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Pac-Man. Super Mario Brothers. Myst. These video games are among five you can actually play, on super-sized screens, in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's new exhibit, "The Art of Video Games."
"These games were selected because they did something unique within their era, or they changed the way developers worked, or the types of games they created," says video-game developer and collector Chris Melissinos, who curated the exhibit.
The evolution of video games
The exhibit features a total of 80 video games, mostly from Melissinos's personal collection, and covers a span of 40 years. The goal, he says, is to focus on the entirety of video games as an art medium. Melissinos says, it's one of the very first exhibitions to tackle video games and art in that manner. Because the way Melissinos sees it, video games represent a beautiful fusion of all forms of art. Be it painting, sculpture, or music and narrative.
"So in that, video games provide the greatest variety, the greatest opportunity, to tell the widest breadth of story, the widest narrative, of any other medium that we have at our disposal today," he says.
But the key to making this particular medium work, he says, is interaction, "because it doesn't become art until the game is actually played."
That point is strikingly demonstrated by one of the first installations that can be encountered at the exhibit: three video screens showing people playing video games by themselves. It's called "Gamer Faces."
"You don't see people react this way when they read a book, view a painting, even watch a movie!" Melissinos says. "You may get people to jump at certain points. You may get people to cry at certain points. But you do not see this full kind of release of themselves."
And this "release" has been going on since the days of the Atari VCS, which is on display in another room of the exhibit. The room shows the evolution of video games through 20 gaming systems: from early, elementary offerings like the Atari and Calicovision, to more recent, complex innovations like the Wii and PS2. Since the gaming systems snake along the four walls of the room, by the time you reach the PS2, you're back where you started, at the Atari.
"So by standing in that one corner of the room, you're able to see just how far we have come in the medium of art that is video games," Melissinos says.
But you're also able to see "the echoes of design that started at the Atari VCS and are even present today, in the era of the Playstation 3." For instance, as Melissinos explains, "in Uncharted Two, when we see Nathan Drake in a jungle environment, reaching for a vine, and we see Pitfall Harry on the Atari VCS in a jungle scene, reaching for a vine, we realize that those core mechanics have persisted for 40 years."
What has changed, he says, is the platform - or, more fittingly for an exhibit titled "The Art of Video Games" - "the canvas, the brushes, that artists have had to paint the environment in which those mechanics occur."
Of course, Melissinos knows not everyone would be quite so keen to whip out such artistic metaphors for video games. Like parents, for example?
"What I would say [to them] is to not be dismissive of [video games] on the face," Melissinos says. "Chances are many parents that are listening remember a time when video games were important to them. The ones that grew up in the 70s and 80s, and they remember the first time they saw Pac-Man or the first time they played Pitfall, or Donkey Kong. And [they] understand the games their kids are playing today are just the descendants of the games that we grew up on. Playing games is part of what it means to be human. It's how we find competition, it's how we find cooperation."
It's also how we find creativity. Or so says Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, a video-game hero who has a quotation stenciled on one of the exhibit's walls: "Video games foster the mindset that allows creativity to grow."
And it's Melissinos' ardent desire that by the time people exit the exhibit - whether they're diehard gamers or not - they'll wholeheartedly agree with that quotation.
"I hope that everyone that comes to visit this walks away with a greater understanding that video games are more than they believed them to be when they came in.
"Because they are. Because they are."
[Music: "Electro Pac-Man (original mix)" by A-Lista from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKvHdBpypSE]
The "Art of Video Games" Trailer