Pac-Man in the Smithsonian, and Other Results from the Art of Video Games

The Art of Video Games exhibition will be leaving the American Art Museum on September 30th to tour the country.

On March 16th, 2012, the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened the Art of Video Games exhibition. On one side of the entrance stands the permanent exhibit “Watch This! New Directions in the Art of the Moving Image.” A room of television screens broadcasts single-channel video tapes and digital files, side-by-side. The other side leads to Megatron Matrix, an installation by Nam June Paik. A wall of screens depicts images from the Seoul Olympics in juxtaposition with traditional Korean folk and modern dance, with unrelated sound bites playing over the cacophony of visuals, a “world without borders in the electronic age” where the viewer is “assaulted by too much information.”

One could easily mistake the Art of Video Games as a part of either exhibit. The museum challenges the viewer to separate established digital art with games like Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, and the Legend of Zelda. The Art of Video Games exhibition stands out for several reasons. One, it focuses on commercial video games, from the ColecoVision and Nintendo Entertainment System to the Playstation 3 and the Wii. The second headline-generating feature is its inclusion of the popular vote. Eighty of the video games featured in the exhibit were selected via Internet poll on the Smithsonian American Art Museum website. Inclusion therefore was not based solely on artistic merit but a certain element of popularity. In addition, the names of donators are publicly displayed on a type of high score list, decorating both the entrance and exit of the exhibit, acknowledging both heavyweight sponsors and the micro-donations of visitors. It’s hard to conceive of an exhibit more devoted to populism.

Okami Image

An image from Okami, one of the games on display in the Art of Video Games exhibition.

The exhibit argues that video games, long considered the stuff of children and maladjusted adults, is an art form just as worthy of being in a museum as Picasso or Monet. And like Picasso or Monet, the brilliance of these artistic works needs time. The fundamental themes of the exhibit can be summed up in this quote from the catalog:

“The advantage that books, movies, and television have over video games is with time only. Like all other forms of media, hindsight will tease inspired works from the digital past, and these will serve as the cornerstones of great works yet to be created”

But can one art exhibit change the view of video games from children’s toys to an art object capable of incredible expression and thought? And what happens to our definition of what art is – what art belongs in museums – once we accept video games as pieces worth preserving and showing?

Flower image

An image from Flower, one of the playable games in the Art of Video Games exhibition.

Curator Chris Melissinos argues that the public’s input in the exhibit was heavily controlled and guided by the museum. 240 games were initially chosen “together with the museum and an advisory group of game developers, designers, pioneers, and journalists.” The criteria for consideration included “visual effects, creative use of new technologies, and how world events or popular culture influenced the game design. Then the public voted on these 240 finalists; through this vote “almost 4 million votes across 175 countries narrowed the list to the eighty games” featured in the exhibit. When I spoke to Melissinos he compared the methodology to a scaled-down version of American Idol: “we picked the singers – you pick the three songs.” The five playable exhibits— Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower—were all chosen by the curator independent of any vote. Melissinos then played through each of the eighty games, taking screen caps, recording video and writing voice-overs for the exhibit that explain why each of the games deserves recognition of the audience and the art world.

According to exhibition coordinator Georgina Goodlander, the initial response to the exhibition has been extremely positive, both from those in the museum and video game industries; in fact, the only complaint is that experts want more. She writes that “This is the first exhibition of its type, so we aimed to include a broad range of materials, which meant that we couldn’t go too deep into any one aspect. I think the next exhibition will be able to dig deeper into the artistic processes and social impact of video game development.” When the exhibition leaves on September 30 to begin its nationwide tour, ten more cities will display games in their museums over the next four years, equating what was once a toy with a true artistic medium. The perception of what is art is beginning to change, and who knows what might end up sitting next to Pac-Man in the 21st century art world.