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The Art of Video Games: Pac-Man to Mass Effect

Carolyn Koh Posted:
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The popular art of our day is Video Games and it has finally been accepted into the mainstream as Art – the capital “A” – at no less than that swankiest of American art museums, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. The museum opened its exhibition “The Art of Video Games” with a three day GameFest on March 16, 2012. It is one of the first major exhibitions to explore over 40 years of evolution of video games as an artistic medium. We’ve come a long way baby!

“We are exploring the artistic merit of video games,” said Chris Melissinos, “of video games as an art form.”

That’s right, video games as art, not the art in video games as exhibitions like Into The Pixel show case every year at E3, the exhibition showcases video games as an art form.

“Game play is central amongst mammals and video games is a form of expression,” he continued, “I’m not surprised to see the growth in online games. It’s just another evolutionary step.”

What he meant was that playing games is a social activity. In early video games such as Pong and Space Invaders, the computer AI became the surrogate. For the first time, it was “okay” to play alone, but now, we are playing with and against other people, with video games as the medium.

The narrative of the exhibition, in the broadest sense, is how video games have reflected the social and cultural evolution of the past 40 years, and the book is as much a catalog and companion to the exhibition, as a stand alone narrative that explores how designers have combined graphics with narrative, audio and player interaction to create immersive and meaningful experiences.

The Book

The book is a handsome art book in a 10 x 10” square hard-cover format with heavy, glossy pages and full color art through out, showcasing the games that made it into the exhibition, and interspersed with interviews with industry luminaries.

The exhibition as well as the book is divided into five eras. The “Start” showcases the best of the 70s and early 80s, when the market for video games exploded, with companies like Atari, Commodore and Apple delivering personal computers and game consoles into American homes by the millions and games were exemplified by examples such as Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

“8-bit” is the time when consoles based on 8-bit processers were available. The overall aesthetic referred to as pixel art or 8-bit art – had a distinctly blocky, hand-drawn look. The games highlighted here include Sid Meier’s Pirates, The Legend of Zelda and Phantasy Star.

The next era, the curators termed “Bit Wars” – the age of the personal home computer. This is the 90s when more people in America brought personal computers into their homes and not just game consoles for the kids. This was the golden age of 2D and role-playing games. Why the term “wars?” this was also the era where Devs not only described their games, they boasted of the number of colors on display, the resolution their games ran on and how many “voices” comprised their musical scores. In this era of “bigger is better,” games like Dune II, SimCity and Super Mario World thrived.

The “Transition” era was the dawn of 3-D graphics, a time when the graphics moved from 2-D to 3-D. CD-ROM technology provided a seemingly endless amount of space for massive game worlds and games on more platforms became prevalent. It is this era that brought us Diablo II, Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid.

Finally, the “Next Generation” is where we are now, the 21st century. Video game platforms are now able to render photorealistic environments. The technology allows for sophisticated and fantastic stories and worlds, as well as the ability to play with (and against) people from all around the world, in real time. This is the era that brings us Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Halo 2 and Heavy Rain, as well as an era that brings us as diverse games as Flow, Flower and Minecraft.

Readers with interest in video games or American Pop culture will find this a fascinating book. Each game covered is spread over two pages, illustrated with the best art from the game and screen shots of game details, with a narrative that describes the game and touches on the design as well as the current events be it technology or society that it relates to. As appropriate, future sequels and how it affected future games are also mentioned.

The 15 interviewees featured run the gamut of game artists, designers, engineers and pioneers of the industry. There’s Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, Tommy Tallarico, who created the music of the original Prince of Persia and co-creator of the concert series Video Games Live. Games journalist, Jane Pinckard of GameGirlAdvance fame and currently with the Center for Games and Playable Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz is featured, as is writer Tim Schafer, of Grim Fandango and Monkey Island fame.

Interestingly enough, like anything else in current Pop culture, the interviewees are not introduced. If you don’t already know who they are and what they are known for, the narrative may not give you a clue as they may speak on their influences and the directions they’d like to see video games go in, but not on their own work.

Choosing the Games

Selecting the games was not simply the work of a small panel of adjudicators, but also the general public. The only online game to make it into the exhibition is Minecraft, but that’s not to say that MMOs are not important, merely that the popularity of other games edged them out in the final vote.

“The exhibition is about the history of the art of video games,” said Chris, “and about two thirds of the exhibition is about games on certain platforms – the platforms that Americans most identified with.”

He continued to say that these game consoles and platforms were synonymous with American Pop Culture and the broadest understanding of what a video game was. That games reflected the culture of the day is seen in the narrative that accompanies the description and art of each game showcased in the book, mentioning games such as Dune and Goldeneye 007 which explained little of the backstory, expecting that players would already be familiar with the world and the story the games took place in.

There were three voices involved with the design of the exhibit. The first were the curators and game developers on the board of the exhibition, the second were the games, and the third were the players themselves.

“Video games are the only art form that requires interaction with the viewer (of the art),” said Chris, “and therefore they had to be involved in making this exhibition.”

To that end, 240 games were selected and voting opened to the public to select 80 games to make up the exhibition (and book). Games were divided into five eras, four genres: Target, adventure, action and tactics, and different platforms.

The museum began the publicity by first contacting game development organizations and the larger gaming magazines and sites. Very quickly, the mainstream media began to pick up the story and by the time the vote opened, the information had spread around the world. Voting on the games was done from February 14 through April 7, 2011. I remember not being able to get on the servers to vote for my favorite games that first week and Chris was almost giggling at the success and popularity of what they were putting together for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We crashed the servers three times!” he crowed.

Over 3.7 million votes were tallied and feedback included laments of “How can I choose between Command and Conquer and Starcraft??”  Interestingly enough, GoldenEye 007 won for the Target (shooter) category for the Nintendo 64, but could not be displayed due to copyright reasons, and the runner-up Star Fox 64 is displayed instead at the exhibition – but GoldenEye 007 is published in the book. World of Warcraft lost out to Fall Out 3 in the Windows category, but Minecraft beat out Age of Empires 3 in the Tactics category.

The exhibition runs through September 30, 2012, but will also travel to 10 different cities. If you have any interest in the history and art of video games I highly recommend the book even if you cannot attend the exhibition (as I have not but plan to when it tours.) It is not just a beautiful book, it is a fascinating study of the evolution of the art form we call Video Games.

The Art of Video Games Tour: http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/

Boca Raton Museum of Art (October 24, 2012–January 20, 2013)

EMP Museum in Seattle (February 16, 2013–May 13, 2013)

Phoenix Art Museum (June 16, 2013—September 29, 2013)

Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY (February 15, 2014–May 18, 2014)

Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio (June 19, 2014–September 28, 2014)

Flint Institute of Arts in Flint, Michigan (October 25, 2014–January 18, 2015)

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, Tennessee (June 6, 2015–September 13, 2015)

The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami, Florida (October 9, 2015–January 25, 2016)

The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect

Authors: Chris Melissinos & Patrick O’Rourke

216 pages, 10 x 10, hardcover, full color

Welcome Books, US$40.00

ISBN 978-1-59962-110-4


Carolyn Koh

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn Koh has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.