The Art of Video Games at the EMP Museum

art of video games

We were pretty excited when we first heard about an upcoming Smithsonian exhibit called The Art of Video Games in late 2011.  We were less excited when we found out the featured games would be chosen by online vote.  We were more excited when the curators gave a talk about the exhibit at MAGFest 2012.  And we were less excited again when our friends reported that the exhibit was just okay.

In the end, we didn’t make the trip to D.C. to see the exhibit before it ended in September of last year.  Then, to our surprise, we found that the exhibit was running for three months at the Experience Music Project Museum (a music, pop-culture, and sci-fi museum) here in Seattle!  We were exploring downtown Seattle on Wednesday and decided to go ahead and check out the museum and the exhibit.

The one comment I heard the most about the exhibit from friends who had been was that it was smaller than they expected.  Compared to the rest of the exhibits in the EMP Museum, and in most museums, this one was pretty small.  It was basically a square room with stations around the perimeter that featured four games from each game console.  In the center of the room were 5 stations where you could play Pac-ManSuper Mario BrothersThe Secret of Monkey IslandMyst, andFlower.  There was also a small nook with some concept art, box art, and some videos playing.  That was pretty much it!

exhibit station
One of the stations in the exhibit featuring four games

The stations for each console featured four games that had won the online vote, and were categorized into Action, Target, Adventure, and Tactics.  Each game had a brief, narrated video that summarized the game and sometimes explored what was groundbreaking or unique about that game.

We thought the earlier games were really fascinating because of the limitations the developers had to overcome with creative solutions.  The ones that stick out in my mind are Pac-Man having to be significantly downgraded in order to run on a home console much less powerful than the arcade cabinet’s processor, Zaxxon using isometric perspective and shadows to mimic a 3D environment, Pitfall! featuring the first human character and establishing many of the conventions and mechanics of the platformer genre, and Star Fox for the SNES exploring real 3D graphics and having to ship with its own processor.

The more modern games were less interesting, maybe because we were already so familiar with them.  Yes, we know that Final Fantasy VII has a strong narrative supplemented by full motion videos.  And we know that Shadow of the Colossus explores loneliness through its vast, empty world.  By the end of the exhibit, we weren’t really bothering to watch any of the videos for newer games like Portal and Heavy Rain.  We weren’t really interested in hearing what the exhibit had to say.

So I guess that brings me to my first major impression of the exhibit — it wasn’t for us.  It wasn’t made for people who already have a strong context of games and their history and influence.  Since each game only got a brief video, there was only time to cover the basics.  We weren’t going to be learning anything new.  The exhibit was definitely more geared toward people who aren’t really familiar with games.  Maybe even people who have no interest in or appreciation for games.

(I also think the way the exhibit dispensed information was a major deterrent   The games were split into groups of four, and you had to watch one video at a time while holding a telephone earpiece to hear the audio.  Although video is important in a video game exhibit, I wish there had been more information to read at my own pace (which is faster than a narrated video).  Also, Nick broke the interface several times during our visit and had to wait for it to reset.)

Nick listens in
Nick listens in

Now maybe I can segue in to my real critique of this exhibit, which is the misnomer “The Art of Video Games.”  That title was what really got us interested to begin with.  We’re living in a very exciting time for video games as an art form, and there are a lot of brilliant people doing some great work in that field.  It’s a topic that could certainly fill a museum exhibit.  But what we found was definitely different than what we expected.

This was not “art” as we define it.  This was more like the “craft” of video games, but not even quite that.  Everything was so small and rushed, there wasn’t time to look into what it really takes to develop a game from start to finish.  The creative challenges of the developers and the artistic expression of the designers were only briefly touched upon in specific games.  The concept art section seemed like an afterthought for people who thought the exhibit was going to be the actual “artwork” of video games.

To be honest, I think the exhibit would be best described as a primer on video games — a brief tour through video game history that hopefully convinces the visitor that games are complex and interesting and worth learning about.  The very selection process of the featured games seemed to produce “games the general public should know about” instead of “games that have explored artistic expression through this unique medium.”  One of the criteria for the selected games was “striking visual effects,” which I think most developers would agree doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do with artistic expression through games.

Yes, video games are a unique form of interactive media that combine illustration, graphics, music, sound, video, animation, literature, and storytelling.  Yes, the exhibit sort of got that point across by presenting visitors with a brief summary of 80 of the most popular and renowned games of the past 30 years.  But “cool interactive media” does not equal art.  There is already an ongoing discussion about how games can be an artistic medium, with fascinating threads about how gameplay mechanics themselves can be used to explore aesthetic goals, or how designers must give up some amount of creative control to the end user who will create his or her own experience.  This discussion includes games like Braid and Dear Esther, names like Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow.  And it requires more than just a brief glossing-over of the game’s plot and mechanics.

It seems like an oversight to design an exhibit that supposedly looks at the “art” of games without at least acknowledging that discussion.  But maybe not if your goal is simply to justify to the average visitor why video games belong in a museum in the first place.

It wasn’t a bad exhibit by any means, but we definitely weren’t the target audience.

One comment on The Art of Video Games at the EMP Museum

  • Irwin

    A couple of my friends and I went to this exhibit when it was in DC back in September and I’m inclined to agree with your assessment here. I came away with the same impression that it was really more of a history piece than a survey of different graphics/music/mechanics design decisions as they evolved with technology (e.g., from vector graphics to sprites to those lame FMV games on CDs to blocky polygons to distinctive styles like Team Fortress 2). They presented the progression of game hardware pretty well with that room containing all the different systems, but they certainly could have upped the commentary and interactivity with something like, say, a playable “timeline” of major Mario releases from each generation that demonstrates how new technology has enabled the developers to create new experiences and refine their audio/visual presentation.

    Still, it was cool to go to it with some of my friends who haven’t been too big into games for a while. I was trying to explain Minecraft to one of them and I had the pleasure of being corrected by a little girl when I couldn’t quite remember the ingredients for how to make dynamite in that game. 😛

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