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Screen Test

What can you say about an art exhibition that isn’t sure it’s art?

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By SONNY BUNCH
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There’s a weirdly apologetic tone to this exhibit. Upon entering, one is confronted by a mission statement from curator Chris Melissinos: 

Using the cultural lens of an art museum, viewers can determine whether the games on display are indeed worthy of the title “art.” Some visitors will encounter a game that transports them back to their childhood, or gain insight into how games are made. My hope is that people will leave the exhibition with an understanding that video games are so much more than what they first thought. They may even be art. 

It’s hard to imagine another exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum being forced to argue whether the subject in question is “art.” Just down the hall is a series of landscapes and bedrooms shot by Annie Leibovitz; on the same floor resides an exhibit dedicated to patent models; if you go down a floor, there’s one entitled “Decorative Arts from the White House.” No one really questions if these exhibits constitute art.  

Melissinos’s caution​—​pleading, really​—​is representative of the uneasy and evolving place video games occupy in popular culture. Even as games earn respect in cultural circles, and considerate treatments in books such as Extra Lives and Reality Is Broken, the pushback has been intense. Perhaps most famously, Roger Ebert declared in 2010 that “video games can never be art,” dismissively snorting: “Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.”

It’s unlikely that this exhibit is going to change Ebert’s mind. Part halfhearted attempt to justify the inclusion of video games in an art museum, part incomplete history lesson on gaming’s journey, it’s something of a mess.

At the entrance, one encounters a trio of video screens focused solely on the faces of video gamers; their contorted visages are meant to show us that video games elicit an emotional response, and an emotional response is one of the keys to art, yes? Well, sort of: Stepping on somebody’s foot while riding the subway elicits an emotional response, too—but it’s not necessarily art.   

More convincing, if more pedestrian, are samples of developmental artwork and box art, as well as a discussion of the technique that goes into creating video games. These technical accomplishments, on their own, might not render video games art; but when combined with the medium’s emphasis on storytelling, there’s a case to be made that modern video games exist within the same tradition as, say, filmmaking. 

As the exhibit progresses, visitors pass into a room with five playable games—Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Flower, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Myst—so people can experience the delight of video game playing. Given the popularity here of Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros.—arguably the least “artistic” of these games—it seems that people are more interested in transporting themselves back to childhood than partaking in a nontraditional experience like Flower, in which players control the wind and explore a beautiful grassy plain for the purpose of, well, exploring the beautiful grassy plain.

After the pseudo-arcade we embark on a history lesson, and here’s where things really go off the rails. The room that follows is, in essence, a chronological examination of home video gaming systems from the late 1970s to the present day. Clips and explanatory narration of 4 games from each of 20 systems are shown to demonstrate how they moved the medium forward. 

The exhibit deftly shows the evolution of video gaming at home: From Atari and ColecoVision to the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis, and on to PlayStations 1, 2, and 3, we are presented a clear progression of video gaming as a technological medium. So what? As a history lesson, this is moderately interesting but woefully incomplete. Video arcades are almost totally ignored; it’s as if video gaming began as entertainment for the home and evolved from there. Furthermore, entire genres and their impact on the medium are ignored: Sports games, such as the Madden football series, might as well not exist given the paucity of attention they receive. The same goes for fighting games like Street Fighter. 

The exhibit also shies away from “controversial” genre-busting series like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto, which warrant nary a mention despite the undeniable effect they had on both the industry as a business and the medium as an art form. Granted, this is the Smithsonian Institution, and family-friendliness is a must, but it’s a glaring omission.

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