Last week I visited “The Art of Video Games” exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s an ambitious attempt to give an overview of the medium’s development from it’s inception to the present day. It’s difficult to do justice to an entire medium in the space of a few galleries. Major blindspots exist (like the arcade and handheld scenes) and philosophical questions (such as the difference between narrative and ludic storytelling approaches) get flattened out in the interest of making the exhibit approachable for a wide audience. Regardless, it’s pretty neat to see a video game exhibit in the same building as Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington portrait.
Most of the exhibit used video and static artwork to demonstrate the featured games, but my favorite gallery was the one with playable games. I don’t think I’ll blow anyone’s mind by saying that the best way to understand video games is to play them, and I think the chosen titles served as a good sample of the best the medium has to offer: Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. Visitors weren’t simply playing these games, they were experiencing the interactivity that makes games unique and taking part in the generational and social dynamics that have risen up around the medium.