Pixelated Progression

A new show chronicles video games’ artistry and cultural importance

March 21, 2012

A new show at the American Art Museum elevates the weird flying turtles of Super Mario Bros. 3 into the world of art.

The title of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new “The Art of Video Games” exhibit is somewhat of a misnomer. The show isn’t about the illustrations or filmic aesthetics of video games. But, says curator Chris Melissinos, that was never the intent.

“The goal wasn’t to look at art within video games but at video games as an art form,” Melissinos explains. “You can create art that goes into a video game — illustration, music, sculpture — but it’s not any one element that makes video games as important as they are.”

For Melissinos, the gamers are as important to the “art” experience as the designers who create these alternate worlds. That’s why the exhibit features five playable games on big screens, including the classic “Pac-Man” and “Myst,” an adventure game from the early ’90s.

“A video game has three voices that allow it to become art,” Melissinos says. “First there’s the designer. The second is the game itself. The third voice is the gamer. It becomes art when it’s played.”

The museum gave gamers the chance to vote online for the 80 games featured in the exhibition, which documents the evolution of home consoles and PC-based games, from Atari systems and Commodore computers up to today’s Xbox 360. Arcades had offered a social arena for gaming, Melissinos acknowledges, but the show focuses on at-home gaming because of the larger cultural shift such games represented.

Those video-game systems were “the first computers Americans brought into their homes,” Melissinos says. “Bringing video games into the home, they were bringing it into their personal lives.

“Computers were thought of as these very large government or military-based systems that were thought to be impossible to bring into regular life,” Melissinos continues. “Through games, they were able to take cultural activities that people were already doing and marry them with the emerging technology that would change everyone’s life.”

Spotlight: Hard-core gamers will notice several important systems are missing from the exhibition, including the Maganavox Odyssey (1972) — the first home system, which preceded Pong by three years — and the Apple II, a mainstay of school computer labs in the ’80s.

Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets NW; through Sept. 30, free; 202-633-7970. (Gallery Place)
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