Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 19, 2015
Chris Melissinos and Patrick O'Rourke The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect Exh. cat. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. 216 pp.; 100 ills. Cloth $40.00 (9781599621104)
The Art of Video Games
Exhibition schedule: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, March 16–September 30, 2012; Boca Raton Museum of Art, Boca Raton, October 24, 2012–January 13, 2013; EMP Museum, Seattle, February 16–May 13, 2013; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, June 16–September 29, 2013; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, October 25, 2013–January 19, 2014; Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, February 15–May 18, 2014; Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, June 19–September 28, 2014; Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, October 25, 2014–January 18, 2015; Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, February 13–May 10, 2015; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, June 6–September 13, 2015; Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum, Florida International University, Miami, October 9–January 25, 2016
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Super Mario Brothers 3 (1990). Shigeru Miyamoto,Takashi Tezuka, Hiroshi Yamauchi, directors. Satoru Iwata, executive producer. Konji Kondo, composer. Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo of America, Inc.

The Art of Video Games exhibition raises an intriguing question: How should a curator go about making the argument that a medium long associated with mass culture deserves to be taken seriously as an art form? Considering the possible approaches to such a situation, we can look to precedents—cinema provides an obvious analogue. Cinema’s initial tentative steps into the space of the museum during the first half of the twentieth century were governed by a conservative philosophy of curatorial selectivity: early exhibitions were often limited to a small group of exemplary works that seemed appropriately highbrow, appropriately challenging, and, importantly, attributable to a recognizable “artist” who had indisputably contributed to the medium. The early screenings of the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Library in the mid-1930s, for instance, highlighted the works of recognized masters such as D. W. Griffith and Fritz Lang, with figures such as Fernand Léger included to provide some additional continuity with the art world.

One could easily imagine one of the first major exhibitions in North America devoted to bringing video games into the museum following similar rules. This hypothetical exhibition would be small, quiet, and conservative in its curation. A comfortable short list of mass-market games sporting high-culture ambitions and unimpeachable craft, such as Shadow of the Colossus (Team ICO, 2005), would sit alongside small-scale artists’ models of the sort that have been gallery staples since Anne-Marie Schleiner’s landmark 1999 San Jose State University exhibition Cracking the Maze: Game Plug-ins and Patches as Hacker Art. Catalogue notes would duly draw out genealogical lines between games and more recognized forms such as cinema and electronic literature, and the matter of accepting (a select few) games as art would be settled, with minimal fuss.

The Art of Video Games is, in many ways, the antithesis of the hypothetical exhibition described above. Rather than following a selective approach, Chris Melissinos, the curator, has instead thrown the doors wide open, crafting together a diverse and celebratory history of the video-game medium that refuses to maintain divisions between pop culture and artistic ambition. Throughout, the staid appreciation of recognized masterworks is jettisoned in favor of a more exploratory and adventurous view into the artistic maturation of the medium. The aforementioned Shadow of the Colossus makes an appearance, as do more artisanal productions such as Ed Fries’s delightful experiment Halo 2600 (2010), but these milestones share space with more unassuming fare. In order to understand games’ potential as art, Melissinos’s curatorial voice insists, we must first understand their development, as both cultural product and technology.

In many ways, the inclusive approach embraced in The Art of Video Games is much more ambitious than its more conservative alternative. The public presentation of a small number of agreed-upon masterworks would stand as an elegant counter to the argument that no video game could ever aspire to the condition of art (a position famously advocated by Roger Ebert). The wild smorgasbord of The Art of Video Games, however, implicitly advocates a much more forceful position: that the time has come to halt the careful canonization of a select few games—a strategy that provides little more than a list of exceptions that prove the rule—and instead enthusiastically embrace the position that games are an art form, full stop. At the Toledo Museum of Art, a quote by Jane Pinckard—“Games are a form of artistic expression as diverse as cinema, as literature”—hovers over the proceedings both literally (it is printed on the top corner of a video projection screen in the center of the exhibition) and figuratively.

In service of this goal, the exhibition space is densely packed with games. Encircling the room are display cases housing twenty platforms—both hardware (consoles from the Atari Video Computer System up through the Sony PlayStation 3, as well as the Commodore 64 home computer system) and software (boxed copies of Microsoft MS-DOS 6 and Windows 7)—accompanied by video monitors displaying some of these platforms’ most notable offerings. With the inclusion of so many games, of course, comes the conundrum of the best way to introduce visitors to interactive works to which dedicated players often devote dozens, if not hundreds, of hours. The Art of Video Games solves this by presenting the vast majority of the games on display in the form of non-interactive short video clips, leaving only a select few playable. The videos, with their pithy and informative voiceover narrations, provide an overview of the history of game technology and design, but it is with hands-on moments that the exhibition strives to follow up on the claim, printed near the entryway, that the “conversation between the game, the artist, and the player is critical to understanding video games as art.” To cap things off, the exhibition also includes a handful of objects that seem especially tailored to the interests of visitors biased toward more traditional, non-screen media, offering up a small selection of pencil-drawn concept-art sketches drafted during game development alongside full-color packaging art and instruction booklets.

