Pitfall! for Atari (1982)
Pitfall! for Atari (1982)

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Donkey Kong isn’t the only 800-pound gorilla in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s newest blockbuster-to-be, “The Art of Video Games.” From the moment you step into this, the first survey of video games in a major art institution, two heavy questions linger. What are these products designed by a bunch of Japanese guys doing in a museum dedicated to work made by Americans? And, perhaps more pressingly: Is this stuff art?

Nintendo, Sega, and Sony are all Japanese companies, but not all companies that make video games are Japanese; the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s own mandate —“an unparalleled record of the American experience”—allows it to occasionally play a little loose. For the better part of the last 30 years, that experience has included video games. If you didn’t play them, you at least understood their significance via lunch boxes and T-shirts. Movies have video-game tie-ins going back to E.T.’s loathed playable spin-off. In the 1990s, the tail wagged the dog and Hollywood began making movies based on video games. Now, we take video games wherever we go: For most of 2010, the top downloaded smartphone app was Angry Birds. Video games are not a phenomenon that is uniquely American, but like a lot of things not uniquely American—car racing, for instance—we still like to think it is.

All of that might make a strong case for mounting this survey at the National Museum of American History, perhaps down the hallway from Dorothy’s slippers. Its inclusion in an art museum is trickier.

Frank Stella wouldn’t have approved. In his 1986 book Working Space, the American minimalist ranted against the inclusion of modernist furniture in the Museum of Modern Art. Art museums should display art, he declared, and museums for anything else should display that thing. Take the longer view, of course, and it’s clear Stella’s view was born fusty. The discussion of what qualifies as art has always been a lousy game of chess, one that ended in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp presented a urinal as an artwork.

So why not allow a recreational tool of distraction into the catacombs of culture? Chris Melissinos, the curator of “The Art of Video Games,” argues that today’s games encompass a full range of experience, including music, cinematography, sound, storytelling, and the user experience. To academicize it for public consumption suggests there might be something to learn from video games.

Unfortunately, as both an art experience and a scholastic one, “The Art of Video Games” is a disappointment, if one that’s cleanly organized and designed. The exhibition is divided into three rooms: one explores the creative process behind video games; another tests out a game from each of the five eras of game development the exhibit has identified; a third chronicles 80 different games from the last 35 years. Lights are projected onto the floor in a pixelated pattern, while a list of donors scrolls along the wall like top scores. The suggestion is we’re inside a machine.

With its sketches of characters and environments, the first room contains the closest thing here to a typical museum exhibition. But it’s a paltry display, and few sketches come from the same game. If this is the exhibit’s nod to aesthetes—the art of “The Art of Video Games”—it’s a half-hearted one.

The room’s inclusion of video-game packaging is slightly more worthwhile. At the dawn of video games, these visual aides helped compensate for the medium’s poor graphics. And they remind us here that in the early days of gaming, designers had to cram a lot of information into a 4 kilobyte cartridge—considerably smaller than your typical one-page Microsoft Word document. Of greater interest in the room is a five-screen video display illustrating the evolution of video-game DNA, from character actions to spatial organization to and story development. You can compare, for example, the running and jumping of the pixelated protagonist of the 1982 Atari game Pitfall! to the the more sophisticated actions of the nearly photo-representational hero of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, a PlayStation 3 game from 2009. The display is organized by the five categories that carry throughout the show: “Start”; “8-Bit”; “Bit Wars”; “Transition”; and “Next Generation.” It’s a shorthand that traces how image quality, music score, interface, and narrative devices improved with the technology.

“The Art of Video Games” attempts to illustrate the evolution in the second room, where visitors can play a snippet of a game from each era. We see pixels get smaller and storylines become less linear. By the time museum-goers try their hand at the 1993 computer game Myst—which represents the “Transitional” period—they can see how the virtual 3D space allows for a more immersive gaming experience, in addition to an easier suspension of disbelief. But it’s the crystal-clear image quality of the “Next Generation” game, the 2009 PlayStation 3 title Flower, that’s more astounding and abstract. Users assume the role of the breeze, and their only goal is to blow through a field, capturing petals along the way. It has all of the pointlessness of Pac-Man, the complexity of a flight simulator, and a strangely hypnotic, Zen-like quality that has the potential to transcend ordinary gameplay into the sublime. If ever there was art within video games, this might be it.

For the final room, organizers solicited the input of video-game fans, like a meeting of academe and Dancing With the Stars. One hundred thousand people voted on a list assembled by Melissinos, narrowing down 240 games to 80. These are distributed evenly into 20 stations, each of which contains a console, like an Atari or a PlayStation 3. Visitors can push a button and watch one-minute videos that explain the historical significance of each game.

It’s an anti-climactic finish. There are no coin-operated arcade machines included in the exhibit. Nor are there any handheld electronic games, like Electronic Quarterback, or handheld consoles, like Game Boy. Once you enter the final gallery, it becomes evident that “The Art of Video Games” has failed to cover the full scope of its title—either via the art in the first room or the breadth of the rooms that follow. Rather, it’s an exhibition on the evolution of video-game consoles, and with that epiphany, the exhibition finally feels like a marketing ploy encouraging visitors to buy a PS3 (or a console from one of Sony’s competitors).

No doubt, the home market is where video games have made their most substantial impact on the industry and the culture. Some video-game titles outgross Hollywood blockbusters. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq bought thousands of PlayStation 2s for their powerful CPUs. But if any such testaments to the cultural impact of video games populate this exhibition—which feels light on everything but the medium’s technical advancements—they’re Easter eggs you won’t find.