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The Curious Insecurity of the Smithsonian’s ‘The Art of Video Games’ Exhibit

I was a vocal defender of the idea behind Smithsonian’s The Art of Video Games exhibit when the dates for it were announced last spring, and I continue to think that an excellent, comprehensive exhibit of video game art is a good idea. But despite some intelligent framing and good curation ideas, The Art of Video Games feels too defensive to be that show.

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Art of Video Games is how much space it feels compelled to devote to testimonials insisting that video games are, in fact, art and worthy of an exhibit of this magnitude. Judging by the massive crowds at the show, that might have been a necessary case to make to donors and curators, but audiences didn’t need to be convinced. One of the joys of attending the show was seeing how excited visitors were to it to see the popular art that’s been important in their lives treated as if it’s worthy of professional assessment and attention. And curating the show more confidently without stopping to justify it would have both eliminated waste space and given little ground to those who doubt the need for The Art of Video Games at all.

Waste space is a problem: the exhibit feels alternately stuffed and and under-full. It’s a three-room show, which doesn’t seem like very much space for an exhibit that’s meant to be comprehensive. The first has concept art, packaging for old games, video interviews with game creators, and a multi-media explanation of the evolution of graphics. But the show’s almost entirely uncaptioned, so it’s hard to tell why these artifacts and not others made it into the show, or what stages of game development they’re meant to represent. The second room has consoles set up that let visitors play classic games on large-scale screens. But once again, they’re captioned with basic summaries of the game rather than any framing that would provide clear context for their inclusion or the advances they represent, and it means that the middle of the exhibit is slowed down by lines of people waiting for their shot at a controller.

The final room is the most interesting, but it still illustrates the show’s weaknesses. The display takes viewers through key games for each major console, with walkthroughs of gameplay to illustrate what console improvements let designers do with everything from character design, to cut scenes, to incentives. It’s a fascinating way to present information, but it also means that viewers are fighting for space at the relatively small screens where the walkthroughs are projected. The audio for each walkthrough’s piped through a single phone at each screen, which means that, even though the narration is captioned on the screen, people end up close to the screen, blocking them. There’s basically no way for any attendee to access all the information in the exhibit.

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It’s too bad, because — though I’ll leave it to experts like Harold Goldberg to critique what the voting system that got games into the exhibit included and what it ended up leaving out — there’s a lot of terrific information in the show, whether you’re a long-time gamer or an interested novice. I hadn’t known, for example, that Metal Gear Solid can be played all the way through without killing an enemy. And while it’s not very interesting to hear generic defenses of video games as art, listening to creator Jenova Chen talk about the games he’s designed, like Flow and Flower, which absorb viewers in the natural world, provides a fascinating look at how gaming might answer the demands of a new generation of gamers and a the creative aspirations of a new generation of game designers and developers. It would also have been fascinating — and a good defense of the idea that games are a minor commercial product rather than art — to see games in the context of other media. I really enjoyed seeing the similarities between how Rez, Hackers, and The Matrix visualized the internet in its early days.

But fan enthusiasm and justifying an exhibit don’t a coherent narrative make. There are stories to be told about the development of video games in the past, and where they’re going in the future. And there are stories to be told about the artists, who appear here only in testimonials, rather than accompanied by relevant biographical representation (the show is careful to represent both female gamers and game producers, but it doesn’t discuss institutional sexism in the industry much, or how it affects its output). We’re getting terrific fiction out of the role that video games play in our lives and our economy, like Ready Player One and Reamde. Maybe, if we can finally get a Bioshock, Halo, or Mass Effect movie adaptation off the ground, we’ll have movies to match. And The Art of Video Games won’t be the only museum exhibit we’ll get about this art, this industry. Hopefully, this will lay a foundation for a show that has confidence in itself, and a story to tell about these gorgeous alternate universes.