Leveling-up at the Smithsonian
Images from "Super Mario Brothers 3" are part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "The Art of Video Games" installation.
March 16th, 2012
10:36 PM ET

Leveling-up at the Smithsonian

"The goal is not for us to put a stake in the ground and say ART!" said former Sun Microsystems chief gaming officer and Past Pixels founder Chris Melissinos.

And yet, Melissinos is the guest curator for the Smithsonian American Museum of Art's newest exhibit, "The Art of Video Games." That's right. Video games are now included in the leading art museum in the nation. What else could this mean but ART?

How about legitimacy for an entire generation of gamers who grew up playing 8bit games and weren't taken seriously by the rest of mainstream culture?

"It was intentional," Melissinos said. The medium of video games, after 40 years, is "worthy of examination as an art form," he said. It is also the first reflection of nerd culture within a museum that, Melissinos said, is arguably one of the arbiters of what is art  in the world.  The weight of the Smithsonian's stamp of approval not only starts a cultural dialogue about whether "Pitfall!" is art, but also what devotion to video games actually means.

The enjoyment nerds got from video games led them to "willfully devote part of our culture, part of our identity to games," he said, "but doesn't mean that there was no one else in the general population who could find meaning in these games."

Melissinos, who programmed his first computer game when he was 12 ("It was bombastic! it was awesome, of course," he said.) pointed out that playing games has been a part of human nature since we first started forming civilizations. And while games are tools that people use to establish social order, discover our world, make friends and explore boundaries, nerds have had a very specific relationship with video games, he said.

"When we created computers (and video games) we did something that is completely against the entire instinctual evolution of our species," Melissinos said. "We told people it was OK to play alone."

"Think about that for a minute. For all of mankind's existence on this planet, gameplay demanded the interaction between people. And for a very brief eyeblink of a moment in time, we told people that computers could act as a surrogate. Could act as a faux human to play against."

It was nerds, Melissinos said, who felt like this kind of gameplay was exactly what the future held for mankind.

There's also the projections of aspirations and dreams that many young gamers felt was an integral part of the medium.

"When you're 12, you have no control over your life," Melissinos said. "You are told what your bedtime is, you're told what you're having for dinner, you're told what kind of clothing you're allowed to buy, when your homework is due. You have all of the control about your life delivered to you by your parents, your school, these sorts of things," he said.

"But inside the computer I could be whatever I wanted to be. I could create stories and worlds and experiences that would bend to my will. That allowed me a voice. To someone who is powerless, power of this sort is an astonishing gift."

Indeed, the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Elizabeth Broun, called the worlds created in video games "beguiling," recognizing game designers as artists. But this exhibit doesn't exist solely because video games look pretty (although there is a companion picture book to the exhibit called "The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect.")

An interactive exhibit of video game art in the Smithsonian also functions as an artifact of gamer culture and reflects a truly unique ability of theirs, Melissinos said.

For example, if after humans are gone ("the zombie apocalypse?" Melissinos asks) aliens came down to the planet and found this video game art exhibit, they would learn that video gamers were trying to uncover intangible truisms about their world, he said.

"When we consider 'Super Mario Brothers' and discover a hidden block that is in midair - knowing that there are no hidden blocks within our air here - we are trying to find what it is hidden behind what we see and do," Melissinos said. "Many of the games we play try to tease the unexpected, the unexplored things that have not yet been revealed about our world."

Video games do this through a combination of perspectives: that of the designer, the tangible environment of the game while it's being played and the interaction of the player. Melissinos organized the exhibit so that the evolution of video game art over time was juxtaposed with the constant, inherited mechanics of gameplay.

"This is not designed to be an exhaustive compendium of the history of games," he said. "It is an art exhibition."

The intent of the game designer, the visual aspects of the game, the music, the environment and the game story all conspire to present the player with an experience, but video games do not become art until the player gets involved, Melissinos said.

"The Art of Video Games" will be at the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington until September 30, 2012, and touring the country after that.

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Peter

    16a13635158You actually make it aeappr really easy along with your presentation however I find this topic to be really something that I think I'd by no means understand. It seems too complicated and extremely huge for me. I'm looking ahead for your next put up, I will try to get the grasp of it! 18d

    April 9, 2012 at 5:18 am |
    • Hazara

      Should have stuck with Cheetamen as your fave and tripped eeyrvone out. I like the bloopers, you have possibly the cutest voice ever. We should get married and play River City Ransom all the time

      October 14, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  2. Online Work

    If you can get traffic to your website, you can generally make money online. Some know the secret, while others continue to struggle!

    April 2, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  3. ArtLover

    "Video games are now included in the leading art museum in the nation."

    This is probably nitpicking, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum is not only NOT the leading art museum in the nation, it's not the leading art museum in Washington, D.C. – that would be the National Gallery of Art, a non-Smithsonian museum.

    March 19, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  4. k

    Kony 2012!

    March 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  5. Lila

    What a great idea for an exhibit! I'd love to see that, it is art. The only funny thing is the way women are portrayed and side by side it makes all the "artists" appear to be 12 year old boys. Other than that, video games can be quite stunning. I love the fact it's interactive too.

    March 19, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  6. Spike


    Spike A love Story TOO:


    March 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  7. Pointe

    ""Think about that for a minute. For all of mankind's existence on this planet, gameplay demanded the interaction between people.""

    Sorry to burst your bubble after that dramatic phrasing, but Solitaire has been played since the late 1700s.

    March 17, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Chai Tea

      Sorry to burst your bubble, but Solitaire has no interaction between people (person plural). Hence the name "Solitaire."

