means something very different to anyone that tries to apply it to works of beauty and in their life. My definition is quite serviceable for myself, which is quiet simply to say if you can discover an author’s intent in the work that you are observing and find personal resonance with that message, then it transcends the medium to become art. So it’s very difficult to say which games are art, which games are not art. It will be different for everyone that observes it. This exhibition does not attempt to draw a line in the sand and say video games are art. I leave that for you to decide whether or not you believe video games to be art in your life.
One of the main differences of having video games in an art museum is the interactive aspect. You can’t touch a painting, but you can play a video game.
Chris Melissinos: One of the things that you can expect in visiting an exhibition like this is to be fully engaged in the experience. The art is in the playing. That is when video games transcend just the medium to become art. It was important to engage the visitors in this exhibition and allow them to go ahead and project themselves into the games that they’ve enjoyed playing. So we have games that allow you to sample an era, that did something different to propel video games forward, to propel design change, to make people think differently about video games within their era. We also provide materials that help to illuminate the artists’ intent, to illuminate the story that may be behind the veneer that may not be so apparent when you first played it at home.
How did you pick the games and the game systems?
Chris Melissinos: What I wanted to do was illustrate the impact that video games have had as an art form in American culture over its 40 year existence. I couldn’t create an entire historical compendium of every machine and every game that spans those 40 years, so what instead we picked 20 systems that really stood as anchors within their respective generations, ones that the public would most identify with. Through those 20 systems we demonstrated four games of particular genres that then showed the evolution of the form of art over time. Instead of just picking 80 games, which would have been my favorite 80 picks over 40 years, I decided to make sure that we had the voice of the public represented. This is not just about my love of gaming and the art form, but about the United States’ and the world’s love for the form as well.