Smithsonian’s “Art of Video Games” Exhibit holds varied meaning for different developers

A new exhibit, The Art of Video Games, hopes to entice museum visitors to experience the evolution of video games through interactive displays and historical pieces. Crowds flocked to the Smithsonian American Art Museum during the opening weekend and were thrilled at the chance to relive bits of nostalgia from their youth.

One of the major pieces to the exhibit is a display of 20 different video game consoles throughout the years. From the Atari 2600 to the PlayStation 3, each display featured four games that were voted on by fans around the world as the best representatives for that console.

Most game developers were very excited about the chance to be recognized for what they’ve been doing most of their lives. While the question of “video games as art” continues to be open for discussion, the game makers agree that raising the level of discussion to include the Smithsonian is a welcome event.

smithsonian 630x354 Smithsonians Art of Video Games Exhibit holds varied meaning for different developers
Photos: Larry Frum for VideoGameWriters.com


Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was one of the games honored for the PS3 console. Amy Hennig, creative director for the game, told us the question of whether video games belong in an art museum is moot.

“What we’re seeing now as to whether games are art is irrelevant,” Hennig said. “Of course they are. They’ve always been part of our lives. It’s just another medium. It’s just interactive. To see such a mainstream recognition of our medium, I mean, it really is the first time that that’s happened. I think that’s a huge cultural event and hugely gratifying.”

Robh Ruppel, in charge of art direction for Uncharted 2, had a bit more unstrained response.

“We’re in the Smithsonian? WOW! That’s a huge deal!”

After a laugh, he explained video games as art is an idea that’s overdue.

“Any time the level of craft is taken to a high enough point it becomes art,” Ruppel said. “Video games have definitely reached that.”

ken levine 300x198 Smithsonians Art of Video Games Exhibit holds varied meaning for different developers

Levine takes the Kurt Cobain approach

The idea, though, that being in the Smithsonian somehow justifies what’s been going on in the industry or the people working in games doesn’t sit well with Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine.

“Nothing. (It means) absolutely nothing. I couldn’t care less.” It’s nice. It’s great to see it at a museum,” Levine said. “But, it doesn’t mean a lot to me. It doesn’t mean anything in terms of a paradigm shift.”

Levine said the Smithsonian just adds a new voice to the already burgeoning discussion about games taking place over the Internet and among gamers themselves.

“There is probably more conversation about games that have been crafted than there was in 500 years of landscape painting. To me, that’s not really a watershed, because by nature, it’s going to be kind of surfacy conversation that I’m used to.”

He said this exhibit may raise the level of games in the eyes of people who were overlooking how important video games already are to our culture and society.

“The more places we can talk about what we do, the better. We are a ghettoized industry in the sense that the places we talk about games – we’re not on The Tonight Show. Even though guys like Call of Duty are going to sell 25 million copies of their game and they’re not on.”

During a discussion at the exhibit, one of the Smithsonian representatives said, “The player completes the art work.” It is an idea that Levine agrees with due to the interactive nature of video gaming.

“(Art) has no life outside of being viewed. Like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it changes every time it is viewed. That’s what’s wonderful about it. It’s entirely subjective.”

However, he bristles at the idea that players have the right to demand a say in the creative process of a game. Speaking about the Mass Effect 3 ending and the fan petitions demanding developer BioWare create an ending that they want, he thinks it may be a step too far from an artistic standpoint.

“The Mass Effect thing is interesting to me. A petition to sort of change the art is a little strange with me and if it does happen .. to a certain degree, that’s a decision driven by commerce,” Levine said. “At the end of the day, is that going to be satisfying for the reader? That their game now ends the way they’ve asked for it to end?”

“It is, by nature, somebody enforcing their creative will on you. That’s what being a viewer is. Games are a little different as you interact with it. That’s not what they’re really asking for. They’re not asking for an interaction change. You’re asking for a storytelling change.”

“Part of the joy of experiencing art is surrendering yourself to it. Sometimes, it is a good experience and sometimes, it is not. But I don’t know if it works that way.”

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