For the past 3 years The Art of Video Games exhibit has been making its way across the country. During the weekend of April 4th I had the opportunity to see the exhibit up close and personal at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, VA..
The exhibit was the brainchild of curator Christopher Melissinos, the founder of Past Pixels and Director of Corp Strategy – Media and Entertainment for Verizon. It features a variety of games and platforms spanning the past 40 years and is comprised of items from Melissinos’ personal collection. The exhibit was not intended to be a collective history of gaming, but a glimpse into how it has transformed as a medium, the artistry involved, and how gaming connects people regardless of their differences.
When you enter the exhibition hall you are fully immersed in the world of video games; a large projector wall featuring snippets of gameplay followed by a floor projected START GAME at the entry to the main exhibit.
The visitors: children of all ages, mostly adults in their late 20s and 30s and children under age 12. The hall is small, but packed with kiosks that favor the classic upright arcade game.
Each kiosk was outfitted with a video display, four illuminated buttons, and an old school phone receiver. Lift the receiver, select a button and the screen displays corresponding game play with a voice over heard through the receiver. Each kiosk featured a gaming system representative of its time from Intellivision to Playstation 4 – they transport you through 4 decades of gaming technology and artistry.
Five large stations featured games the visitor could play: Mario Brothers, Pac-Man, The Secret of Zombie Island, Myst, and Flowers. Each of these stations allowed a few minutes of gameplay before they timed out. This was great and kept the traffic flowing through the hall.
My favorite section was a feature wall with a bank of screens: Advances in Mechanics. Each screen featured a stage of technological advances in gaming and how mechanics (jumping, running, etc.) have evolved through the decades.
PC gaming and MMOs were also featured. The illustrations from World of Warcraft were impressive and substantial in detail, in contrast to the 8-bit world of NES.
A statement overheard throughout the exhibit was: I remember when. This was a sentiment shared between spouses, friends, parents and children; games they remembered, the gaming systems they forgot, reminiscing over the first or the last time they picked up a controller. The exhibit drops you off in a room lined with classic arcade games like: Mrs. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong on the WiiU and Xbox One. I killed a few pixels playing Zelda on the WiiU, it was a great way to wrap up the tour.
Some serious gamers may feel the need to nitpick and question why their favorite game wasn’t featured in the exhibit. This is a snapshot of art and technology as it relates to video games, not a comprehensive collection of all known games. The exhibit was a wonderful glimpse into the evolution of video games as art and the great equalizer. The exhibit is on the final legs of the national tour. If you live in the final two cities of the tour, I suggest you grab some friends and take a trip down memory lane.
The exhibit has a companion book of the same name available at local retailers or you can purchase it online here: The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect.
The Art Of Video Games will remain at The Chrysler Museum of Art until May 10, 2015.
The remaining tour dates:
- Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis Tennessee-June 6, 2015 to September 16, 2015
- Philip and Patricia Frost Art Museum Florida International University, Miami, FL-January 23, 2016 to April 17, 2016
Through the power of Twitter, I reached out to the curator Christopher Melissinos and he agreed to answer a few questions about the exhibit.
PF: The exhibit feels like an educational arcade; was that your intention?
Chris Melissinios(CM): We wanted to frame the materials in an environment that would lend itself to that familiar feeling of arcade machines lining the arcade, convenience store, movie theater, etc. As the experience of engaging with video games are as much about the games themselves as well as the environment around them, we felt that this was a natural connection that eased people into, and through, the discover process of video games as cultural touchstones as well as art.
PF: Mortal Kombat X‘s release date is right around the corner, and while the images are gruesome, the gameplay and accompanying visuals are stunning and realistic. How do you think The Art of Video Games has challenged the idea that video games should not be considered art?
CM: Just as all movies are not gory or violent, the same holds true for video games. While Mortal Kombat X game may not align with everyone’s tastes (and should be played by an appropriate age group. Parents, please pay attention to the ratings label right on the box!), the fact that video games are protected, free speech ensures the right for that game to exist, and rightly so.
What is important is that, for many games, one needs to look past the surface of just the visuals to hear what the author or designer is trying to convey. Video games demand our attention for us to fully understand their intent. It is an active and participatory engagement which is different than any other medium. And, while Mortal Kombat may be a game whose fun and engagement sits right on the surface of the experience, games like Ori and the Blind Forest demonstrates how moving, beautiful and deep a video game can be in conveying emotion, coaxing empathy and delighting the player; if one is willing to devote time to the experience.
I believe that The Art of Video Games exhibition assisted in framing the discussion of video games as an important art form in society and helped sway the opinions of those who only observed video games through one dimension. Placing video games in the context of an art museum and decoding the games to illuminate the deeper messages, meaning and intent behind them was both personally rewarding and, hopefully, assisted in changing the way society views them.
PF: If you had carte blanche to create your perfect video game what type of game would it be, platform and style of music?
CM: Oh my. How do you answer that?!?!?
Ok, well, one game type that I would love to see emerge is the “rock opera” network/social/RPG game. Imaging a world that is constantly changing based on users actions, but contained within a storyline that is strung together through a musical narrative and plays out across devices. How would a movie like “Tommy” int into that world? Or, better yet, “The Near Future” concept album by I Fight Dragons (Which, if your readers have not listened to, need to go do this right now!). Growing up in NYC in the 70s/80s, I imagine a world of hip-hop adventure where music that defined a generation and reflected life through its artistry would be amazing. Or, “fresh”, as we used to say!
Music, action, RPG, networked, evolving, multi screen? Totally rad.
PF: After I chose to torture myself playing Myst for 10 minutes and getting about as far as I did as a 14-year-old in 1993; I spent some time watching my favorite part of the exhibit, the wall featuring the evolution of movement in gaming. Do you have a favorite section of the exhibit?
CM: Another REALLY tough question! Had to pick a favorite because they all held personal meaning for me. By this, I mean that almost all of the video footage in the exhibition that you see of the games being played was me actually playing those games. The majority of the game systems on display are from my personal collection. I conducted almost all of the interviews with industry luminaries (and friends). I picked the 5 playable games. I wrote the text for exhibition.
So, what you are observing in the exhibition spans my 40 years of playing games to working in the games industry. That is why it is so difficult to pick just one favorite section because there is some of me in everything in the exhibition. But, if I HAD to pick just one section, it would be the 20 console kiosks. 40 years of video games in American culture that also represents the voice of the people who come to the museums to see the exhibition. Cool.
PF: In the 3 short years since your exhibit premiered there have been substantial strides in the artistry of gaming and storytelling. I know it is practically impossible to keep up with trends, but are there any plans to refresh/update the exhibit after the end of the 2016 tour?
CM: Well, this exhibition will not have anything appended to it, due to the nature of such exhibitions. The great thing is that the materials will never go out of date because they are frozen in time. Art that represents their particular era.
Having said that, I have a few ideas about new exhibitions around video games that dig much deeper into the form and the people who create them. We’ll see where that goes!
PF: Are you working on any other projects you’d like to share with the ProFans?
CM: Unfortunately, I can’t discuss future projects at the moment. However, I would be happy to revisit the question when the time is right! But know that video games are hugely important medium to me, and one that shaped my entire life. I will continue to work in service of the amazing artists, musicians, storytellers, poets, and dreamers that choose this medium to share their art with the world.
Chris Melissinos can be found on Twitter here.