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.
I watched two kids, both under 10, trying to play Super Mario Bros. They were thwarted by the very first goomba in level 1-1. After the game over screen, their dad picked up the controller and proceeded to make a flawless run through the level, going so far as to inch Mario to the very edge of the last tower so that he could get a running start and score a 5000 points at the flagpole. He gave the controller back to his kids, grinned at the docent, and said something like, “Yeah, I used to play this a lot.” He then stood behind his kids as they applied some of the techniques they saw him perform.
At the Pac-Man station, a mother was taking pictures of her daughter playing the game. Seeing as how it was probably the first time this young child had ever used an actual joystick, it made for a cute photo op. As the kid bumbled her way through the maze, her mom took pictures and explained the rules. “Alright, now run away to that corner and eat that big one! Now you can eat that ghost…quick, he’s blinking!” Soon, the deaths became less frequent, and her daughter even started luring the ghosts towards her to strategically eat them all with a well timed super pellet. The mom went on to tell her kids what the arcade cabinet was like and how she and her friends would compete for high scores when they would go out to eat.
It was a beautifully surreal scene. People who had grown up in the 1980s and 1990s—now faced with the reality of seeing parts of their youth in a museum—were passing along knowledge to the next generation. Of course, something like this tends to happen in museums: kids ask questions about exhibits or paintings and adults try to explain the meaning and significance of the objects. In The Art of Video Games exhibit, the artifacts were more than just historical abstractions. The adults had a personal connection to these things. They had lived through this history. They had a direct cultural and physical familiarity with them and were able to share their knowledge in order to measurably impact their kids’ understanding of how these games worked and why they were special. This wasn’t just the distillation and transfer of rote knowledge. It was the spread of personal experience and techniques.
The Art of Video Games exhibit reinforces the medium’s unique combination of art and sport. Playing Pac-Man for the first time is like viewing a famous painting but also like learning to throw a baseball. Multiple levels of knowledge and skill are required to appreciate a video game: one has to be aware of the context in which it was released, the parameters of the technology used to create it, the influence of its artistic style, how the mechanics work to create a systemic experience, etc. Imparting this knowledge is difficult (if not impossible) to do with a series of placards or videos, so the exhibit makes use of the people who lived through this history. Thanks to the exhibit’s playable demos, the first generation of people who grew up with these games can augment the formal museum structure with more organic knowledge.
As is the case in any museum or in any historical account, The Art of Video Games has its share of omissions and oversimplifications. Modest and imperfect as it is, the exhibit is still valuable because it goes beyond simply preserving and displaying historical artifacts. It lets people maintain a connection and a sense of ownership over their history by empowering them to impart it to others. Kids who visit the gallery with older folks will not only learn more about video games and video game history, they’ll learn about the people who grew up along with the medium.
The sound of the gallery was teeming with various beeps and boops coming from the games, but it was also full of vocalized memories: “Remember when we bought our Atari?”, “This was the first game I ever played!”, “SimCity was such an amazing game!” And maybe, if you listen closely, you’ll hear a kid begrudgingly admit that Mom is pretty good at Pac-Man, and that these games are actually pretty neat.