Marble Madness, 1992, Mark Cerny, Steve Lamb, SEGA Master System.
Pixels as art? Perish the thought.
Video games are a multibillion-dollar entertainment business exceeded only by Hollywood’s global pull. Generation X and the Millennials have grown up with console, arcade, and PC entertainment, with the likes of Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, Diablo, and BioShock consuming days, months, and years of their lives. Video games are also embedded in our popular culture with an expanse beyond even the Kardashians.
After all, it’s not the reality-TV family who’s featured in a massive touring art exhibition, but Pac-Man and his pixel brothers, as part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s The Art of Video Games exhibit.
This first-of-its-kind celebration of video games places 8-bit and modern console and PC titles in the same buildings as works by famous artists and sculptors. And beginning Thursday, the touring exhibition makes its only Ohio stop at the Canaday Gallery in the Toledo Museum of Art for a summer run that extends through Sept. 28. Admission is free.
“By bringing [video games] into the museum we’re acknowledging that artwork comes around in many different media, and sometimes things that start off in the commercial worlds profoundly influence the art world and the other way around,” said Amy Gilman, the museum’s associate director and the curator of modern and contemporary art.
“And sometimes you need to go back and look at something that you have thought of as a solely for-profit venture and exclusively of the commercial world and re-examine it in a much broader cultural context.”
The Art of Video Games is a four-decade exploration of video-game consoles, spanning the classic Atari VCS, Mattel Intellivision, and ColecoVision to the more modern Xbox 360, PS3, and Nintendo Wii. Divided into five eras — “Start!,” “8-Bit,” “Bit Wars,” “Transition,” and “Next Generation” — the exhibition features 80 games from 20 gaming systems presented as still images and video footage. It also includes video interviews with game developers and artists, historic game consoles, and large prints of in-game screenshots. And yes, there are five games available to play: Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower.
The exhibit was conceived by Chris Melissinos, the 44-year-old founder of PastPixels, a group dedicated to the preservation of video games, and a longtime gamer. A Washington-area resident, Melissinos used to write games on a Commodore Vic 20, a now-primitive computer from the early 1980s that he keeps in his Verizon office, where he’s the company’s director of corporate strategy in regards to media and entertainment. To add to Melissinos’ gamer bona fides, he has more than 40 video-game consoles in his home.
It was after meeting with him to discuss video games as an art form — a scheduled half-hour conversation that turned into a three-hour discussion — that the Smithsonian American Art Museum green-lit The Art of Video Games exhibit, with Melissinos as its guest curator.
“From that point forward we were able to create the largest exhibition of its kind, examining video games as an art form,” he said in a recent interview with The Blade. “It’s the most technologically complex show that the museum had ever built and we did it in roughly half the time an exhibition of that size typically takes.”
With a potent dual-generational allure to adult “Bit Babies,” as Melissinos refers to them, and their children, The Art of Video Games became one of the more popular and successful exhibitions in the museum’s history. More than 685,000 people came through the exhibition within its first six months, with 26,000 of them attending the exhibit’s opening weekend festival that included interview sessions and panel discussions with game designers and programmers. The interview with Hideo Kojima, famed creator of the popular and pioneering Metal Gear franchise, sold out in one minute, a museum record.
“It blew away every possible expectation they had,” Melissinos said. “What this says to me … is the desire on behalf of the public to see this material and see the artistic merit of video games in a forum like this. That same sentiment has continued at every stop this exhibition has had on its tour so far.”
Video game art
Given the widespread popularity of video games and its fostered culture that for some is akin to a lifestyle, the exhibition’s immense appeal shouldn’t come as a surprise. But the record turnout doesn’t address the philosophical musings of whether video games have a place where the likes of Picasso, da Vinci, Michelangelo, et. al. dwell.
Melissinos is of the opinion they do, and that given enough time, “video games will prove to be one of the important art forms ever at our disposal ... as an amalgam of all traditional art”: illustration and sculpture, narrative, social reflection, and orchestration.
Gilman contends that it’s a museum’s job to push boundaries, particularly in broadening the conventional wisdom of what is “art.”
“I’m never gonna pretend that Atari, Nintendo [are] producing these games for anything other than commercial intent,” she said. “[But] this is a way for you to be immersed in a visual world and sometimes those things are made by multimillion-dollar companies and sometimes they’re made by independent game designers who are doing it on their own. Somewhere in there is a lot of artistic and creative thinking that is going into producing these things.”
As with most things new, convincing everyone in the art world and beyond that video games are a uniquely modern creative endeavor worthy of intellectual discourse and cogitation is an argument not likely to end soon, concedes Simon Parkin, a writer and journalist from the United Kingdom who regularly writes about video games for the New Yorker, the Guardian, MIT Technology Review, and recently authored An Illustrated History of 151 Video Games ($29.99, Lorenz books).
“This debate has played without resolution for years now and will continue to wearyingly do so for some time yet,” Parkin said. “What’s more important to me is that games are often interesting and, occasionally, important,” he said. “Video games are inherently playful, which means many nonplayers still believe they are also frivolous and childish. In many cases they are correct.
“But there are also games that exist to explore the human condition, that allow us to explore what it’s like to live a life like our own, or which play with the rules of our world’s time and space in ways that help us to see our world with new eyes. That’s interesting, important and, for some, a good definition of what art does.”
The Art of Video Games can be seen from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, beginning Thursday through Sept. 28 at Canaday Gallery in Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe St. Admission is free. For more information, call 419-255-8000 or visit toledomuseum.org.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.