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Any parent knows the value of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Art of Video Games” exhibit: It’s state-subsidized baby-sitting. There’s at least an hour’s worth of bliss waiting for the ADHD set, from playable games—a list limited to five rather fusty titles, including “Myst” and “Pac-Man”—to presentations on five eras of graphics. For art viewers, it’s less clear why this exhibit is happening. For starters, it’s a crowd-sourced affair. In spring 2011, the museum put the exhibit’s games to a public vote; whether or not 1983’s “Attack of the Mutant Camels” for the Commodore 64 represents an artistic leap forward, it netted sufficient votes to be one of 80 exhibited games from a pool of 240 choices. No doubt, the people have good taste in gaming: “Phantasy Star” made the cut, warming this RPG nerd’s heart, as did essentials such as “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past” and “Metal Gear Solid.” But judging video games as art ostensibly requires a different set of metrics than playability or CGI cut-scene quality. And to that end, the exhibition isn’t making much of an argument. It’s commendable that bizarre titles like “Marble Madness” and “Portal”—both clever advances in video-game design, controls, narrative, and player-friendliness—have solid constituencies among the Smithsonian’s audience. But the connection between these games and, say, “MassEffect 2” (shown) isn’t art. It’s a popularity contest, and a pandering one at that.
“The Art of Video Games” is on view 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily to Sept. 30 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets NW. Free. americanart.si.edu. (202) 633-1000.