The Art of Video Games
March 20, 2012 11:55 AM   Subscribe

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has just opened a new exhibition The Art of Video Games. If you're in DC, it's up until the end of September and then will be traveling to other museums.
posted by Taken Outtacontext (35 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of mine is volunteering as a tour guide. I haven't seen the exhibit yet, but I hear it's great.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:01 PM on March 20, 2012

The Washington Post art critic wrote a review of the exhibition, calling it "a technologically impressive but intellectually inert exhibition."

From his write-up, I tend to think he's in the "video games are not art" category, but his criticism of the exhibit itself seems to me to be summed up in his final line: "The problem with "Video Games as Art" isn't that it can't answer these basic questions, it's that it doesn't ask them."
posted by inigo2 at 12:03 PM on March 20, 2012

Also, here's a short writeup of opening weekend, including a photo gallery [caution: annoying washpost ad with sound].
posted by inigo2 at 12:04 PM on March 20, 2012

Looking forward to going to this, although the Washington Post review is concerning. I noticed Neil Young is listed as a supporter. Any reason to think it's THAT Neil Young?
posted by postel's law at 12:23 PM on March 20, 2012

"Very likely, some of these games, and even more in the future, rise to that level. But the exhibition doesn't address what distinguishes merely entertaining games from great ones, and what models designers should pursue if they want to achieve greater artistic substance."

From the Washington Post article. I think this actually makes a point I've been considering lately and one that I think is actually touched upon briefly in an episode of Extra Credits a couple of weeks back.

The video games as art conversation seems to lump anything created using digitally interactive material into the same category. That is to say that Farmville and Mass Effect are viewed as the same medium and that this medium's artistic merit must be defined by all these various examples of it.

To me this would be akin to considering any moving picture as an example of a movie or film. Imagine if someone was watching a horse race on TV and then proclaimed that this movie was not art.

I think we are not just at the beginning of video games being art but at a point where we have to determine how we are going to categorize interactive, digital experiences in a world that seems increasingly filled with them.
posted by sendai sleep master at 12:29 PM on March 20, 2012 [8 favorites]

There has been a surprising amount of disappointment and mixed reaction in the early reviews of the exhibition, some of it on fairly serious grounds rather than just the inevitable "why doesn't it have my favorite game" complaints prompted by the (exceedingly "curated") voting process that selected what was shown. E.g.: Smithsonian's 'Art of Video Games' exhibit fails to excite. I actually think the disapproval itself is the most encouraging thing about it: that there are enough people out there willing to start a conversation about the (putative*) shallowness, historical and aesthetic incoherence of a big video-game exhibition rather than just greeting it with empty praise, is a strong piece of evidence that it's now more possible to have a serious conversation about games than it was five or ten years ago.

(* I haven't seen the show but suspect I'd agree with these critiques based on the pre-exhibit voting process)
posted by RogerB at 12:31 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nobody tell Roger Ebert. I'm tired of hearing him talk about video games.
posted by DiscountDeity at 12:35 PM on March 20, 2012, so to speak.
posted by DiscountDeity at 12:35 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I braved the crowds and went to the show on Saturday. I hate to say, but I agree with some of that review, especially the part where the exhibit would be better served by being in a technology museum, than an art museum. Other than the first little room where they have a few monitors showing video of people's faces as they play games ( fascinating!), some concept art things, and some videos of interviews with some game creators I saw no real reason why it should be the American Art museum (many of the video games used in the exhibit were not created in the United States) or an art museum at all if only to bring in new folks who might never otherwise go.

The second room consisted of an area where visitors could play a few games, while the third (arguably main) room consisted of consoles behind glass and lit up screenshots from a variety of games. Thassit.

I love video games, and I wholeheartedly believe that video games can easily be art. Indeed, I just finished Journey (by the same people who created Flower, which is one of the playable games at the exhibit), and it brought me to tears. But this exhibit seemed more of a "Hey! Ain't video games cool, guys?!" than a true art exhibition. Of course tons of people seemed to have fun.

