March 19, 2012 at 2:01 PM ET
"The Art of Video Games" exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened last Friday to much fanfare. It was a watershed moment for those who have long championed the cause of video games as art. But the final product did not meet expectations for some.
Visitors set social networks abuzz with how underwhelmed they were by the Smithsonian exhibit, a sentiment echoed by The New York Times. In "An Exhibition in Easy Mode," the showing was described as being "sanitized," "uncontroversial," and "rigorously unprovocative."
As the Times' Seth Schiesel elaborates:
"The Art of Video Games" does not represent the brash young cultural newcomer kicking in the doors of officialdom, belching loudly and declaring that he is taking over. Rather, it represents a humble penitent carefully putting on his least-threatening outfit and being allowed to take a place in the corner.
Schiesel goes on to explain that the curators, Chris Melissinos and Elizabeth Broun, were well aware of the huge deal in having a video game exhibition in the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian. But since this was the first time such an exhibit has been done by a major exhibition, they decided to play it safe, which is why there is no curatorial perspective and interpretation in their overview.
As reported previously, a public vote nominated the selection of games, which were then arranged into categories that helped to demonstrate how far games have advanced over the years, from "Pac-Man" to "Uncharted 2."
But perhaps due to the lack of curation, some glaring omissions came about, like the total absence of both "Tetris" and "Grand Theft Auto," the latter of which was not even an option for voting.
Additional complaints voiced by visitors over the weekend include the complete exlucsion of topics such as arcades, the popularity of Japanese games, and even the effect the Internet has had on gaming.
My initial concerns about the current show were its sort of lack of perspective. The strength of a curated show comes from the choice and arrangement of the works, and I worried that with a crowdsourced show like this, it would be hard to form a central thesis. What makes each of these games influential and how will those qualities come together to paint a moving picture of games as an art medium? I wasn’t sure this list particularly answered those questions.
To some extent, I think what Chris and the Smithsonian have done is very smart. They’ve avoided directly addressing the question of why are video games art, and instead danced around it, showing a number of wonderful games and explaining why each great. Despite this success though, I feel that the show was still damaged by the crowdsourced curation approach. While I agree that the player is a major component of games… the argument that because games are played by the public they should be publicly curated doesn’t necessarily follow for me, especially when the resultant list is so muddled.
No one believes "The Art of Video Games" is outright horrible, and most begrudgingly admit it's a first step for major art institutions acknowledging the legitimacy of video games. The real question is: Is it the first decent step?
Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on him via Twitter, or his personal home-base, FORT90.com.