A room of its own

This past week, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s “The Art of Video Games” exhibit for a second time, and I’ve read so much criticism of the exhibit that I’d like to start off with what it does right.

Having video games on featured display at a major U.S. art museum is undeniably cool, and a welcome rejoinder to Roger Ebert’s infamous assertion that “video games can never be art.”

Unsurprisingly, the single best part of “The Art of Video Games” is the room where visitors actually get to play. Five games — Pac Man, Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower — are set up on huge, wall-sized screens.

the play room

It’s also, for lack of a better word, cool to see so many actual iconic consoles gathered into one place. Even when it’s not plugged in, the SNES, for one, is a beautiful example of industrial design.

But, unfortunately, that’s the best of what I have to say. To be fair, when an entire medium — dozens of consoles and systems, thousands of games, millions of players — is crammed into three medium-sized gallery rooms, it’s going to be almost impossible to avoid finding fault. Amazing games are going to be left out. History will be simplified, glossed over, or ignored. Even the gameplay has to be limited — each game resets after a few minutes in order to allow as many people as possible a chance to take a turn.

At IGN, Michael Thomsen criticizes “The Art of Video Games” for focusing on games produced by corporate developers rather than more individual works from people like Mary Flanagan, Michael Mateas, and Andrew Stern, whose games might be harder to find, and which arguably focus more on the expression of an idea or a unique mechanic than finding a commercial audience. This focus, according to Thomsen, ends up working against the argument that video games belong in The Museum of American Art. “The Art of Video Games has ignored the games that called themselves art without apology,” and ends up “fail[ing] to capture what is beautiful in [the games that were included], and how much they resonate with the spirit of all the other works displayed in the museum.”

T.C. Sottek at The Verge observes that “tech[nology] plays a dominating role in the exhibit.”

The Art of Video Games doesn’t talk back much to the viewer or take risks with its point of view. There is no overriding thesis here except for perhaps the obvious notion that games are a new and unique kind of art. As such, it doesn’t prompt many critical questions about the cultural or societal role of video games, or really explore the boundaries that decide what makes a game art as opposed to, say, mere entertainment.

I have to agree. The exhibit doesn’t really focus on change or development in video games other than graphics — the move from 8-bit games to the “bitwar” era, for example, and the shift from 2-dimensional worlds to three dimensions — and simply doesn’t have space for anything more than a blanket assertion that narrative in video games is much richer and deeper now that so many more tools are available to game developers.

Since the exhibition doesn’t really have the space or the tools to talk about what makes a successful narrative, I’ll settle for expressing my skepticism that better graphics or more powerful processors have any necessary connection to better narratives, and conclude instead with two more concrete criticisms.

First, I’m disappointed that “The Art of Video Games” seems to focus on video games as a phenomenon of the home console or PC to the exclusion of public play. This ignores both the fact that home consoles have historically often served to run low-powered imitations of games designed for public arcades, and the current proliferation of online play. This is especially frustrating when the failure to include some version or acknowledgement of the arcade in the exhibit’s play room seems like such a missed opportunity.

Second, I can’t help coming away with the feeling that an art museum is the wrong venue for an exhibition on video games. Video games have always been so much more than the sum of their hardware and code, and putting them in a museum devoted to the visual arts must necessarily nudge games into occupying the position of being a thing to look at. While, say, a book or a chess set could well merit inclusion in an art museum as an object of physical beauty and artistic design, putting either on a wall or behind glass excludes some fundamental aspect of their artfulness. A book that cannot be read is not literature, and a chess board that is not in use cannot convey the history or beauty of the game of chess at play.

Books have libraries. Chess has clubs, tournaments, and tables set up in parks and other public places all over the world. If we want to get games to be taken more seriously as an art, maybe we need to make our play more visible and accessible, and create spaces where that can happen.

Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.

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