I also think that the exhibit was somewhat hurt by the fact that the games picked and exhibited by popular vote, and less curated by an expert. As a result you get some popular favorites shown which is nice and all, but there are many more "arty" games that could have been brought in.
posted by tittergrrl at 12:37 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

There was also a nice, fairly critical piece from Seth Schiesel in the NYT:
“The Art of Video Games” is a sanitized, uncontroversial and rigorously unprovocative introduction to the basic concepts of video games — which was, quite clearly, the point.

In interviews this week both Mr. Melissinos, the curator, and Elizabeth Broun, the museum’s director, said they were acutely aware that the big deal with “The Art of Video Games” was merely having a video game exhibition at the Smithsonian at all. With that in mind they tried to strip from the show any strong point of view or deep sense of curatorial perspective and interpretation. [...] “The Art of Video Games” does not represent the brash young cultural newcomer kicking in the doors of officialdom, belching loudly and declaring that he is taking over. Rather, it represents a humble penitent carefully putting on his least-threatening outfit and being allowed to take a place in the corner.
posted by RogerB at 12:38 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Saw it this weekend while next door to see the excellent Annie Leibovitz show, Pilgrimage. Maybe it was the contrast, but, boy howdy, the video game show was long on game stations and short on analysis, context or anything else that smacked of intellectual engagement.

Like one of those soft-focus Impressionist shows that museums periodically hold to hawk coasters and tote bags, this looks to be intended to suck people with children into the museum and give them the opportunity to play Mario in front of others on a huge screen and buy show souvenirs. The huge inner hall between the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum was hosting an event for kids with coloring stations, booming music and, yes, more game stations.

So, if one goes in with no expectations other than to see/play video games and get a smattering of history in the form of a large display of all the major game platforms and their games, then one would not be disappointed, I suppose. That said, it could've been much, much better.
posted by the sobsister at 12:39 PM on March 20, 2012

posted by BrotherCaine at 12:40 PM on March 20, 2012

That Post review writer raises some interesting questions about what would define videogames as art at the end, as inigo2 alluded to. To quote from the review:

I'd propose some of the following: We'll know it's art when old games are as interesting to people as new ones; when particular games play a role in changing the actual world, just as novels such as "The Sorrows of Young Werther," "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Jungle" altered ideas of identity and politics; when the best games are richly self-referential to an accepted canon of classic games; and when the contemplation after playing a game is more pleasing than the game itself. They may well be art, and some games may already meet some or all of those criteria - which are by no means definitive of all art.

I can think of games that meet some or all of those criteria except his second criteria, games that change the world. I'd love to, I believe it is possible, but I just haven't seen a game do that well yet.
posted by postel's law at 12:51 PM on March 20, 2012

...the video game show was long on game stations and short on analysis, context or anything else that smacked of intellectual engagement.

Your bearings are off. The difference between video games and most other forms of (traditional) art is that video games are interactive. It would be like talking about fucking than actually fucking.
posted by karathrace at 12:58 PM on March 20, 2012

...if 'analysis' is what you were after.
posted by karathrace at 12:59 PM on March 20, 2012

It would be like talking about fucking than actually fucking. ...if 'analysis' is what you were after.

So the Museum of Sex should actually have been a whorehouse, then? We go to museums not just to experience art, but also to see it thought about, placed in a historical and critical context — yes, analyzed. An exhibition that just presents a disorganized hodgepodge of works without giving them a meaningful context or sense of importance is a badly curated exhibition.
posted by RogerB at 1:02 PM on March 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

This is as good a place as any to put this, but in the context of video games as art, I recently finished Bioshock.

(True gamers please hold back your snickers, I haven't seen an R rated movie in the theater for more than a year. Your cultural life moves in slow motion when you have kids, ok?)

Anyway, I though the game was pretty amazing and went online to see what the people responsible for it were up to.

