Interview: The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian

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The Smithsonian has announced the selection of titles that will appear in its Art of Video Games exhibition next year. The set ranges from Nintendo classics to arty modern fare such as Sony's Shadow of the Colossus (above). I posed some questions to organizer Georgiana Goodlander and exhibition curator Chris Melissinos.

Rob Beschizza: How have games influenced the arts?

Georgina Goodlander: Video games have had a huge influence on the arts! I should note that The Art of Video Games exhibition is not about art inspired by video games, It is about the video games themselves. We want to show people that video games are more than they might appear on the surface, that they can have incredible depth, beauty, and emotion. Yes, they provide rich fodder as inspiration for contemporary visual artists, but they can also stand alone as powerful works created by talented and creative people. One of my favorite quotes from the interviews that we are conducting with game designers and developers was from David Perry, CEO of Gaikai. At the very end of the interview we asked him what he hoped visitors would take away from the exhibition and he said "Video games aren't this trivial little form of entertainment. This is something that touches people deeply, it changes people's lives. It's going to change education profoundly, it's already started. And so if you don't play video games yet, we're going to get you. Trust me, we're going to find a way to get a game to you so you can understand just how powerful this medium is." I truly believe this! Games are becoming so incredible and pervasive that we're reaching the point where no one will be able to avoid them. And, more importantly, they won't want to.

Rob: Nostalgia seems to be a major inspiration here. Is there a broader reason for this? Has artistic value emerged from early games that wasn't clear at the time?

Chris Melissinos: Nostalgia certainly plays a part in the games we are experiencing today, but that is to be expected. As the children who grew up with video games are having children that start playing video games, there is renewed interest in latent gamers. This is the same cycle that we observe in any other form of media. One of the fantastic outgrowths of this is the rediscovery of games and mechanics that have held up over time, but were neglected due to the march of technology, changes in tastes, or accessibility of content.

'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, released in 1925, was not considered to be a literary masterpiece until the 1960's and, in fact, was not as popular as Fitzgerald's other works during his lifetime. Time and perspective helps to illuminate the past in ways we can't foresee. The video games industry is at an age where it is now old enough that we can apply that perspective.

Rob: Is the art in the game or is the game itself the art?

Georgina: Definitely both! There are so many aspects of art involved in video games that it is quite overwhelming. Almost every element that makes up a video game can be considered art, from the initial sketches and concept art, to the finished graphics, music, and even the code. With this exhibition though, we're particularly interested in exploring the entire game experience as the artwork--the combination of the visual and audio effects with the player interaction.

Rob: What sort of art are video games? How important is creative flair and ingenuity -- the visuals, audio and technical accomplishment -- in the art of video games?

Georgina:: I don't think you can define video games with any of the existing language that we use to define art. I attended a great presentation by John Sharp at the 2010 Game Developers Conference titled "The Game Renaissance: Art History for Game Developers." He said (I'm paraphrasing) that we should stop worrying about whether or not video games are "Art," but instead think of them as the new medium for creative expression in the 21st century. I love this concept! Why should we try and fit video games into existing categories or genres? Art is constantly evolving, as is the language we use to talk about it, and I think we've only just started to explore how video games can and should be incorporated.

Rob: Games are designed to be played. How do games best resolve the tension between the artist's narrative control and the player's need for freedom?

Chris: This is one of the misconceptions about video games, that the voice of the author is lost due to interactivity. I believe there are three voices in games: that of the designer or artist, the game itself, and the player. By this I mean that the designer lays down the plot, visual framework, mechanics, rules, and arc that the game encompasses, the gameplay communicates this, and the player internalizes that message and, from it, emerges an experience that is unique to that player. Consider that, regardless of the path the player takes as Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, Aeris always dies. There is no way for the player to avoid this. However, on the road to that event, the player can laterally explore the narrative arc, crafting an experience that retains the intent of the author while allowing the player freedom. In Missile Command, you eventually hit the "The End" kill screen. This is why I believe that video games will become one of the most powerful storytelling mediums we have ever experienced. While the stories told in games today may seem immature or less refined compared to other forms of media, it is only due to the lack of time that video games have been with us. They will continue to evolve.

Rob: Like movies, game development is an extremely labor- and cash-intensive medium. And it's one where the cutting edge is always moving on. What can the exhibition teach game artists about how to express themselves on a budget?

Georgina: I hope that the exhibition will serve as inspiration for aspiring game artists and designers. We want to show people that this is an incredible field in which to work and that there are numerous different types of creative jobs involved. Interviews with the pioneers of the industry, such as Nolan Bushnell and Don Daglow, will serve as a reminder that in the 1970s and early 1980s, one person was responsible for every aspect of a game, from the code and visuals to the music and even the box art. It's interesting to compare the early days with what's happening now, as in some ways we have come full circle. Developments in online and mobile gaming have reached a point where it is possible again for a single person or small team to create and distribute entire games. By showing the progression of the medium over the last four decades the exhibition will, hopefully, give visitors an idea of where it might be going

The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be opening March 16, 2012 and be on display until September 30, 2012.