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[Review] The Art of Video Games: An Exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Posted under Featured, and News, and Reviews by David Silberstein on Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 -

This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit on “The Art of Video Games.” I can summarize my experience there in one word: disappointing.

First, a short description of what was there. As I entered the exhibit, there was a small room with some concept sketches from various games (about half were from Fallout 3), and a couple of glass cases with box art and bonus items from a lot of other games. There was a set of a few monitors, each of which had a short video on what the exhibit composer considered an “era” of personal gaming.

After that was a room with a few games you could play. There was only one spot for each of the games, so unless you wanted to wait to get your turn you were stuck watching someone else play for a few minutes until the demo ended. Their selection of games in this section was decent, and somewhat representative: it included Tetris, Pong, Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower along with a couple other games.

The third and final room of the exhibit was a showroom for every single home console ever made, including PCs. This would have been the most impressive part of the exhibit if it hadn’t been organized so terribly. First, there was no real discernible method in which the consoles were arranged. Yes, they were grouped together by era of gaming, but even so, going from one area from the next could skip you a generation or two before you realized that you missed three or four consoles. Each console had four “example” games listed, divided into four categories clearly not chosen by a gamer: Action, Target, Adventure, and Tactics. I’m not quite sure what method they used to classify these games, as games in the same series would sometimes be in different categories on different consoles. Next to each one was a monitor that could play four different videos, each of which was about two minutes long. However, because of the ambient noise and the crowd, unless you happened to be the only one looking at the console at the time you weren’t going to see the video you wanted.

Now that the guided tour is over, here’s why I thought the exhibit was disappointing.

1. The exhibit creator paid no attention to the arcade. While original arcade games don’t have the same level of art design that most console games do, they are still a large part of video game history. An exhibit could even be made about the art of the arcade cabinet, which in itself draws people to play those games. For something that purports to be massive, excluding the origin of video game culture is a pretty big gaffe.

2. While the games chosen as examples for each console were usually famous or at the very least artistic, the exhibit didn’t give anyone enough of a chance to really become familiar with the games they chose. Before the first room of the exhibit, there’s a sign on the wall that explains that the art of a video game truly comes out in its playing. While having four of each gaming console with demos of each game would have been a bit ridiculous for an institution like the Smithsonian, I would have appreciated at least an effort to show more aspects of what makes each game unique and special beyond the videos.

3. Nowhere in the entire exhibit was there a mention of the fighting game genre. While I’ve only become a fighting game fan recently, it has a long and storied history. It may not be the most popular genre of games, but it at the very least has its own unique art and play, and nowhere was it even considered as a thing. A nod to Mortal Kombat and the controversy surrounding it would have been enough.

4. While mobile gaming has become more of a recent phenomenon due to the prevalence of iOS and Android games, the Game Boy and its various incarnations have existed for over 20 years. They were not even mentioned in the exhibit.

It may have been that my expectations were a bit too high for something like this, but I was expecting more at the very least. Hopefully, the next time an exhibit about video game art is proposed, the curators will think to include a couple more gamers on the planning staff.

The Art of Video Games closes on September 30, 2012, so if you are in the Washington, D.C. area and want to see it for yourself, you still have a few days left.

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