Throughout their relatively short history, video games have generally been viewed as nothing more than entertainment. Worse, they have often been associated with sensationalistic media taglines such as ‘violence endorsing’ and ‘mind-numbing.’ In short, video games have been regarded as an escape from reality and a waste of time. True gamers know that this is not the case. What’s been obvious to game designers and avid gamers for quite some time now, is that video games are an art form unto themselves. Games provide an immersive medium to convey stories, thoughts, feelings, and concepts. They’ve even been shown in recent studies to have positive effects on vision and brain function.The only problem is that the world as a whole has not accepted this yet. However, there is a major perceptual shift on its way that will change the way the world regards video games.
This past summer, the Smithsonian Art Museum showcased a three-part exhibit titled The Art of Video Games. This exhibit chronicled the development of video games throughout their approximately 40 years of development by grouping it into five eras: start, 8-bit, bit wars, transition, and next generation.
In the first part, the exhibit broke down development by mechanic and by era; examples were shown of how running, jumping, flying, and more have developed throughout the history of game design, to allow a visitor to grasp the constant features and single out the ones that change over time. In addition, users were shown commentary from game designers as well as materials used in game development (e.g. concept art).
In the second part, the exhibit showcased gaming in its purest form; visitors were given the opportunity to actually play the games. Pac-man, Super Mario Bros., Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower were chosen to each represent the eras from gaming’s humble beginnings, showcasing the evolution to the current generation. Visitors could read about each game, and then play to grasp what the designer was trying to convey.
In the last part of the exhibit, just about every home console from each era was staged. Alongside each system were videos about the four major types of games (action, adventure, tactics, and target) and how they were represented on the respective console.
All three parts of the exhibit, if examined, gave even the most video game-illiterate visitor a concrete and thorough knowledge of the development of games throughout history. In doing so, the exhibit taught visitors about the concepts used in game design, in order to convey the idea that video games, like every other art form, can channel emotions and ideas to the viewer (or in this case, the gamer).
An exhibit such as this is huge for the growth of a medium with such criticism. The Art of Video Games is essentially a declaration by the Smithsonian Institution that video games are an art form. When I visited the exhibit, there was a decently large crowd, despite the fact that it was in the middle of the week. While there, I spoke with one of the security guards, and he mentioned that this was a typical crowd for the day. This means at the very least, people are curious – and that is where the perceptual shift begins. The fact that people are visiting, and willing to learn more about video games (just as they would any other art form) alludes to a massive shift in perception as to what video games actually are. Considering that recent studies show that 63% of American households play computer and video games, it’s about time.
It really was only a matter of time – this shift from a novelty to art has happened with many art mediums previously. The theater, rock music, comic books – each of these was originally regarded as insignificant, a degradation of society, or worse. However, once a medium matures past a certain point, it gradually becomes an accepted art form.
It’s hard to tell whether or not games are a ‘mature’ medium yet. When we finally cross that threshold, be ready – then, we can all look forward to a new, beautiful golden era of gaming.
The Art of Video Games will be a traveling exhibit around the United States. For more information, as well as dates and locations, check out the exhibit’s web site.