It isn’t very often that you get to play video games in an art museum, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “The Art of Video Games” exhibit lets visitors do just that.
I’ve been on holiday in Washington, DC, this week and happened to spot an advertisement for this video game exhibit yesterday. It felt like fate that my tour bus stopped in front of the museum today, and I was able to jump out and whiz to the exhibit — a pretty spur-of-the-moment adventure. The exhibit was tucked away in a corner on the third floor, but neon green walls and games playing on video screens made it hard to miss once I was at the far end of the corridor.
The exhibit has a little bit of everything to impress video game fans: concept art, vintage game consoles, footage of people’s faces as they played (expressions ranged from excitement to rage to utter boredom) and recorded interviews with industry leaders (which you can watch online here). It educates about the technology that goes into video games, while asking whether art or technology came first in driving video games forward.
The sketches — such as World of Warcraft concept art — are a blast to browse. (They also really made me want to be an artist.) But the best parts of the exhibit are in the second and third rooms. In the second room, visitors can actually play video games that represent different stages of video game history. These games are Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst and Flower. And really, just seeing them on massive, wall-sized screens was super exciting. My sister and I discussed how we could do without Wii for now; we just want games that take up the entire wall of our living room for an immersive experience.
In the third room, stations for different consoles line the walls. Each console has four games representing different genres, voted on by the public from a list of 240 games. For example, the Mattel Intellivision station had TRON: Maze-A-Tron (1982) as its action game, Star Strike (1981) as its target game, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1982) as its adventure game and Utopia (1981) as its tactics game. When you push a button at the station, you can hear about the significance of that particular game. Retro 8-bit games like Attack of the Mutant Camels and Atari favorite Space Invaders stood next to more recent hits like Bioshock and Fable, along with notable “transition” era games like Final Fantasy Tactics. (You can see all 80 games that made the cut here.)
The accompanying book is filled with fascinating trivia, too. Pac-Man introduced cutscenes to games; TRON: Maze-A-Tron tried to do more than ’80s technology would allow (as did other games); and Mario’s red cap exists because back then, technology didn’t allow for moving hair animations. Most interesting to me was the part about game soundtracks, which have to accommodate players making different choices — such as wandering into an action-packed sequence or not — and having the music match the sequences and flow no matter what the player chooses.
For me, the sweetest part of the exhibit was watching a young teen help his little sister play Super Mario Brothers for what must have been the first time, cheering her on and encouraging her to try again when she failed, in the most excited voice ever. That’s what playing video games should be about: having fun, trying something new, and helping each other explore these new worlds.
As an art fan and a new and hungry gamer, this exhibit was as close to nerd paradise as I’ll get on earth… at least until I make it to a gaming convention someday. It was a welcome break from sightseeing in the DC heat. And since being on vacation means missing my console back in my apartment, the exhibit even felt a little bit like home.