The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect - book and Smithsonian exhibition

A major new book on the art of video games was released today to coincide with the opening of an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The show curator, Chris Melissinos, is also the co-author of the book, titled, The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect.
In the forty years since the first Magnavox Odyssey pixel winked on in 1972, the home video game industry has undergone a mind-blowing evolution. Fueled by unprecedented advances in technology, boundless imaginations, and an insatiable addiction to fantastic new worlds of play, the video game has gone supernova, rocketing two generations of fans into an ever-expanding universe where art, culture, reality, and emotion collide.

As a testament to the cultural impact of the game industry’s mega morph, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with curator and author Chris Melissinos, conceived the forthcoming exhibition, The Art of Video Games, which will run from March 16 to September 30, 2012.

Melissinos presents video games as not just mere play, but richly textured emotional and social experiences that have crossed the boundary into culture and art.

Along with a team of game developers, designers, and journalists, Melissinos chose a pool of 240 games across five different eras to represent the diversity of the game world. Criteria included visual effects, creative use of technologies, and how world events and popular culture manifested in the games. The museum then invited the public to go online to help choose the games. More than 3.7 million votes (from 175 countries) later, the eighty winners featured in The Art of Video Games exhibition and book were selected.

From the Space Invaders of the seventies to sophisticated contemporary epics BioShock and Uncharted 2, Melissinos examines each of the winning games, providing a behind-the-scenes look at their development and innovation, and commentary on the relevance of each in the history of video games.

Over 100 composite images, created by Patrick O’Rourke, and drawn directly from the games themselves, illustrate the evolution of video games as an artistic medium, both technologically and creatively.

Additionally, The Art of Video Games includes fascinating interviews with influential artists and designers–from pioneers such as Nolan Bushnell to contemporary innovators including Warren Spector, Tim Schafer and Robin Hunicke.

Combat © 1978 Atari Interactive, Inc.

Zaxxon © SEGA.

Super Mario Brothers 3 courtesy of Nintendo of America, Inc.

Flower courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment America LLC.

From The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect, By Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke. Compilation © 2012 Welcome Enterprises, Inc.

Buy The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect on Amazon.


  1. I hate bad pixel art. What the heck is going on with the cover there, with Blinky’s eye in particular? Maybe part of some new version of Pac-Man with variable-sized pixels that don’t all live on the same grid?

    1. What about the blaring misaligned part at the lower left?!

      EDIT: actually, I think Blinky is just staring at that weird-as-heck “pixel” font there…

      Kind of reminds me of the full-screen promo art for old shovelware titles that were drawn over in Paintbrush or whatever

    2. When you click through to Amazon, you’ll notice that the actual cover shown there is grid-aligned (and uses partially other colors).

      There’s also an “Item Under Review” message there, “because customers have told us there may be something wrong with our inventory of the item, the way we are shipping it, or the way it’s described here”.

  2. Please explain how this is a “A major new book”  – I mean anyone can say that but a bit of proof would be good.
    Does it mean it has got lots of pages or the content has proven the test of time and is considered important?

    1. It is an art book published by the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art, effectively the national museum of art for the country.  They are officially recognizing video games as an art-form….that strikes me as pretty major.

      Exactly what qualification were you looking for?

  3. Wow, haters gonna hate. Use your energy to write your own book or organize your own exhibition.

    1.  The spreads aren’t horrible, but the cover was rage inducing…

      I’m a more traditional artist enrolled in an MFA program that is focused on arts and technology (i.e. videogames, animation, etc.). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost ragequit over a so called “MFA” (MASTER of Fine ARTS) explicitly state something along the lines of “I don’t know much about art” or “I don’t really know ‘design principles’, but…”.

      It drives me crazy that there is this passion or drive to push videogames into the realm of fine art while there is a simultaneous blatant disregard for art/aesthetics/design.

  4. Went to this exhibit yesterday and wound up staying the entire day!  They had a lot of different FREE events including a live action video game, a string quartet playing video game music and a screening of King of Kong: Fist Full of Quarters.  Billy Mitchell, Walter Day and Steve Sanders were there as well. 

    The exhibit is nice, but you have to go in realizing that this is more about the progression of the art with improving technology rather than the game play.  The book enhances the experience because you get interviews with game developers, artists and composers.  I personally thought it was very well done and Chris and Patrick are so enthusiastic about this project.  I was lucky enough to meet them yesterday and they took time to answer questions and sign my book.  A lot of effort went into this!

    The book at the very least makes for a great coffee table book that will start great discussions and bring back lots of memories. 

  5. was there on saturday, didn’t stay long. i think i was expecting more on how the games are made–you know, more on the music, more concept art, etc etc. the only think i really found interesting was how it felt to look at pieces of my childhood re-contextualized behind plexiglass, as an actual museum exhibit.

    someone told me they had designed the exhibit with people who aren’t gamers in mind. i’m not sure i believe that. it felt more masturbatory, especially with the sort of stuff they were selling in the giftshop. they had a museum copy of this book in the last room, and i flipped through it. book and exhibit were both sort of underwhelming. i’m not saying it’s bad, and it may be that i just don’t “get it.” but i clearly wasn’t the target audience, and i love both museums and video games.

    1. I don’t think you were going to get that kind of exhibit in an art museum.  Possibly in a history museum or a technology museum, but this was about the art, afaict.

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