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The Smithsonian Just Added Video Games to Its Permanent Collection

Once the museum figures out how to display interactive software, can it figure out how we can touch the Jackson Pollocks?
December 18, 2013, 4:55pm

via the Smithsonian and Ed Fries

Parents trying to drag an 11-year-old to a Washington, DC, museum just got another piece of enticement to add to “But R2D2 and C-3PO are there!”

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has added two video games, Halo 2600 and Flower, to its permanent collection. The US government recognizes video game players as athletes, and now the government-administered museum recognizes the games as an art form.

“The best video games are a great expression of art and culture in our democracy,” Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum said in a statement. “I am excited that this new medium is now a permanent part of our collections alongside other forms of video, electronic and code-based art.”

The museum had a traveling exhibition on the subject called “The Art of Video Games” last year, and it’s “media arts initiative” is exploring how best to display these objects that are designed to be interactive.

The Smithsonian isn’t the first art museum to get into gaming. The MoMA had a year that would’ve been the best of my childhood, adding 14 games to its collection, and planning on growing the number to 40. The games, including Pac-Man, Myst, and Sim City 2000 are on display in the MoMA’s “Applied Design” exhibition.

The Smithsonian’s acquisitions might be less familiar than MoMA’s, but it’s easy to see how familiarity could cloud one’s ability to see the games for their artistry. I, for one, didn’t recognize that Tetris could be considered an avant-garde performance space. The space was simply ready-to-hand for me to stack blocks in.

So a game like Flower, developed by the 14-person independent studio Thatgamecompany in Santa Monica, can be more readily recognized for its artistry. Even the Smithsonian's description goes so far as calling Flower an “interactive poem” in addition to a game.

“This innovative game puts the player in an unusual role—the wind—and uses minimal controls to create an emotional, immersive experience of the landscape which changes in response to the player’s actions,” the statement says.

Halo 2600 is an adaptation of the Xbox, LAN party hit of the early 2000s, stripped down for a 1977 Atari VCS.

“Introducing these two games to the permanent collection simultaneously is notable,” said Michael Mansfield, the museum’s film and video currator. “Whereas they may have dramatically different visual approaches—the lush and emotional landscape of ‘Flower’ versus the elemental figures and mechanics of ‘Halo 2600’—these works taken together stake out the rich creative and conceptual potential in video games.”

While I’ve typically found that video games need no advocacy beyond themselves, this year—being added to museum collections, being written up as an art form in The New Yorker—raises expectations from the public, from players, and even from developers. The “rich creative and conceptual potential” feels like it’s just now being tapped.