The Art of Video Games
The Supreme Court ruled last June that video games should be considered an art form, as deserving of First Amendment safeguards as “the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them.” Chris Melissinos reached that opinion some 30 years earlier, as a teenager plugging away at King’s Quest on a neighbor’s PC.
The game’s hand-drawn animation and two-word typed commands seem crude now, but “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a fairy tale come to life,’” Melissinos says. He still gets goose bumps remembering hidden warp zones in the first Super Mario Brothers.
Now Melissinos is the guest curator of “The Art of Video Games,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that celebrates 40 years of the genre, from Pac-Man to Minecraft. The show will include video-game screen shots, videotaped interviews with game designers, vintage consoles from Melissinos’ personal collection (“I’m having a bit of separation anxiety,” he says) and several opportunities for visitors to seize the arcade joystick or PlayStation controls themselves.
Not all of the 80 featured games recall classic film or literature. Attack of the Mutant Camels, for example, stars fireball-spitting dromedaries. Nonetheless, the exhibition, which runs from March 16 through September 30, contends that games offer much more than a chance to mow down armies and plunder cars. Gamers can till fields, build hospitals, steer the wind. They can be inspired to feel guilt or joy or moral ambiguity. They can be transformed instead of just distracted.
Indeed, video games may be the most immersive medium of all, in Melissinos’ estimation. “In books, everything is laid before you,” he says. “There is nothing left for you to discover. Video games are the only forms of artistic expression that allow the authoritative voice of the author to remain true while allowing the observer to explore and experiment.”
Melissinos grew up with the first games; he later became chief gaming officer at Sun Microsystems, and he is now vice president of corporate marketing at Verisign, a network infrastructure company. He has seen the clunky aliens of Space Invaders and the two-dimensional damsel in distress of Donkey Kong morph into Bioshock and Zack & Wiki. Today drops of animated rain dot computer screens, and characters leave reflections in puddles; it’s like watching cave painting become Impressionism in just a few decades, he says. Games are in many respects converging with movies (which, in their infancy, were also belittled as non-art, Melissinos notes). Designers employ photo-realistic environments and motion-capture technologies and commission original scores.