Day #89: Getsu Fuma Den – “Overworld Theme”
With some time to kill before meeting up with the gang last night for Smart Ass Trivia Night (which was not as irreverent as I had hoped), I went to the see the The Art of Video Games exhibit, which is running at the National Portrait Gallery through the end of September. The Smithsonian had been planning this thing for about three years, and it certainly generated a lot of buzz. I was pretty excited, too. Not so much because being spotlighted by a national museum (the Smithsonian more so than just the National Portrait Gallery) meant that video games were symbolically being declared a respectable form of art, but because it’s a bunch of video games put on display! At a big museum in DC! And it’s all free! What could be better than that?!!
Well, lots of things, because the final product was remarkably underwhelming. (Kind of like this). Five or six exhibit rooms with plenty of empty space that could have been filled with… well, a hell of a lot, considering there’s about a good forty years worth of creativity and innovation in video games to draw upon. Longer, if you count small-scale experimental versions made in the 1950s and 60s. The stuff you cover about visuals, narratives, soundtracks, technology, the business, and social and political aspects alone could fill a museum the size of the Louvre. (I realize, my definition of “the art” of video games is broader, and probably better left to a history museum. And on a side note, an announcement was made last June that the organizers of the Classic Gaming Expo are looking for start-up funding for a Video Game History Museum, though it probably isn’t planned to be the size of the Louvre).
Part of the problem, as Harold Goldberg pointed out in his article, “How the Smithsonian Screwed Up Its Video Game Exhibition” is that a lot of games that really have been lauded for their art were noticeably absent. (And, just look at all the cool stills you could fill up an exhibit with from the games mentioned in Cracked’s “6 Amazing Indie Video Games That Kickstarter Made Possible.”)
Chris Mellisinos, a game collector and programmer who is the curator, has assembled exhibits at video game conventions in the past. Despite these credentials and a marketer’s passion for the medium (he gestures with his hands to convince you, like a politician on the stump), he didn’t choose the games on his own, or even have the committee choose them. Instead, to narrow it down to the 80 games shown, the committee chose 240 games and posted the list online for the public to examine. Then, in American Idol fashion, there was a vote.
When I reviewed the Smithsonian’s web pages made for the show, I saw that the process had given short shrift to many games that moved the medium forward as far as artful content is concerned. There is nothing from Ralph Baer, the National Medal of Technology winner who made the original Magnavox Odyssey. Baer is often considered to be the father of videogames.
Actually, the first problem is that the Smithsonian hired a programmer to do a designer’s job. The second was that content was put to popular vote. Goldberg argues that while the effort to make things seem more democratic may be commendable, it would be unheard of for other exhibits. Like, a museum wouldn’t do that if it was hosting an exhibit on, say, Renaissance painting, to decide whether one artist or another should be on display. Granted, the public or even just members of the museum may be solicited for advice, but let’s face it, if you put all that to a vote, you risk getting input from a lot of people with no clue. And then next thing you know, your Renaissance paintings are nothing but Da Vinci’s. The Art of Video Games wound up the same way. All games that everyone know. Although, to clarify, the 80 games listed on the Smithsonian’s page for the exhibit, were almost all only featured in the form of a short clip displayed in one room with the console it was developed for. Needless to say, a lot of gaming fans who had long been saying video games were art, were probably incredibly disappointed.
Hell, I don’t even know that much about video games, and I was disappointed!
Sonicus Miraculous, known as the common hedgehog, can run at speeds of 85 mph.
The other problem is that there was so much attention to style over substance it made the “art” being spotlighted fairly vague. However, if we take the typical interpretation of art as something visual, this wasn’t much of an art exhibit, either. There were a handful of conceptual drawings (including what looked like generic drawings of Earthworm Jim), and an easily overlooked video that momentarily mentioned the craft of writing for these games on display in the first room. In one of the two largest rooms, visitors could demo Super Mario, Pac Man, Myst, The Secret of Monkey Island (which, isn’t really the kind of game best played as a quick demo), and some game on Kinect where your character is a stream of floating flower petals (which, sounds about as exciting as playing a dolphin). The stations were spaced far apart for visitors to line up to play (which, is certainly going to create obstacles for the kind of crowds they should be expecting at this thing come summer… just download Super Mario on your iPhones, dear children!). But, there was nothing included about those games. No history. No pretentious commentary. No real sense of why these games were shown? (Of, course that goes back to putting everything to a vote, which I don’t think visitors were made aware of).
The other largest room was like a chronology of consoles, and everything from the Colecovision up to the Wii were on display, along with screen caps from a game in that console that fit into one of the four categories (action, strategy, etc…). These included a brief paragraph about the introduction of the console, and I suppose little kids might find this fascinating, but for folks like myself, who grew up playing NES, it’s just recent history. You could probably learn more just reading up on video game history on Wiki. The rest of the show was a wash in my brain.
Sad Christmas, Smithsonian. Sad Christmas.