Video Games in an Art Museum!

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.

— Ashley

What goes into games makes them art.



Playing video games in an art museum.
Concept art and more.
Five eras of video game history.
Vintage consoles and retro games.


17 thoughts on “Video Games in an Art Museum!”

  1. That sounds fantastic!! I wish I still had my old systems and games so that I could have my kids play them. …They can’t even WATCH the games I play now, just yet…

    1. Yeah, new technology just makes things hard to preserve these days. As soon as you have the latest computer or phone or console, a new one comes out to make the old one obsolete! It would be very cool to pass your games on to your kids. Seeing the vintage consoles and games was definitely the best thing about the exhibit.

  2. I soooo want to see this exhibit. I’ve heard good news about it. Video games may seem like fluff to much of mainstream America, but they are very much an art form deserving of study and preservation. Nice review!

    1. I definitely agree that video games are art. People once thought films could never be art, but look how far they’ve come… I think video games will follow a similar path, gradually gaining acceptance as an art form worth pondering and preserving, like you said!

  3. This exhibit sounds amazing! I really would like to go. I also enjoy learning about the development of video games. They certainly have come a long way when you chart it’s start and how much it has evolved between then and now. Back then the graphics and technology was very limited, but you still have to appreciate the classics. Without them, we wouldn’t have the games we have now.

    1. That’s true, and some of the classic computer games etc. will be around for years. Like Tetris — it’s not going anywhere! Like you said, seeing how video games got their start really helps me appreciate what technology allows us to do now.

  4. This is so great. I really feel like the industry isn’t given enough credit for their contributions to art. It is indeed an art form! Think of the creativity that has to go into the concepts, the storytelling, the animations, the gameplay, graphics, voice overs, etc etc etc. They also inspire other artists of different media.

    1. I agree. And thanks for linking to my blog, your essay sounds really interesting.

      I hope that art exhibits like this one start inspiring people to see video games as more than just mindless entertainment, or a waste of time, or something that makes people violent, or any of those stereotypes. Like other forms of entertainment (books, films) they make an artistic statement, too, as you said.

      1. Yes! This is what my essay was all about. ( I will post it when I have some time. ) Art has always pushed the limits of of the psyche, so I explored some of the topics video games have influenced… History, social behavior, politics, etc. True, most games are violent, and there is criticism for that. But on the other hand, I think they teach us, and inspire us. I mean, think of how many beautiful or inspiring paintings there must be of violent and terrible things. We are fascinated by violence! It’s in human nature! This comment is much longer than I meant it to be. Sorry, lol.

  5. Reblogged this on Nerd Republic and commented:
    There ought to be more exhibits like this. The Art of Video Gaming is something I’m very passionate about. It is a serious art form, despite the amount of criticism it gets from parents, and other concerned individuals.
    Thanks to RoboBeat for posting this! Good read, and an interesting topic. I have an essay I wrote a couple months back on social influences through video gaming, I may post it.

    1. Hi Squelsch. Yeah, responding to your comment above about violence in games… I agree humans are fascinated by violence in some ways, and if all we have to complain about is simulated violence in games now, that’s a good thing! We’ve come a long way from the the days when people would attend public hangings or head to the colosseum to watch gladiators fight to the death (or just get mauled by wild animals).

      I agree that violence can be a subject for interesting, inspiring art… and also part of a really epic story, as games usually have players fighting for a just cause. Let’s hope people start seeing the other aspects of video games, the way people see past violence in action films (etc) to appreciate the story and characters — or the reasons — behind it.

  6. I really can’t see me getting my Ps3 out in the future for my kids to play it :D I do think gaming can be an art form but it shouldnt overcome actual ‘gaming’

    1. That’s a good point! I agree that video games should be played first and studied second. Some games (like Heavy Rain and Flower) make more of an artistic statement than others, but all games should have great gameplay. That’s what games are all about, after all! Thanks for your comment. =)

  7. I’ve really wanted to go to this every since it was announced, but haven’t had the time/money because it’s so far away from me. Thanks to your post I can feel like I at least got a partial experience :)

  8. Video games should always be treated as art, so this is truly awesome.

    It hurts to see such narrow minded people as Roger Ebert casting off the entire medium. Video games require individuals to create entire worlds, from the sky to the characters, and present them as one cohesive vision… What could be more artistic than a visual and interactive interpretation of an entire world?

    1. I totally agree! Sometimes I find video games more powerful than other art forms when it comes to presenting a world, because of that interactivity as you said. And at the very least, look at the art that goes into games! I love buying books of game concept art, etc. =)

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