Let’s take a break this week from the typical. I took a trip to Virginia and Washington DC this past week, and among the things I did I went to the Smithsonian Art Museum and toured the Art of Video Games exhibit. I was excited to see what they had done, but not terribly so. Maybe I’m too jaded to get really, crazy excited, or maybe I just don’t get into art exhibitions in general. Certainly I liked the Asian art in the Freer Gallery nearby, but unless I really take to something in it, an art exhibition is just a little dull for me. That’s a personal thing, not a dig at visual art. Either way, though, I wasn’t super duper excited by the games exhibit. Which was for the best, because the exhibit’s not that great.
I voted in the original round of “what should be in the exhibit” stuff, basically the Smithsonian’s way of deciding the 100 most important games. So I’ve been getting emails about it ever since. So I should say I am aware that there are lectures and activities, but none of them were happening when I was there. Frustratingly, a few are happening in just a few days, right after we had to leave. So I can only talk about the exhibit itself, the static stuff that will be there until sometime in September.
There was good stuff, so let me start with that. There’s a decent collection of production and concept art, including some fantastic paintings that were the inspirations for levels in the Genesis Sonic games.
There was a lot of stuff from the new Fallout games – Pontifus explained to me that Bethesda was nearby, and I guess they wanted the exposure. I wish there had been more concept art, but what was there was great, and there was a good selection of old and new designs. There was even an image of the redesign that shifted Sonic from “old” (portly, short) to “new” (tall, long-limbed). I guess you can tell which games I grew up with, I remember the most about the Sonic stuff.
There were also play kiosks, where attendees can play the games all this stuff is about.
They had Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. I tried out Flower, it being the only one I hadn’t played before. TheKittyMeister went in and talked to the pirates drinking grog in Monkey Island – she made sure to talk to the Loom guy. The best part of that section of the exhibit was that we actually watched a kid learn to play Mario. He died in places most of us wouldn’t have, he was tentative in places with no enemies, he screwed up. But he did exactly what I did when I was a kid, and what Pontifus had done, and likely what you did, too. He died trying to get to the first moving platform in 1-2. He came so close, but his play time ended before he could get to the pipe. We got to watch someone learn the game, which illustrated that the way to learn it is built in. The same errors in the same places, at the same times, because you’re learning the controls. I figured this out as I watched the kid deal with piranha plants. He didn’t know they would stay in the pipe if he was close enough, and he spent time waiting for them to come out. He learned their pattern. After he died on the platform and had to come back through he didn’t wait so long for each flower. He had learned they would stop moving if he got close enough.
Here’s the problem, though. This stuff is only half the exhibit. Maybe a little less. The rest is a superfluous history lesson, a paean to the development of game culture and improved technology. Both of those things are very interesting, and necessary somewhere, but not in an art exhibit.
There was a visual timeline, a room made entirely of displays that had still images from several games (broken into somewhat unwieldy categories like “Target”), a console and controller, and a video screen that would play footage and narration about a game from the still images if you hit its button. The NES display, above, is showing footage from Dune 2 as an example of a strategy game.
The room with the concept art also had this damn thing:
It’s a comparative timeline of gaming elements from different console generations. You can see they’ve codified the term “Bitwars.” It would compare elements like “avatars,” “jumping,” “climbing,” and so on, with footage from different generations’ characters doing, being, something those things. Aside from the groupings being a little suspect – the “next gen” screen showed stuff from a few different generations – what is the point of this? It’s not showing off the art, it’s showing off the technical advancements.
Look, for a serious study of any medium, its history is really important. I have studied a lot about the history of the novel, of the romance, and of the Gothic story for my stuff. I am also trying to get up a secondary research area in video games, so its history is specifically important to me. But this gallery was meant to be an art exhibit, not a history lesson. If you’ve seen this exhibit, did you walk around the rest of the museum? If you’re going to, please take some time to explore. Nothing else devotes this much time to the history of what it’s talking about. Individual paintings or sculptures might have an historical explanation, like how Whistler started as a realist but left that technique behind him as he grew as an artist (a note appended to a portrait of Whistler meant to celebrate him as an arch realist).
To me it is as though no one could conceive of games as anything other than technological innovations – which is endemic to game criticism, both inside and outside the gaming community. Technological innovation has been very important to the history, but not as much to the artistry. Look at the indie gaming scene right now – people trying to make games they could be proud of as pieces of art are often dropping back into older technologies. They don’t leverage new graphics engines, because they’re unnecessary (and either expensive to license or hard to build, yes, I know).
The exhibit should basically have been mostly rooms full of playable bits of games. One experiences the art of a game by being a player. The Smithsonian exhibit had good intentions, and is good for what it is – but in the end, it’s comparable to an art museum being nothing but timelines of expressionism, with perhaps a single Monet painting off to the side. It is watching people enjoy the art, rather than enjoying the art itself.