“An amalgam of traditional art forms—painting, writing, sculpture, music, storytelling, cinematography—video games offer artists a previously unprecedented method of communicating with and engaging audiences.”
— About the Exhibition —
What do you know when you suddenly encounter your childhood behind a glass display case in one of America’s premier art museums? Is it that you’ve arrived? Or that you’re just old? It has to be a new phenomenon, no? With the fast pace of technological development, something that was created just forty years ago suddenly finds its place in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In some ways I guess it’s not surprising; it’s just another form of contemporary art. I’m talking about the current exhibit – running through September 30, so hurry – The Art of Video Games. It’s been up since the spring but I just got down there last weekend.
I kept looking around at the people there who were younger – in some cases much younger – than me, and wondering how they were taking it all in? What were they thinking? Was it, possibly, just a chance to try their hand at playing a game from antiquity – like Super Mario Brothers, or Pac-Man?
There was wide appeal:
The exhibit spans generations, stretching back to the early Atari systems and coming forward to the newest, latest forms of visual storytelling – systems I have never heard of, with graphics so rich and realistic they make it seem like playing Pac-Man was the gaming equivalent of entertaining ourselves with sticks.
The thing that most struck me in the early galleries was the sounds – that pre-digital, single synth note that one can, by now, only associate with Pac-Man munching his way around the grid. Or the bass crescendo when Mario attains the next level, the metallic ka-ching ka-ching when a coin is scored, or the exaggerated crumbling sounds when a wall gets busted through – each one an aural sensation generated by a keyboard synthesizer and some musician imagining what the future sounds like.
And then we rounded a corner into a subsequent gallery and I encountered this:
That’s when I realized I was seeing my childhood in a museum, an artifact that makes me remember, in vivid detail, the psychedelic pattern on my parents’ bedspread because the Atari was attached to the small 13″ television set in their bedroom; we stored it in the top drawer of the dresser on top of which the television sat, so it would be out of the way – this was part of our deal with Mom. Keep it neat and, more importantly, keep it out of the den. I remember the three of us, my brothers and me (and often our Dad), sitting all lined up at the foot of our parents’ bed, knees pressed up against the scalloped wooden footboard, inclining toward the television screen trying to eat the tiny blinking pellets before we encountered any ghosts.
Eventually we upgraded to Nintendo and moved the video games to the playroom, where we graduated to Super Mario Brothers, baseball, and eventually golf. Then things kind of fizzled out, at least for me. And yet, there I stood in the museum, these powerful memories something of a surprise. I stared down at a piece of my childhood that has now come to represent another place, another time. It’s become worth something more than memory. It’s part of our technological history, it’s music and science and story. It’s moved out of that top dresser drawer and entered the cultural lexicon. It’s become art – chosen, donated, preserved, and curated. I’m not what anyone would call a “gamer,” but looking down at that Atari system in its labeled glass case – it’s difficult to describe what an odd, and magical, feeling that was.