Monday, April 9, 2012

Inside the Exhibit

Getting inside the National Portrait Gallery isn't that hard. It's near the Gallery Place Chinatown Metro, so you can get there without too much of a hassle. On the top floor of the building you can finally find your way to the small corner that they've relegated for the Art of Video Games exhibit. You can even get a nifty book at the museum gift shop when it is all over.

Anyway, what can you find inside the exhibit?

Inside, you can find a little introductory hallway. It has the big video screen of familiar trailers playing with games from multiple eras, a brief history, and a really great display showing a variety of mechanics throughout gaming history. Like flight and climbing, for example. How far we've come since Space Invaders and climbing Donkey Kong's ladders.

The entrance to the exhibit. (Photos by Matt Sablan)
You've also got several consoles on display for people to get a feel for games. They had the original Pac-Man and Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo. Those two I understood. But, they also had Flower, which fits into the general feel of trying to talk about games as art. Also on display? The Secret of Monkey Island and Myst.

The next room has a wall of gaming history, from the pre-NES era all the way to, I believe, the PS3. Each of the systems there has a brief write up and some games there that really defined the system. You can quibble on some of them, but in general, they were right on.
Even had a Dreamcast, which was before its time.
The exhibit is kind of small, but it packs in a lot of details throughout. The companion book I linked above is a nice collector's piece, but when I flipped through it, I think it was somewhat lacking. For example, even though the exhibit itself represented the adventure genre very well, with both Myst and Monkey Island, the book lacks this entirely. In fact, as far as I can remember, it also does not mention any fighting games, which tended to do very good with the technology in their art at the time. I think one of the Street Fighters was the first game to not simply flip its sprites around, for example. They also gave us the wonderful job of differentiating between "True 3-D" like "Mario 64" and "two-and-a-half dimensions."

Another area they briefly touched on, with some concept art from games, but which if they had had more space I would've found interesting, would be in the art that goes into making video games. For example, on several wikis (like here), you have concept art for characters. I would have been interested in seeing more of that, but space is a real limitation. Plus, you can already find a lot of that stuff on the internet.

I was also impressed with their faces of gamers exhibit. It was kind of interesting to see, and I saw a lot of people stopping to watch the images rotate. I didn't stay for long there though.

Quite possibly the best system of its (or any) age.
It felt like less of a discussion on "Are video games art?" and more of a dissertation stating: "Of course video games are art." Which may be showing my bias, but I think it is almost impossible to argue otherwise. Like movies and plays, they are a collaborative effort. Like books, the audience (in this case, taking a fairly active role in the art), are crucial to the art's message. Reader-response theory is based almost completely around the idea that it is the reader giving the literary art any meaning what-so-ever. Video games take that to the next level.

Do you see what I did there?
If you're still reading this blog, you don't need me to convince you to go. It's short, sweet and you can wrap it in with a trip to see the Cherry Blossoms if you're strapped for time. You'll also get to learn about games you've never heard of before.

Plenty of people more qualified than me have written histories of video games. I think several of them have taken on a more personal story than merely a recounting of the history, with this one being my favorite. I think video games tell us about ourselves, and I think like any art exhibit, if you really go there with the intent to learn something, you come away with a better understanding of yourself. Even, if for me, it was just realizing I can still feel an element of wonder when jumping onto turtles.

Come back later this week when I'll post a few videos and ramble a bit more about art. Either way, now that the Smithsonian seems to think that video games are art, will they maybe receive some art funding?



While you're there, check this out.

Electronic Superhighway by Nam June Paik.

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