A Shallow Attempt: Smithsonian's Art of Video Games Exhibit an Embarrassment

By Published August 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm

With the Smithsonian's tasteful artistry and with the dexterous footwork of a drunken stumblebum, the Art of Video Games exhibit's Washington incursion crumbles under its own ambitious, unfocused mass. Teetering undecidedly between "user's choice awards" -- a result of crowdsourced voting -- and "a brief history of games," the exhibit feels almost rushed, or perhaps more likely, pressured into architecting a watered-down approach for the general public.

The simple fact, though, is that an understanding of video gaming culture is not required - not by any measure - to appreciate the tremendous undertakings of game studios worldwide and their resulting masterpieces. Art doesn't have to be watered-down. This is why the exhibit should have been appealing: Art is relatively universal -- video games have various styles and forms (concept art, rendered CGI, even clay models), and most surveyors can acknowledge the level of discipline and devotion that goes into something as complex as, say, EverQuest's style and Morrowind's fantastic environments.



I suspect that this was the full intent of the curator and organizer -- initially, at least -- but what we received felt more like a contrived, confused amalgamation of modern games, each underscored by a few lines about their backstory or playstyle. The art that the exhibition is prefixed with is almost entirely absent; there are maybe ten sheets of concept art, a few plastic boxes that enshrine console hardware from the last three decades, and five booths that, if you're lucky, may even let you play Pac-Man, Myst, or Super Mario Bros.


What occupies all that space, then? Aside from the vast emptiness (the largest room contained five time-limited 'play areas' with the aforementioned games), not a whole lot. It's more a collection of the home console era -- stuff I could find boxed in my house -- and even then, the games and devices presented are accompanied by weak text which fails to significantly highlight their various artistic styles. It's not an art exhibit, is what I'm trying to say. No, it's much different; it's some sort of attempt at, I suppose, a summary of home console gaming and the most-liked (not even necessarily the most revolutionary) games released in that era. Contemporary gaming?

But it fails even at that, which is problematic.

There's no mention of what makes the games chosen so special; perhaps a few words about how the game was the first to use some technology, but the presentation of games mostly followed a set format: What was the game released on? What is the game called? Here's a quote from someone.

minecraft-fan-artEyes of the beholder argument: Minecraft can be beautiful, too. Art cred. akin21

The booth displaying StarCraft, for instance, fails to mention why it has been a revolutionary game that still continues to impact modern gaming (e-sports, for instance, and South Korea's piqued interest in them). On-screen footage of someone clumsily clicking (cringe) on structures and units, almost without purpose, is the backdrop to this templated string of text that purportedly educates the viewer on the game's distinction. StarCraft was a driving factor responsible for modernizing gaming peripherals - mechanical keyboards, mice, et al. - and has driven the development of e-sports to new heights. Its impact is irrefutable, even for non-RTS players and those who are uninterested in competitive play.

Oh, but there's a drawing of a Zergling, so that makes everything better.


And that's where it gets confusing. There's a small room dedicated to the "timeline" of gaming, which has been defined as "Era 1: Start; Era 2: 8-bit; Era 3: Bitwars; Era 4: Transition; Era 5: Next Generation," a small section of 8.5x11" sheets of concept art, some old hardware behind glass panels, and a bench. It feels thrown together - piecemeal of nostalgia and memories long-faded.

This timeline is labeled as "Advances in Mechanics," and as I contemplate the exhibit further, I only find myself plunging deeper into bewilderment. Mechanics? This seems to fit with the "a brief summary of the history of games made in the last 30 years" theme that the other room carried, but does not necessarily fit with the artistic direction that the museum advertised. A historic feel lingers in the air of the rooms, but even that is dissipated by the sudden realization that, for some reason, not one arcade machine is present, not even a nod to their existence.

morrowind-concept-vivec2The exhibit needs more art - like the concept work found in Morrowind or model work found for GoW.

The exhibition's presentation and layout are incredibly shallow, and that's the word for the day. There's no depth to the choice of the games, the few pieces of art are left widely unlabeled (or labeled in a fashion that's nearly illegible), and the discussion of mechanics and technological revolutions are unbelievably juvenile in their analytical capacities.

It felt like a school project, and like the awkward child that would present such a project, it is bafflingly chaotic and unfocused.

But is it really all that bad?

Games are funny -- the thing with fanboyism is that it's quite easy for someone to, for example, suggest that the first time the organizers played StarCraft was days before the exhibit, but there's more to it than the disappointment of a gamer. This is gaming's first real step into the eyes of an otherwise misinformed ("guns don't kill people, Halo does") or completely unexposed public. That step was really more of a clumsy trip; the word "graceless" is incorrect, as that could come off as entitlement and unnecessarily harsh, but I should say that the entire event feels... embarrassing.

Sort of like when you trip and start running - it doesn't fall on its face, but it is laughable. It's a chaotic sprawl of mismatched components.

game-art-wallSome of the art we found.

This is our medium. It's important that we show it off in its greatest capacity. If we're presenting games as an art form - which the exhibit promises to do - it's important that we don't dance around the question of "Are games really art? They're just pixels, right?" Games are art. Games are an interactive experience that have evolved from focusing on innovative mechanics to, with our new-found technology, creating stories that are as emotionally-engaging than books.

Slapping Star Fox on a screen and captioning it as art won't convince the masses; without any context and without previous exposure, the game - let's be honest - is all very pointy. But there is an art to it, as players of the game know: The graphics were mindblowing for its time, had an involving story, and the mechanics were beautifully-designed. It takes more than a few scrolling lines of text and a spiritless video to convey the power of gaming immersion.

One can't simply place some dusty hardware and fan-favorite games behind a case and call it a day; the exhibit lacks that same spirit, emotion, and flow, that our games possess, and without any of those quintessential elements, games would be, well, what the exhibit was supposed to argue against: Just pixels.

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.

Last modified on August 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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