The Art of the Game

Posted March 21, 2012 at 6:37pm

When most people think of the great modern artists, a few names tend to come to mind. Certainly Pablo Picasso, with his disjointed figures and intense colors. Most likely Jackson Pollock, if you’re of a more abstract mindset. Maybe Andy Warhol for the more avant-garde contingent.

But Hideo Kojima? Probably not so much.

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “The Art of Video Games,” is aiming to change that perception.

The exhibit bills itself as one of the first museum examinations of the evolution of video games as an art form and features 80 games divided by era, genre and platform. It includes the work of Kojima, a Japanese game director probably most famous for his groundbreaking 1998 “Metal Gear Solid” on the original Sony PlayStation console.

The exhibit focuses on the interactivity of video games and how that unique aspect of the medium comes together with the other parts of video game design to produce an art form.

To highlight the importance of the player’s effect on a game, one room of the exhibit presents five games that viewers can play on giant projection screens, complete with a controller from the game’s original console.

Another room houses three side-by-side screens showing video footage of people’s faces, including museum officials, as they play video games.

The reactions range from intense concentration to total confusion to utter exuberance.

“Video games are the only medium that allow not only for a variety of different traditional art forms to come together to create an entirely new whole, but they are the only form of art that requires viewer interaction for it to become art,” said Chris Melissinos, guest curator for the exhibit.

Melissinos, former chief gaming officer at Sun Microsystems and founder of the gaming website Past Pixels, is a self-described “bit baby” who began designing video games at age 10. Now 41 and the vice president of corporate marketing for Internet security firm VeriSign, he helped develop the idea for “The Art of Video Games” after participating in a 2008 Smithsonian technology conference aimed at improving digital outreach but which veered a bit further afield.

“The museum said, ‘Video games seem to be so much more than what we originally thought them to be. What can we do that would be both of value to the art community and a serious look at what it is that these artists and designers were really trying to say?’” Melissinos said.

So he got to work compiling material for the exhibit. By 2011 he had helped select 240 games for potential display. Those options were then opened up to a public vote that resulted in 3.7 million votes being cast by 119,000 people in 175 countries during a two-month span in 2011 that determined the 80 games featured in the exhibit.

“The number of voters went beyond our wildest dreams,” said Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent director at the museum.

It’s All About the Games

The exhibit begins with a room displaying still images, videos from games and a large number of game designer concept sketches.

The intricacy of the sketches rival what one would find for more traditional paintings. One, Adam Adamowicz’s 2005 “Fallout 3 Concept Sketches” presents a painfully detailed scene of urban warfare. Another coupling shows a 1935 drawing of Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and contrasts it with a 1993 image of Sega’s classic characters Sonic the Hedgehog and Knuckles.

But really, it’s all about the games.

Many people visiting the exhibit will no doubt be drawn to the room with the five playable games — and for good reason.

While “Myst,” a free-ranging game with almost no instruction that Melissinos said was heavily lobbied for by the public, might present an overly open-ended gameplay for many people, the inclusion of the original 1985 “Super Mario Brothers” for the Nintendo Entertainment System is a more satisfying experience. Ditto for the arcade-style version of “Pac-Man.” It’s enough to make even the most avid gamer long for the days when controllers had no more than two buttons.

Then there are the 80 games included for viewing. They’re presented chronologically and divided by gaming system, ranging from a 1977 Atari VCS to the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii, both from 2006, with each system displaying one game from each of four categories — action, target, adventure and tactics. (Many of the systems, particularly the older ones, were loaned to the museum by Melissinos himself.)

It’s interesting to note the wide differences in appearance between games from different eras that take their inspiration from the same source.

For example, 1982’s “Pitfall!” and 2009’s “Uncharted 2” look so different that it seems almost wrong to call them both video games, yet they’re both takeoffs on Indiana Jones. Another thing that strikes the viewer is the move away from more out-there concepts (“Attack of the Mutant Camels,” anyone?) toward increasingly realistic scenarios such as those in “Heavy Rain,” a game from 2010 that tells the story of a serial killer in visuals so refined they don’t appear to be much different than a movie.

“While technology has created a broader canvas on which to paint these experiences, there is a truism in the mechanics of the game that does not change over time. We designed the exhibit to draw that out,” Melissinos said.

“The Art of Video Games” runs through Sept. 30 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at Eighth and F streets Northwest.