Smithsonian Art of Video Games

So I was lucky enough to get a guided tour of the Smithsonian's Art of Video Games exhibit last week by curator Georgina Goodlander. If you're in DC, it is worth a visit, plus it will be venturing off on a traveling tour at the end of the year.

What I found curious, but not surprising, was my mixture of excitement and disappointment at seeing video games displayed as "art" in the Smithsonian.  During a long stretch of my adolescence, I trained as a visual artist, with the hope of one day producing something worthy of placement in a museum.  At the same time, I spent a significant amount of time (perhaps too significant) with video games and early computer graphics programs.  At that time, it never struck me as strange that video games were not in museums, since the divide between fine art culture and gamer culture was so wide and clear.

So now, in 2012, I get to stroll through a gallery of screenshots and video captures of the Atari VCS, Intellivision, C64, Sega Genesis, etc.  On the one hand, it's thrilling to see the Smithsonian take these small steps into categorizing and curating examples of the video game genre.  (Curiously, in a way that Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort might appreciate, the major room in the exhibit adopted a platform-based taxonomy, with genre-based subcategories.)  And surely, that was my dominant reaction to the exhibit -- it was really great to see the genre put on a pedestal, so to speak, as art.

My slight disappointment: how much was not there.  It struck me that it is impossible it is to put the art of the video game in a small exhibit, or perhaps even to conceptualize this art form as fully expressive in the museum context.  Video games are often such rich, interactive, social, and contextual experiences -- how to capture all of that in a few rooms of exhibits?

Perhaps, though, this is not unique to video games.  I can only imagine what an ancient Egyptian might think, confronted with the average museum's scattered artifacts under glass.  How much does an exhibit on ancient Egypt really give us a sense of what it meant to live in that culture?  You can get a glimpse, perhaps, but not much more.  The odd thing for me about the Smithsonain exhibit, I guess, is that all that you glimpse inside the exhibit is still very much alive outside of it.

Anyway, there's a website that goes along with the Exhibit which has some interviews with game developers -- I have yet to watch them, but I'm sure they're fascinating:

Update: Gamasutra does a piece on this topic, featuring Henry Lowood's efforts.  Must be something in the air this week.

Comments on Smithsonian Art of Video Games:

Greg Costikyan says:

A greater issue is that focussing on "the art of games" is privileging art, in the sense of visual representation, over code, design, and all the other aspects that lead to the user experience. I have no particular issue with this, except that it suggests a continued inability to understand games in esse.

Posted May 23, 2012 1:39:29 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Was this about the artwork of video games or the art of video game design?

Posted May 23, 2012 2:45:17 AM | link

greglas says:

Richard (& Greg too I guess):

Here's what they say on the website:

"Video games are a prevalent and increasingly expressive medium within modern society. In the forty years since the introduction of the first home video game, the field has attracted exceptional artistic talent. An amalgam of traditional art forms—painting, writing, sculpture, music, storytelling, cinematography—video games offer artists a previously unprecedented method of communicating with and engaging audiences. The Art of Video Games is one of the first exhibitions to explore the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies. It features some of the most influential artists and designers during five eras of game technology, from early pioneers to contemporary designers."

So, yes -- the latter (the art of game design) is what I think they say they are doing whereas the former (the artwork of games) is what they appear to be doing for the most part. For an example of how it isn't all visual art, but isn't too much more, see this on "mechanics":

It's all sort of pre-ludology, I suppose. But again, I'm inclined to forgive, given that at least there is an effort being made to bridge the gap.

From listening to Ms. Goodlander, I got the sense that there was considerable initial resistance to the whole notion of the exhibit from within the Smithsonian community, but that the powers-that-be have been pleased with the public interest in the show.

Posted May 23, 2012 5:33:37 AM | link

Ubiytsaa says:

The comparison with the Egyptian museum could be right. Even though the museum is enormous, I can't imagine that the museum represents over 10% of actual artefacts. I would love to go to exhibits like this topic, but even every average game is capable of filling a whole museum with interesting and unique artwork. Getting the whole gaming history in one museum is probably one of the most challenging histories to put in a museum.

Posted May 24, 2012 6:05:09 AM | link

Gabriel says:

That's interesting. I remember reading or listening to a few other assessments of folks who went to see it (probably Michael Abbot and someone on Kill Screen) who had much the same assessment: glad that the Smithsonian took this on, but at the same time quite disappointed that it wasn't anywhere near what it could have been (while acknowledging that internal and external pressures mean that an institution such as the Smithsonian doesn't have much choice but to move in conservative increments). I'm glad that they at least took this step, however.

Posted May 24, 2012 9:46:30 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Hmm, those "mechanics" they describe do probably pass as being mechanics, but they're not as specific as we normally mean when we talk about them. Still, at least they're recognising that this is part of something called "game design".

This kind of earnest attempt to increase visitor numbers by being relevant to the modern world reminds me of those reality TV shows where some "celebrity" forces themself to eat a kangaroo's testicle in order to win food for the rest of the team. They don't like the idea, they don't like the taste, they question whether what they're eating is even edible, but they do it for the common good.

It's also an improvement on the "games for art yes, games as art no" attitude normally adopted by museums and galleries (remember this?).


Posted May 27, 2012 6:16:18 AM | link

greglas says:

Richard, I think Ms. Paul was actually involved in a symposium at the Smithsonian. (And yes, I certainly do remember that!) :-)

Posted May 28, 2012 9:37:52 PM | link

Lisa Galarneau says:

I know exactly what you mean! Videogames are as much a part of the larger cultural landscape as they are individual experiences. I think that's part of their power, but it also means that they can be hard to appreciate out of context. I mean, if you didn't spend weekend after weekend raiding epically in WoW or whereever, it can be very hard to understand. So considering them art, without that broader context, changes the experience fundamentally. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing.

Posted Jun 3, 2012 5:10:31 PM | link

Lisa Galarneau says:

I would like to comment that I am not the one who turned Terra Nova pink. ;-)

Posted Jun 4, 2012 4:59:37 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Yep! My fault!

Posted Jun 4, 2012 6:23:21 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

(actually Greg logged in as Ted)

Posted Jun 4, 2012 6:23:36 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

green now

Posted Jun 5, 2012 6:49:07 AM | link