Anyone who has felt energized after listening to in-game music, free and gleeful after learning a novel method control scheme, or mournful after the death of a favorite character has a wealth of evidence in favor of the argument that video games are a form of art. Regardless, critics such as Roger Ebert believe that it is not the similarities that video games have with art that make them the same, but the differences. The role of player input into the gaming experience and the developer attention toward making the experience fun at all times are detractors that keep the argument alive.
“The Art of Video Games” exhibit, currently being shown in in the Smithsonian American Art Museum from March 16 to Sept. 30, aims to end the debate. Being one of the first exhibits to show gaming in this light, the Art of Video Games does a relatively good job of proving that video games are a respectable narrative art form.
The strongest evidence the exhibit provides is the videos of game developers making their case for the controversial art medium, with famous faces such as Nolan Bushnell and Warren Spector describing the role of the developer in giving the gamer an emotional interactive experience using music, plot, gameplay and world design. The hard work that each team puts into every aspect of the game is made very apparent, and everyone interviewed draws from a wealth of experience.
The exhibit’s third room is another testament to the idea of gaming as an art form. Every console throughout gaming history was displayed with three titles from that console, with an “Adventure,” a “Tactics,” and a “Target” game chosen for each. While the game summaries were iffy and the titles chosen by the curator and online voters were still debatable, the format of the room required groups of strangers to all circle around each booth to watch the videos on the TVs. This invited a lot of conversation about the quality of each game, its role as an art, and personal experiences with each title. This might not have been intended by the people who designed the room, but after the third time I saw the the eyes light up of someone who had obviously come to the exhibit with a gamer friend, it was clear that the shared experience of gaming is a massive part of what makes it a true art form.
However, despite the overall strength of those rooms, the exhibit had a couple of weak points, the first being the “face” the exhibit seemed to display. In the entrance, a chiptune soundtrack by 8 Bit Weapon and ComputeHer welcomes visitors past a big wall displaying gameplay footage and the emblem for the event; the words “THE ART OF VIDEO GAMES” are written in a lime green, retro style over a black background.
Now, my beef with this draws from an experience some people might have had. Have you ever been asked by a non-gamer what your “score” was for an un-scored game, or heard a chiptune track on TV being played while characters awkwardly clutch Xbox 360 controllers? This is exactly the feeling that got me scowling. A large part of the exhibit is an homage to games of yore, with Pitfall! and various dusty consoles standing on equal ground with, what I am not afraid to say, are superior platforms with much greater ability to give a player an emotional experience.
I’m not just saying this because, as BioWare-Mythic Creative Director Paul Barnett said during one of the panels on March 16, the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s were not my “golden age” of gaming. Any uninitiated visitor of any age to the exhibit who sees how heavily weighted the older generations are will feel just the same way that I do. These titles were not accessible in-points for older non-gamers who could have played them when they were new, and they’re definitely not accessible to younger non-gamers. While the task of creating a convincing parkour game like Pitfall! with less memory than is used in the Firefox icon on your desktop is an excruciating task, I would say the outcome was impressive, but not easily recognizeable as art. It pays to be realistic about what is going to appeal to unconvinced non-gamers, because as most of us know they are so easy and so willing to get lost.
The demos also demonstrated the difficulty the exhibit had in making inexperienced gamers tread new territory and begin to see games as an art. The first two games one sees as one walks in are old favorites: Pac-Man and Super Mario Brothers. Unsurprisingly, both games were swamped with kids who were familiar with both games.
Now, I’m not a curator, but it seemed the next narrative step from Pac-Man to what was an almost entirely untouched Tales of Monkey Island station was a bad move. The switch from Tales of Monkey Island to Myst, probably worse. I would argue in a heartbeat that both games are brilliant examples of artful narrative storytelling and creative design, but I didn’t see more than three people at a time line up for either game with the allure of the colorful, more interactive Flower tempting them two stations away.
A move from Mario to Flower to games with introductory-yet-involved gameplay like Portal or a Wii title would have taken proper advantage of the ability to introduce a non-gamer to something that’s easy to play and deep in narrative and artistic strength. Tales of Monkey Island and Myst still stand as two diamonds in gaming history, but they’re meant to be played like books, not as engaging show-floor material.
Obviously, the most important thing about art is its ability to make different impressions on different people, so anyone who is remotely interested in visiting the museum or one of the exhibits’ ten tour stops should not be discouraged by my critical whining. Rather, keep this question in mind throughout the exhibit–“Why do I think games are art?” You probably already have an answer, and you don’t need a museum or me to teach you how to teach others to love gaming, too.