The Art of Video Games Exhibit at Smithsonian American Art Museum

Are video games art? This has been the subject of much debate in recent years, with people passionately arguing both sides. Given the controversy surrounding the topic, it came as a surprise when the Smithsonian American Art Museum announced it would  host a new exhibit: The Art of Video Games.

To select the games featured in the exhibit, curators put together a list of 240 games, broken up into different decades and spanning various gaming consoles and genres.  From there, they asked the gaming community at large to vote online, narrowing the list down to 80.  It was difficult for us to imagine an exhibit focused entirely on video games coming to fruition; yet, on March 16, 2012, The Art of Video Games opened up to the public.

The exhibition is a decent first attempt at showcasing what makes video games such an intriguing art form, but it suffers somewhat from being just a little too small.  The actual space of the exhibit isn’t too small–it just feels as though there isn’t much content to consume, as the entire Art of Video Games comprises just three rooms.  The exhibit opens up with the first room displaying some pieces of concept art from various gaming franchises, and a set of five video screens showing the evolution of gaming development.  This was by far the most interesting aspect of the exhibit; it not only gave you a sense of how much work goes into creating an idea for character or setting, but also the amount of work and skill required to translate that vision into a digital format. For example, concept art on display for Sonic the Hedgehog revealed that the game creators put an incredible amount of thought into even the most minor character details (even right down to the way Sonic’s gloves fit). Yet, in the first Sonic the Hedgehog game, he is nothing more than a simplistic, 8-bit sprite.  Being able to see how Sonic has evolved over the years as technology has improved was very fascinating.

Unfortunately, things start to unravel in the following two rooms of the exhibit.  The second area has kiosks set up where you can play Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Flower, and Myst.  Since video games are such an interactive medium, it obviously makes sense to allow people to play a little bit.  Sadly, the kiosks take up so much space that it feels like attendees are getting less from the rest of the exhibit.  The third room contains information on some of the 80 games that were voted on by the gaming community.  These information stations are broken up into different decades of gaming, and are then further categorized by gaming consoles, starting with the Atari and ending with our current generation of XBOX 360 and PS3.    Of the twenty consoles on display, each shows a set of four games that fit into different gaming genres.  Attendees have the option of watching a brief video about each of the games being featured, giving a bit more insight into what the game is about and why it is so important.  Not all 80 games are on display, but there is more information on each and every game in the book, The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect, which was compiled by the exhibit’s curator.

The exhibit was fun, but ultimately it might have dedicated just a bit too much space to the play kiosks and not enough to the rest of the exhibit.  The result was that some games couldn’t get shown, or that only a limited amount of concept art was on display.  Also curious was that there is no mention of arcade games throughout the entire exhibit–only games that were available on home consoles or personal computer.  Arcades and arcade games played a very major role in the evolution of video games, so it would have been nice to see a section devoted to their history and influence.

While the exhibit itself only required a brief walk through, the Smithsonian made sure that opening weekend was memorable with the addition of GameFest.  The lobby of the museum was transformed into a video game party as attendees were able to play various video games from different console eras, create pixel art, take video game-themed photographs, watch gaming-related movies, and even participate in a live action video game.  The live action video game was actually one of the highlights from the weekend, as it saw individuals dodging NERF balls, running through a moving gauntlet similar to platforming games, and even having to destroy oncoming enemies.  Each person got a number of “lives” that they could use to continue if they tripped up on a particular area of the course, and it was a lot of fun to watch people run through it and try to beat the game.

The Art of Video Games will be at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until September 30, 2012.  After that, the exhibit will be touring museums all across the country.  While we felt like there could have been more room dedicated to showing concept art or giving more information about the process that goes into making a video games, the exhibit as a whole is a step in the right direction.  It brings awareness to video games as an art form, shows the evolution of video game design, and will hopefully inspire others to see just how influential video games and their art can be in our society.  The Art of Video Games exhibit may not have everything that we wanted to see, but it will be remembered fondly as the start of something great.

[nggallery id=31]

Joseph Valenti

Founder of g33kWatch, Joe is the guy who makes sure nobody hurts themselves. Connect with me on Google+


  1. Looks like Doc MacKenzie assumed direct control of that game! Thanks for the review. I hope to get down there at some point to check it out.

    • Yeah definitely worth a trip down, just know that you’ll have to find some other museums to take a look at because this exhibit is very short. For us, we went to the natural history museum afterwards and had a great day =)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *