A few weeks ago I visited The Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibition is relatively small, and if you don’t stop to play any games you can easily walk through all the rooms in about half an hour. It’s divided into three main sections: an introductory area, an “arcade” area where visitors can play famous games such as Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros., and a “best of” area where various gaming devices (consoles, PCs, etc) were on display along with video samples of well-regarded games. It was also completely free, which is the right price for me.
Setting aside the particulars, the basic idea of video games in an art museum is an odd one. Paintings and sculpture are designed to be viewed, but games are meant to be played (preferably while seated in a comfy chair). While the “arcade” section makes a certain amount of sense, the rest of the exhibition involves looking at games rather than actually playing them. The traditional manner of museum display (look but don’t touch) is inappropriate for the medium.
But a more significant problem is that the exhibitors never show how video games are art. To be fair, “art” is difficult to define even when discussing a more established medium. However, common definitions of art usually mention creativity, the unique expression of an idea, or an aesthetic accomplishment above mere craft. How does something like Pac-Man qualify as art? It was certainly unique when first released, but is there any underlying idea beyond cute ghosts and a chomping circles? How is Pac-Man more than mere craft? I suppose if you define art in the broadest possible terms – including Michael Bay movies, talk shows, and Superman dolls - then there’s no reason not to accept Pac-Man as well. But if art is simply a synonym for entertainment, then the entire exhibition is nothing but pretense. Displaying video games in an art museum is clearly a statement that video games are on par with the fine arts that usually appear in museums or galleries. But if any amusing diversion can qualify as art, then the only reason to put it in a museum is the “snob factor.” It’s in a museum/gallery, therefore it’s respectable.
On a more favorable note, the strongest feature of the exhibition is the evolution of graphics and visual design, with numerous examples from each decade. One of the earliest games, Pong (1972), is nothing more than a white square on a black background that bounces between two white lines on opposite sides of a television screen. Flash-forward to 2010, and games like Mass Effect 2 sport cutting-edge graphics, 3-dimensional environments, and a visual design that rivals any sci-fi blockbuster. The technological progress that allows for flashier visuals also allows for a full musical score and voice actors. While the exhibitors no doubt want to draw attention to the increasing sophistication of gaming narratives, that sophistication would not be possible without technological breakthroughs. In fact, no other entertainment medium has experienced such radical change in such a short time, and that was all driven by improvements in computing technology (film experienced several technological leaps, such as synchronized sound and the switch to color, but these changes were spread across a century, and many other aspects of filmmaking have changed little).
And yet the actual technology of gaming is mostly absent from the exhibition. There’s a small exhibit that explains some technical terms like the difference between 16-bit and 64-bit, but the attendees are never allowed to “look under the hood.” The wires, chips, processors, hard drives, and other do-dads are not on display. There are obvious reasons why this is the case. After all, this is an exhibition in an art museum, not a science and technology museum. But the science cannot be easily separated from the art (if we’re willing to call it that), so the exhibition feels incomplete.
The Art of Video Games exhibition reminds me of the similar effort by comic professionals to gain academic and institutional respectability. Comics have largely been successful in this regard, and scholars now refer to the medium as art without rolling their eyes. Perhaps video games will find equal success, though it probably won’t happen any time soon. When comic creators made their bid for respectability they could at least point to a few works that were acclaimed by critics from outside the comics community (Maus, Jimmy Corrigan, and classic strips such as Peanuts). By comparison, few critics outside the insular gaming community speak of Pac-Man with reverence. And even the best video games are little more than addictive diversions (Angry Birds, Tetris) or solid genre product (Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto).
But then again, who am I to argue with the Smithsonian? If they say shooting zombies in 1080p resolution qualifies as art, then I’ll go along with it. I’m an art lover.