Smithsonian museum explores the art of gaming

April 26, 2012

When Chris Melissinos was 12, he created his first complete video game. That might not impress today’s young video game enthusiasts, but Melissinos’s inspiration was the electronic equivalent of a cave drawing.

“My first exposure to video games was back in the 1970s with Pong, the original Pong,” said Melissinos, who is 42.

Pong was essentially a screen version of table tennis, with a dot bouncing back and forth off sliding bars controlled by players. Everything about the game was basic, but it was one of the first video games kids played at home.

“It was amazing and exciting, and we didn’t really know what it all meant,” he said.

What it meant for Melissinos was a fascination that he turned into a career as chief gaming officer for technology company Sun Microsystems.

His love of and work with video games have led him to put together an exhibit about them at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“The Art of Video Games” takes visitors through the 40 years of video games. It includes interviews with early game creators and a funny video showing people’s expressions while playing video games. It showcases 80 games from a variety of platforms, including Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation, and explains what was new or unusual about the games when they first appeared. And it offers visitors a chance to play five games, from a 1981 version of Pac-Man to 2009’s Flower, with screens projected onto gallery walls. Visitors may have to wait their turn, but that gives them a chance to cheer on other gamers.

Visitors also might pause to consider a question that has gotten the exhibition a lot of attention. Are video games art?

For Melissinos, there’s no question. “Video games are literally the collision of technology and art,” he said.

Kids visiting the museum recently may not have thought of video games as art before seeing the exhibition, but they were open to the idea.

“It’s a different genre of art,” said Gabriel Quinn, 11. “It’s interactive.”

Gabriel, who lives in Cooper City, Florida, was visiting the museum during spring break. He had just put down the controls to Flower, in which the player becomes the wind and glides over fields and hills that burst with color as petals are collected. He said that game and his favorites at home — the action-adventure Call of Duty and Super Mario Bros. — can all be considered art.

Regan Monigan, 10, of Dayton, Ohio, said the visual and creative elements made games fun. “I like the ones where you get the exciting plot twist . . . and where you can see things from different perspectives,” she said.

Regan’s cousin Sean Healy, 9, of Potomac said he liked the realistic artwork of today’s games but was interested in trying the exhibition’s older games, such as Pac-Man.

“Even if some video games are old, they can be fun,” Sean said.

Melissinos said his own kids discovered the same thing after seeing the exhibition.

“They came back and said, ‘I want to play these older games you haven’t shown us,’ ” he said.

Melissinos hopes kids and parents will use the games at the museum as a way to connect with one another.

“People remember why the games were so important in their lives. They rediscover. Now they understand why [the games] are important to their kids.”

Christina Barron

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