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Is Gaming Finally Considered An Art Form? The Smithsonian Thinks So

The Smithsonian Museum of American Art legitimizes video games through an expansive retrospective spanning the medium’s first 40 years.

The place of video games in the art world has been the subject of recent contention between people like internationally renown film critic Roger Ebert, who has said that “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form,” and creators in the industry, who firmly disagree with this narrow viewpoint. In a major experiment and effort, The Smithsonian Museum of American Art will debut The Art of Video Games, an exhibition chronicling the 40-year evolution of the gaming medium as "a compelling and influential form of narrative art." Chris Melissinos, the founder of PastPixels, a website highlighting and preserving video game technology’s impact on society, is lead curator of the exhibition. Billed as one of the first of its kind, The Art of Video Games hopes to connect the best examples from the medium's genres with the wide age range of museum visitors.


Video games obviously require time and direct player interaction, such as button inputs on a controller or the simple motion of a joystick, so to avoid fostering an arcade-like environment, Melissinos has chosen a setup that doesn’t focus on actual gameplay, but rather on the overall artistic process that goes into the creation of each title. However, five iconic games will be made playable to visitors while viewing the exhibit: Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and World of Warcraft. Each of these selected games provide a great introduction to the creative possibilities available within the medium—earlier titles demonstrating that even a simple graphic aesthetic never detracted from offering a fun, playable experience.

Although advances in hardware processing power and graphics display cards have certainly increased polygon counts and allowed for more realistic gaming environments, extra computing power has also enabled more complex artificial intelligence (AI), psychics engines, and other background processes—details often overlooked by gamers—that take place under the hood of each game. Striving for a degree of graphical realism, games like the Metal Gear Solid series frequently use cinematic cut scenes to drive forth the narrative in a straightforward manner, while a game like Flower will take a more abstract approach to the relationship between the player and environment by using motion controls to put the player in control of an invisible entity—the wind. Even more abstruse, "games" like Electroplankton put players in the creators chair, providing basic tools to create unique music sequences by tweaking various parameters.

The myriad number of distinctive approaches that game creators take during their artistic process is what Melissinos is striving to accentuate. Throughout the gallery, video interviews with game developers will illustrate their methods directly, and also highlight their respective intent with each title. Eighty games will be featured via still images and video footage, and in a bold move towards crowdsourced curation, the Smithsonian has placed the fate of the selection in voters’ hands, allowing the public to choose from 240 titles selected by Melissinos. Voting began recently and will go on through April 7. The exhibit is shaping to be a significant first step to the proper curatorial presentation of a new narrative medium, which seems, only recently, to be obtaining widespread recognition as an art form.

The Art of Video Games opens March 16, 2012. You can find our more about the exhibition here.