That led me to this video for Bioshock Infinite. I realize that preview footage should always be taken with a grain of salt, but I was blown away by some of what I saw and even felt moved by at least one scene. Anyhoo, that's my 2 cents, if there needs to be an argument made for games as art, throw this on the fire.
posted by jeremias at 1:06 PM on March 20, 2012

I was there Saturday, and I want to second tittergirl's words. They said what I came here to say. It was underwhelming, amd frankly thin.
posted by X-Himy at 1:08 PM on March 20, 2012

Following on RogerB's well-made point, the fact that video games are interactive is wholly beside the point. If a museum assembles video games or sculpture or comic book art or buggy whips, it is incumbent upon the museum to provide visitors with the rationale for the choices and even the reason to have the show. It's not quite enough to throw 40 paintings into theee rooms and say, "See?"

That's the curatorial responsibility. Although, from the citations upthread, it sounds as if the curators have abdicated that responsibility.
posted by the sobsister at 1:12 PM on March 20, 2012

Erratum: l.4, "three."
posted by the sobsister at 1:14 PM on March 20, 2012

I won't comment on the reviews but as a photographer I remember, even in my lifetime, when the artworld didn't consider photo a "real" art. I think the art of video games and, most importantly, its role in the success or failure of a game is just beginning its trajectory. Like much performance and video art, the fact that there is no "object" to monetize (in the artworld sense, not the game developer profit sense) is an interesting one. And so I see this art's acceptance as legitimate within the art community to be on a similar, fuzzy path.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:39 PM on March 20, 2012

My first thought upon opening the second link was "OH MAN! Did they recreate the Illusive Man's room?" because goddamn that would be something to experience in person.
posted by pyrex at 1:46 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Read the WP review, and I think I agree with most of the exhibit is more about the history of video games as craft, not art. Again to quote from the review as referenced above:

I'd propose some of the following: We'll know it's art when old games are as interesting to people as new ones

I can think of at least one writing on the topic of an old game that made it both interesting to me and also seemed to have a fair bit of "art" analysis going on. And there are a lot of ways you could present the evolution of game design to focus less on mechanics and more on...cognition or perception or (better yet) feedback manipulation.

There's this whole big question of how interactivity itself is treated from an artistic certain games are designed to manipulate the player into a desired state, and how that might reflect on the overall artistic merit of a game (Shadow of the Colossus would be a handy example of both subverting a traditional gaming narrative and manipulating the player's expectations through the structure of the gameplay).

I think that discussing the 'art' of video games gets confusing a lot of times precisely because it looks so much like film or television or music, but really the art is not in the presentation but in the interactivity and how that interactivity is molded. Great paintings or poems are great because they evoke some kind of response within us. By contrast ALL games ALWAYS evoke a response because a response is required in order to experience the game.

A truly artistic game can't just evoke response, that's too easy. It has to go further, it has to create an additional, involuntary response based on the interactivity of the moment. It has to force you to engage the content on a level beyond the mechanics of play. This is rare but not impossible to find.

That second bit about art having to have an impact on the world at large? I don't think that works for all art categories anyway. Sure Uncle Tom's Cabin is a good example, but I can't think of a sculpture or painting with an equivalent world-changing impact.
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:00 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sure Uncle Tom's Cabin is a good example, but I can't think of a sculpture or painting with an equivalent world-changing impact.

Well "impact on the world" doesn't necessarily mean it has to change a policy, etc. A sculpture or painting can frame worldview in widespread ways.


The Thinker
posted by jeremias at 3:08 PM on March 20, 2012

I thought it was a good start, but fairly boring, though the events around the exhibit were interesting.

I think given the level of interest they've gotten, it seems like they should be able to get funds together for a more ambitious exhibit next time around.


BTW, I was so psyched to play Tempest 2000 in the courtyard. I hadn't played in over 15 years and managed to get a high score. I had a little crowd around me and I was explaining the game to people and then I realized that I had turned myself into an exhibit and felt weird..
posted by empath at 3:15 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd propose some of the following: We'll know it's art when old games are as interesting to people as new ones

Well, this isn't the case for any art, and especially not movies, but even granting his premise, I'd suggest that Super Mario Brothers on the NES is a pretty timeless piece of art, and it's as good now as it was the day it was released.
posted by empath at 3:17 PM on March 20, 2012

Some old games are more interesting to me than new ones, which in part is why I tend to play older games (saving money doesn't hurt either). I might not find Dungeons of Daggorath still gripping to play endlessly, but I still talk about it.

