"The Art of Video Games" Exhibit

Last weekend I headed up to see my girlfriend, Jen Doo of Jen’s Baking, in Northern Virginia.  On our list: finally checking out “The Art of Video Games,” an exhibit that is currently featured at the Smithsonian.

Actually, it’s been featured since March 16th, but we clearly took our sweet time getting there.  No matter—it was still fresh and lively.  In fact, there are even a couple of public programs still coming up, so be sure to check out the schedule if you’re making plans.  Be sure to get there soon, though!  The exhibit closes on September 30th.  Also, being that the exhibit is in the American Art Museum, you should make a day out of going.  There’s plenty to check out around the exhibit, including a brainwashing piece involving a wall full of TVs right before it, and you can easily transition into the amazing National Portrait Gallery, where you’ll find THE collection of Presidential portraits as well as a couple rooms of amazing Civil War ones.

Here are some really cool parts of “The Art of Video Games”:

1. Visual and Concept Art

As you’d expect from a museum, the layout of the contents of the exhibit is very appealing.  The picture above is the first thing that one sees when s/he walks into the first room, and there is one on the other side of the room as well.

Aside from showcasing the dexterous prowess of the artists involved in making games, this spread reveals to the visitor the wide range of visual art that one will experience while playing.  Here exists the surreal realism of Metal Gear Solid 4, including the horrifying Screaming Mantis; the cartoonish and otherwise abstract world of Sonicthe Hedgehog (the loop is probably my favorite piece on the wall aside from the one of the MGS4 Beauty and the Beast unit); and the simplicity of Worms.

Speaking of “surreal realism,” though MGS4 is probably the most realistic of the bunch, all of these pieces represent that idea—an idea that is prevalent throughout all gaming worlds.  Even Sonic’s world is simply an abstraction of that which we know.  Instead of roads acting as they normally would, Sonic’s twist and wind and loop.  The Worms pieces depict worms wearing and using otherwise human items.  This portion of art reminds us that we play the fantastic.

There was also a display just of Blizzard concept art.  Below you’ll see Infested Kerrigan and a zergling from Starcraft as well as a Forest Troll from Warcraft.

2. Gaming and Gamers

One of the more fun and interesting parts of the exhibit was one that displayed three screens, each showing a different gamer and their reactions to what they’re experiencing on-screen.  The viewer has no idea what they are playing (unless they’re playing Super Mario Kart Wii because of the peripheral), but s/he senses the humanity in what they’re doing based on their expressions.  Some players were very expressive, showing obvious signs of joy, bewilderment, and frustration, while others had little or no reaction.  Was the latter because they were seasoned or because they just don’t react?  There’s probably a lot to be said about what one can observe here—that’s not my area, though.

The adjacent room had games set up that the visitors could actually play for a limited amount of time.  The games spanned a variety of genres and included Secret of Monkey Island,Myst, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., and Flower.  What I found most interesting about this room is that people of all ages were enjoying all the different games.  In particular, and as shown, I liked to see kids rushing up to play the classics.  It was cool seeing them trying to figure out games that they probably aren’t used to, such as Secret of Monkey Island, and not just giving up because of its unfamiliar style of play or “antiquity.”

That last one is Jen playing Myst.  You can’t tell by her standing there, but there was a lot of urgency in her playing because of the time limit.  Though it was a good choice of a game to showcase due to its place in history and to add variety to the styles of games in the room, it was certainly unnerving trying to do anything.

3. The History of Gaming

The majority of the exhibit was based on the history of gaming, as one would expect.  Jen and I sat on a bench for a while to observe the piece to the right in the first room.

In “Advances in Mechanics,” the Smithsonian chose different actions found in gaming – such as running, jumping, climbing, and flying – and gave examples of each throughout gaming’s different eras.  They defined the eras as being Start (Atari), 8-Bit (NES), Bitwars (SNES), Transition (N64 and PSX), and Next Generation (current systems).  Transition usually held the most interesting examples, as one would imagine due to the advancement to 3D.  “Climbing,” for instance, depicted Laura Croft climbing a ledge in Tomb Raider and Mario scuffling up a tree in Super Mario 64—both huge advancements in the mechanic.  It’s easy to say those games were revolutionary because they were 3D, but breaking down the games in this way to see the revolution in such a simple manner was really neat.

*An aside: While we were watching this part we met an OCRemixer that goes by the handle Bahamut—he was one of the volunteer curators that day and approached me because I was wearing my [Score.] shirt.  He encouraged me to get active on OCR, so I’ve started to tip-top my way in under the name Muuurgh.  If you peruse OCR and see me there, give me a shout!  I’ll be posting my originals in the originals section.

The final room had all kinds of consoles in it, from the first Atari to Colecovision to Sega Master System to the PC to modern consoles.  Each had the system itself, a display of iconic games from that console, and an informative screen talking about the systems’ important games of different genres.

For the screen, you would press a button next to one of the listed genres and it would talk about the game shown and its importance in gaming history.  One could spend a long, long time hitting up each of the stations to find out some radical history.

All in all, if you can make it to D.C., go check the exhibit, cruise around the other parts of the Smithsonian, and find a great place to eat (they are a’plenty!).  And hey, you can go by yourself, with some friends, or with your significant other—I can attest for it being a great spot for a date!