      March 17, 2012 at 2:04 am |
      • MrB

        Heehee. Fail.

        March 19, 2012 at 8:49 am |
      • Think about it

        That was the point, Dearie. It must have gone right over your own personal "bubble" (head).

        March 19, 2012 at 10:57 am |
      • Omega

        I think what you meant to say was no interaction with "humans" period Solitaire being a game with yourself or against the mathmatical odds of the deck of cards, rather than against an opponent of programmed AI. But then again videogames engage the imagination and cognitive thought process so much that if your trying to figure out a complex puzzle in your head then your playing with yourself or against.

        April 4, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  8. Joe

    If you want art, look at a game called Starflight from way back in the 1980's... just wow.

    March 17, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • Chris

      Starflight? Ugh! My first PC game... oh how I loathed landing on a planet only to find the gravity was too strong and my ship crushed. Still, it was a wonderful game of exploration and adventure.

      March 19, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  9. John in AZ

    Anyone whose heart sank when Mario had to jump through fire traps to get to the Princess, or anyone who saw a 16-bit display after playing 8-bit games and thought "Wow, look at that definition!" Could have told you these things were art!

    March 17, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  10. Joe

    If you like video games, you must be a nerd.


    March 16, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • PantyRaid

      Joe if you like spinach dip in a sourdough bread roll, you must be g ay.

      March 16, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • Yelir

      Seriously? "If you like video games, you must be a nerd." What the heck is your issue? If you think that, then you the heck did you leave a comment? Get a life, idjit.

      March 16, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
      • Tes

        I believe Joe is trying to be ironic.... not serious...

        March 16, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Debbie

      I was a nerd like you once, then I took an arrow in the knee.

      March 17, 2012 at 12:03 am |
      • hammertime

        damn you............. lol

        March 17, 2012 at 2:00 am |
      • Cadillacjoe

        I'm such a nerd, I got the Skyrim reference!

        March 23, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Marine5484

      I like video games so I guess I'm a nerd....so how would it feel if you had you head kicked in by a nerd lol.

      March 17, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • sparky

      2 billion people who play video games.

      March 17, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  11. Todd in DC

    I was a geek in high school. Always was a math geek. Then I went to college at Johns Hopkins. Then I got a masters degree in math at NYU.

    Now I'm making 100 grand as an actuary working for the feds, and own a 1/2 million dollar condo outright.

    And being geeky is a bad thing... why?

    March 16, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • PantyRaid

      Why condo though? It's a glorified apartment.

      March 16, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
      • hammertime

        nope....... just an apartment............. nerds call them condos

        March 17, 2012 at 2:02 am |
      • Cristina

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        April 9, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Debbie

      ...because without your money, you wouldn't get laid by a hot girl?

      March 17, 2012 at 12:02 am |
      • hammertime

        or guys?!?

        March 17, 2012 at 2:02 am |
      • Starcraftre

        Obviously, you've never seen the FragDolls...

        March 19, 2012 at 10:02 am |
      • Mariam

        16a13635108We're a group of volunteers and onpeing a new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with valuable info to work on. You've done an impressive job and our whole community will be thankful to you. 18d

        April 9, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Chugger

      And you feel the need to talk about it why? Sounds like you're pretty socially awkward to me. Probably spend a lot of time on backpage looking for escorts. Too bad.

      March 17, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • And the answer is...

      Because you tend to compose fairy tales and post them online.

      March 19, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • You're no big deal

      Actually, a salary of $100 grand and a half-million dollar 1 bedroom flat in D.C. is quite ordinary.

      March 19, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  12. Homey

    Actually, Jason, many so-called "nerds" or "geeks" wear the name with pride and outwardly display their "cred" in the form of inside jokes or homages to the nerdy and geeky things of their lives, past and present. Also, to call it a "fadfest" seems to suggest that geekiness will die out after a short time, while the concept of geekiness and pride therein has been around for some time, far outliving other things that were actual fads.

    Or alternately, you are referring to the tendency of self-classified geeks to glom on to ideas or products that are themselves a fad, to which I would respond isn't that all that mainstream popular culture itself does?

    While I agree that the curators may be over-analyzing some aspects of geekdom, I personally appreciate the attention that video games are getting as a legitimate art form that can combine visual, dramatic, and literary aspects. Not all games, mind you, but some can definitely be classified as art.

    March 16, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  13. Spike

    Spike A love Story TOO:


    March 16, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • Thomas

      You posted this twice. We still won't be going to that site.

      March 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  14. Jason

    Um, one does not "level-up" when playing Mario.

    Also, nerd and geekism is the most appalling fad crapfest in the history of all media. Geezus, it makes people embarrassed to even admit to liking anything that might associate them with this garbage.

    March 16, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • chris

      Thank you, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks this.

      March 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  15. Blake

    The use of the word "nerd" in this article is quite derogatory and exposes an underlying bias.

    March 16, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • Stephen

      Nerd is not a derogatory word, it is a badge of honor.

      March 16, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • Unknown

      Nerd is someone who is not social but very intelligent!

      March 17, 2012 at 12:05 am |
      • Starcraftre

        Define "social." Online gaming allows access to and the development of relationships with thousands of people from around the world that people who rely on face-to-face communication would never encounter. Many gamers are the new definition of social.

        March 19, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Pointe

      Nerds are not necessarily more intelligent. Because of the hole in their life they spend more time reading and working problems. That simply makes them more knowledgeable.

      March 17, 2012 at 1:27 am |