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Smithsonian Art Of Video Games Exhibit Opens With Gaming Festival

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has opened an "Art of Video Games" exhibit with a three-day festival

Are video games art?

The Smithsonian American Art Museum says "yes" with its newest exhibit, The Art of Video Games. The exhibit is curated by Chris Melissinos of Past Pixels, a group charged with the preservation of video game history. Over the past year, Melissinos -- aided by a board of advisors that includes Double Fine's Tim Schafer, text adventure veteran Steve Meretzky, and Penny Arcade team Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik -- designed an exhibit that encourages visitors to make what Melissinos calls "a deeply personal decision" of whether video games are art. The exhibit offers five eras of video games with both playable demos and self-playing videos, showcasing everything from the Atari 2600 to the PlayStation 3, from the traditional platforming of Super Mario Bros. to the more experimental play of Flower.

The exhibit opened on March 16 with GameFest, a weekend-long celebration of the evolution of video games. Most of the opening day was devoted to a pair of panels examining the past and future of video games. Providing the historical perspective were luminaries Keith Robinson of Intellivision; Don Daglow of AOL's Neverwinter Nights; RJ Mical, co-inventor of the Atari Lynx; Rand Miller, co-creator of Myst; and Mike Mika of Other Ocean Interactive. Together, they reminisced about when technology stopped being just a military and educational tool and became an instrument with which to create art. Anything seemed possible, if only the technology could keep up with their imaginations. Daglow remembered thinking, "If we had more than 16 colors, we could challenge Michelangelo." But those same deficiencies are also what inspired early programmers, said Daglow: "Limitations contribute to game design; they're our first handholds on the rock face" of a new platform.Perhaps that's why the industry continuously migrates to platforms that reintroduce old restrictions -- from desktop computing to Web-based games to mobile apps. Each environment invokes the days when Robinson created Intellivision games with only 12K of memory at his disposal. Being creative with limited resources leads to mastery of a platform, which the current trend toward longer hardware cycles may encourage.

Among the general waxing were some genuinely surprising nuggets of historical value. One audience member asked Robinson if early games lacked save states because of technological or creative limitations. Robinson said neither -- it was more financial. But after the video game crash of 1983, gaming moved from consoles to computers, where such features were standard and became expected after Nintendo revived the console industry.

Daglow had a similar tale of failure leading to the advancement of gaming, though his was more personal. Early in his career while working for Electronic Arts, Daglow was eager to recruit promising talent to the company. To that end, he tried persuading Richard Garriott to abandon Ultima, telling him that it would never go anywhere. Much to history's relief, Garriott ignored this advice.

The second panel was less nostalgic and more contentious as they debated the role and artistry of video games. Engaged in this disagreement were Paul Barnett of BioWare-Mythic; Mark DeLoura, VP of technology at THQ; Ken Levine, project director for BioShock; and Kellee Santiago, co-founder of thatgamecompany. For Santiago, whose company has published such experiential titles as flOw, Flower, and Journey, developers have a responsibility to ensure their games are high art that offer something meaningful to the player. But had she walked into the Smithsonian exhibit, she would've been greeted with a placard identifying three voices involved in the video game experience: the designer, the game itself, and the player. With so many voices, it's impossible to fully control the gameplay experience. This was the side Levine took, noting, "Ideas aren't trans fats. I don't want my art in control; I want it out of control. It's nobody's business how I want to express myself."

The tension between these two ideologies of what constitutes a game is reflected even in the definition of what it means to be a gamer. With the rise of social and mobile gaming and digital distribution, "Games are everywhere now -- but for hardcore gamers, they're the wrong games," said Barnett, who grew up with games "designed to crush your soul." The proliferation and accessibility of games has increased the age of the average gamer to 37 years old. Though Barnett believes future designers will be inspired by the games they grew up with, it's apparent that each generation will be reinterpreting these influences for new audiences and platforms.

Gaming is a unique medium whose founders are still a part of the industry, as exemplified throughout the weekend with speeches and appearances by Nolan Bushnell, Hideo Kojima, and David Crane. It's a young medium, but a promising one. "I don't know where gaming is going to be tomorrow," said Barnett; but for the time being, as Melissinos closed, "this is a medium whose time has come."

Ken Gagne covers Macs, retrocomputing, social media and electronic entertainment. Follow Ken on Twitter at @IDGagne, read his Computerworld blog or subscribe to his news and features RSS feed.

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