New exhibit showcases video games as art form

Flashing lights and virtual sounds are typical of video games but a new exhibition also displays them as a viable form of art.

“The Art of Video Games,” which opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on March 16, pays tribute to the complex electronic visuals of video games – a form of art rarely recognized. The exhibit portrays the typical source of teenage entertainment in a new light, allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions as to whether these complex electronics are their own form of art.

The graphic design display illustrates the potential of video games to stimulate creativity and artistic process, moving games out of their common stereotypes as purveyors of teenage violence or a mind-numbing excuse for laziness.

“Games are so much more than a code running inside a computer,” exhibit curator Chris Melissinos said in a video interview. “You are looking at the output of passion, of love, of art from the people who create these games.”

Posing the artistic question through the lens of a museum, the exhibition allows visitors to experience video games in their most basic form, as well as through contemporary examples illustrating the art form’s 40-year evolution.

Kierran Petersen | Hatchet Photographer
‘Megatron Matrix’ plays clips on 215 separate monitors.

The exhibition opens with an enormous screen projecting excerpts of video games and music from a chiptune band, a type of electronic music usually created from the sound chips of old computers or video games. The elements combine to pique multiple senses and introduce visitors to the world of gaming.

The first exhibit space displays drawings, renderings and models from top developers, as well as interviews with gaming-world super stars such as computer game designer and founder of Double Fine Productions Tim Schafer, role-play gaming designer Warren Spector and founder of Atari Nolan Bushell.

There is also the opportunity for visitors to participate in playable games, “Pac-Man,” “Super Mario Brothers,” “The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower.”

The exhibition culminates with gaming stations that were chosen to reflect a body of work that encompasses quality visual effects, creative use of technologies and with an influence from world events and popular culture.

Melissinos identifies four main genres which run throughout the history of video game making, including Target, Adventure, Action and Tactics.

The result is one of the first exhibitions in the world to explore the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium.

“Video game designers are engaged in creating a world, as are all artists,” Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent director at the museum said. “The Smithsonian American Art Museum recognizes the designers and developers who create these beguiling worlds in this exhibition.”

Marking its debut, the exhibit opened with a three-day “GameFest” which offered the public a wide range of participatory activities, from live video games to musical performances as varied as a chiptune band, 8 Bit Weapon and a string quartet performing music from the popular video game “Zelda.”

This gaming exhibition transformed the usually quiet and refined Smithsonian a pulsating host filled with an energetic body of young people. The festival, which ran from March 16 to 18, also featured sold-out talks about the future of gaming from developers in the industry.

“I want everybody who comes to this exhibition and experiences the materials and the work that’s gone into this to understand that videos games are more than what they were when they came in,” Melissinos said.

“The Art of Video Games” will travel to 10 cities after its debut display in D.C. through Sept. 30.

This post was updated on March 22, 2012 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported the exhibit takes place in the Renwick Gallery, but it takes place in the main building of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Hatchet also incorrectly attached a photo to this story that was not from the “The Art of Video Games” exhibit.

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