That said, there's a difference between the mechanism or interface of a game being artful, and the artwork, models, scenery, dramatic writing, and promotional materials being artful. The former is what I'd hope to see more of in a Smithsonian exhibit. Although I do often like the latter (the blatantly manipulative but well constructed Dead Island trailer comes to mind).
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:04 PM on March 20, 2012

Y'know, normally, when I'm trying to find a definition for a term that needs one, I start by looking at what I want to talk about, and what I want to say about it.

Like if I'm trying to get my hard drive in order, for instance, I'd start by organizing by file format, and then for what use I have for them. By that point I've answered the question, "What kind of file is this?" twice--once for my programs, again for myself--and now that I've got categories for, say, Word Processor Documents containing Nonfiction Essays, I can meaningfully ask of a given file, "Is it one of those?"

You can't do that for "Art." Well, you probably can actually, and I expect the Smithsonian has had to do so several times in order to put exhibits together.

If you try to define a term without first establishing what context it's for, and in particular how you are going to use it, well... you might come up with a good definition, but there's no way to tell whether you have. Hopefully the problems with the definition you come up with will become apparent when you try to use it. Hopefully you can just fix them and won't have to go back to the drawing board.

So, the question "Are video games art?" might make a good opener for a conversation, but not if you actually want an answer.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:20 PM on March 20, 2012

It is disappointing that there was no exhibition of the arcade side of videogames. Some of the best art of any videogame is painted on the side of cabinets or in posters for the same.
posted by pashdown at 6:26 AM on March 21, 2012

They specifically didn't want to focus on art that was ancillary to the actual experience of playing the game itself. They wanted it to be about games themselves as art, not box art or advertising.
posted by empath at 6:33 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember the FPP about the voting process, and being profoundly under whelmed when actually checking out the voting process - the way they had organised the varying categories to vote on in particular. So I'm not too surprised that there have been some so-so and even negative reviews.

It's a shame really, as it's not like there hasn't been a large scale exhibition of videogames within a gallery setting before. I got to see Game On first hand, thanks to Melbourne having the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), and it was freaking awesome. Maybe the Smithsonian should have just dropped London's Barbican Gallery a line.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:40 AM on March 21, 2012

Empath, understood, but I think especially in the early days of dealing with technical limitations, the print art contributed significantly to the game as well. Atari's "I Robot" came with an explanatory poster that the arcade owner was supposed to display prominently next to the game. Paging through the ads of an early 80's games magazine was a big part of the experience for me. The early consoles put a lot more effort into cover art than what is seen today, because it really isn't needed now to communicate game background.

It does appear that they did put up some examples of this, like the Ultima IV map and the Electronic Arts packaging. The classic arcades had some amazing artwork, and much of it was integral to the game.
posted by pashdown at 6:46 AM on March 21, 2012

There's a quote in the trailer that I think really nails the disconnect between most of the creators of video games as opposed to the aim or the practice of art as I understand it. I'm referring to the guy who says the greatest skill involved in watching a movie is your popcorn eating skills.

In any form of cultural output there is a great deal of skill involved in the interplay between artist and audience on both sides. If you don't understand that your audience is engaged in a cultivated act of performance, the only art you're producing is incidental.
posted by dosterm at 8:49 AM on March 21, 2012

Here's a review of the show from the Washington Post's Express newspaper (which is handed out each weekday morning as you enter the Metro).

The curator, Chris Melissinos, talks about the art issue you've been discussing above.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 7:09 AM on March 22, 2012

I honestly think the question of whether games are art is pretty much over. It won't be long before the 'traditional' art forms are struggling for relevancy in comparison to games. I mean already, kids are seeing traditional orchestras as primarily being cool only when they play video game music.
posted by empath at 7:28 AM on March 22, 2012

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