Video Games as Art

Originally published on Trevor Trove on December 27, 2015

Catherine and I arrived in Seattle on Wednesday for the holidays with her family. I was very much along for the ride so when they took us to the EMP Museum on Christmas Eve, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I figured we’d find something I could enjoy. As it turned out, I think I wound up enjoying the museum’s exhibits the most of anyone. In addition to exhibits on music and pop culture, they were also featuring an exhibit on the “Indie Game Revolution” (sponsored by Nintendo), which immediately piqued my interest.

The exhibit itself featured video interviews and some curator-produced summaries on the rise of Independent Game Development as a result of the shift to a digital medium removing the high barrier to entry that used to accompany game production. But the showcase of the exhibit was having many indie games on display and playable. I was reminded of games I meant to check out for Catherine and I to enjoy like Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime. I even played a round of Nidhogg with her.

The highlight, however, was sitting down to how do you Do It?: the simple game where you play as a young child and mash naked dolls together and try not to get caught. I sat down to show Catherine and her brother how silly the game was but received the added bonus of having a young girl (less than 10 years old) come up and watch me play this dumb game. The look on her face as I mashed the naked dolls together was absolutely priceless. And when all was said and done, I may have done it 82 times…and didn’t get caught.

The whole exhibit reminded me of a similar one from the Smithsonian that came through the Phoenix Art Museum a couple years ago: The Art of Video Games. That exhibit also featured a handful of playable game setups of games like Super Mario Bros.Pac-Man, and Flower. The main structure of that exhibit featured many of the different consoles over the years from the Atari to the PlayStation 3. Each console featured four games that fell into categories like Action, or Role-Playing Game and each game was shown through a video featurette highlighting notable aspects of that game and how it influenced the industry.

With that Phoenix Art Museum/Smithsonian exhibit in particular, I remember being amused at the idea that I essentially had a museum exhibit in my apartment. I probably owned 80% of the games featured in the exhibit and still owned nearly all of the consoles featured. As someone who has grown up with the industry and taken care in recent years to really invest time in learning the history of the medium, very little information in the exhibit was new to me. But I don’t think I’m the target audience of these types of exhibits; not directly anyway. I think these exhibits are great though as a way for people who do have a passion for video games and appreciate the art within to bring in our parents or grandparents who don’t. Watching non-gamers like the standard, stereotypical 60-year-old plus museum attendees visit exhibits like these and be exposed to the art and design that has gone into the last 40 years of this medium gives it a greater sense of validation.

When somebody tries to tell me “video games aren’t art,” I can respond “well the Smithsonian would disagree with you, and so do I.”

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