Melissinos’s somewhat unorthodox approach to genres (games are described as falling into the categories of “target,” “adventure,” “action,” or “tactics,” with no acknowledgement of the interplay between these groups) may strike many gamers as odd or disruptive, but has the benefit of bringing a broad gamut of examples into aesthetic and historical conversation with one another. And while some of the playable games suffer a bit in their importation into the gallery—the long-form comedy of The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990) gets muted as individual visitors mill in and out of its vicinity, try out its now-arcane verb-based point-and-click user-interface, and eventually get confused or bored—others transition beautifully. Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) and Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) remain as boisterous and weird as ever, quite capable of drawing in a fascinated crowd of onlookers, and the exhibition does a more than serviceable job of providing hardware to play them with that successfully emulates the feel of the original joystick and gamepad. Flower (thatgamecompany, 2009), which largely abandons the notion of challenge in favor of putting its rapturous visuals and lush score in service of establishing a rich mood palette, proves tailor-made for a gallery setting—perhaps signaling further things to come, as the video game medium expands, diversifies, and evolves.

The potential future evolutionary developments of games are, in fact, a central concern of The Art of Video Games: the exhibition is nothing if not forward-looking. “I don’t think there’s a question that games have become an art,” intones Henry Jenkins in one of the exhibition’s looping video features, entitled “The Future,” “but I think they can become a richer and deeper art.” It should be noted, though, that the optimistic and progressive focus on development on ample display here is ultimately the site of the exhibition’s two main weaknesses.

First, the exhibition’s strong tethering to game technologies presents something of a problem. The Art of Video Games’s foregrounding of platforms in its organizational structure is in many ways quite commendable. The exhibition’s best commentaries offer up exactly the sort of insights into the way technology shapes design options that game scholars such as Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost advocate in their pursuit of a “platform studies” approach. However, it also brings its share of limitations, not the least of which is the specter of teleology. Features such as the array of video screens displaying the visual evolution of jumping animations across five strictly defined “eras” of platforms (roughly mapping onto what is referred to in the industry as console “generations”) problematically suggest that the history of games is best understood in terms of the evolutionary pursuit of photorealistic, “cinematic” graphical presentation. Film curators and cine-club programmers faced a difficult struggle in the first half of the twentieth century in their attempts to cultivate an attitude in which masterworks of any era could be appreciated, over and against the film industry’s blaring rhetoric of technological advancement. The mainstream video-game-console industry’s aggressive pursuit of planned obsolescence means that video-game curators have even more noise to fight against than cinema’s early advocates did. Although the commentary attached to individual games generally does a good job of promoting an appreciation of the artistry of game design, independent of historical era, overall the exhibition would have benefitted from a greater display of resistance to the industry’s official narrative of technological progression.

The exhibition’s second weakness is one of positioning. As noted above, the curatorial philosophy of The Art of Video Games is marked by a startling ambition: Why present museumgoers with a handful of masterworks when you can instead encourage a more well-rounded appreciation of the history of an art form? This implicit ambitiousness, however, is undermined by the much more explicit hedging on display in some of Melissinos’s rhetoric. Embracing a developmental model, Melissinos, in the exhibition’s catalogue, writes that games possess “the potential to become a superior storytelling medium,” but emphasizes that the medium is currently “still in adolescence” (9). “Using the cultural lens of an art museum,” Melissinos continues, in an invitation also printed in the entryway to the exhibition space, “viewers will be left to determine whether the materials on display are indeed worthy of the title ‘art’” (9). The fostering of open debate about the enduring cultural importance of mass-culture artifacts and potential future directions of a popular art form is an admirable goal, but there is also something cheekily P. T. Barnum-esque about Melissinos’s pronouncement. Neil Harris, in his Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), notes the way in which Barnum actively relished claims that his displays were hoaxes, as it allowed him to play directly into audiences’ desires to “decide for themselves”: “persons who pay their money at the door,” Barnum would cheerfully announce, “have a right to form their own opinions after they have got up the stairs” (quoted in Harris, 77). The Art of Video Games does away with the crude monetary aspect of Barnum’s invitation, but retains the canny exploitation of visitors’ potential skepticism. It is a clever move, but it also insulates Melissinos from the burden of having to forward a strong argument about the works on display, something that ultimately does the exhibition—as well as the individual games themselves—a disservice. Video games, when entering the museum, already have enough to prove, and Melissinos’s softening of his claims, despite his obvious enthusiasm for the material, weakens the exhibition’s sense of advocacy.

But, in the end, perhaps such advocacy is already unneeded. During my visit, The Art of Video Games was well attended, filled with children, teens, and twentysomethings, many of whom displayed an eagerness to pick up where the exhibition’s audio commentaries left off, excitedly sharing with their attendant friends, parents, or grandparents the details of a given game’s importance in their own life, its place in their own personal understanding of the medium’s development as an art form. Perhaps video games have reached the point where they no longer need a strong curatorial voice to argue for their relevance as an art form. Perhaps all that was needed was an invitation, and museumgoers will do the rest. In this, The Art of Video Games succeeds admirably.

Ian Jones
PhD candidate, Department of Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.