Spacey Invaders

Everson show looks at 40 years of video games

Chris Melissinos, the creator of the exhibit The Art of Video Games at the Everson Museum of Art, aims to make video games as respected as any other artwork and to open new experiences for people of all ages.

The Art of Video Games had its debut at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Although there was worry about how well the show, the first of its kind, would do, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, both in the video game community and in the mainstream art community. Opening weekend found more than 23,000 people coming to the show; over its seven-month run, attendance exceeded 680,000. In response, the Smithsonian Museum organized a 10-city tour for the show; Syracuse is the fourth stop.

The exhibit focuses on 40 years of video game history, divided into five eras: Start! (through 1982); 8-Bit (1983- 1989); Bit Wars! (1989-1994); Transition (1995-2002); and Next Generation (to the present). Each era showcases the evolution of the medium as a form of art.

The exhibit features more than 20 gaming systems, ranging from the classic Atari VCS to the PlayStation 3; more than 80 games are displayed through photographs and video. Five games are playable: Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., the Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. The gallery also includes video interviews with developers and artists, historic game consoles and large prints of in-game screen shots.

When Melissinos chose the games for the show, he was very careful. Each was from his own collection, but he didn’t want this exhibit to be “Chris Melissinos’ Greatest Video Game Hits.” Instead, he used the five eras and created a list of 240 games, based on their popularity.

art of video games

But you won’t find any racing, fighting or sports games. Melissinos focused on video games that lent themselves to storytelling. His list of 240 was opened to public voting, which whittled it down to a carefully curated list of four games per system, or 80 games total.

The five playable games were chosen solely by Melissinos because they did something different in that era, revolutionizing how video games were perceived by the public. Pac-Man, for example, was the first game to appeal to men, women and children, and it paved the way for subsequent games to expand and grow even further.

Melissinos explains why games aren’t generally accepted as art. “When games first arrived, they were delivered to children, and so nobody would take them seriously,” he says.

Yet the Everson isn’t only targeting a younger audience for the exhibit. Steven Kern, executive director of the museum, said the goal is to attract a wide range of visitors, hoping the Everson’s history and reputation has earned the trust of those who may be more hesitant to experience the show.

“You need that sense of trust in an institution so that curiosity is nurtured,” Kern says. “We’re going to be seeing inter-generation groups come to the show. We’ll have grandparents, kids and grandkids all coming to experience this show.”

Melissinos cited an arcade game from the 1980s, Missile Command, as an example of how to determine if video games are worthy of being a respected art form. The game was simple: Using a trackball, the player positioned a crosshair in the black sky and pressed one of three buttons to launch a missile that would explode upon reaching the selected spot. The objective was to destroy incoming missiles to defend bases on the ground. When the bases were destroyed, the game was over.

Few knew the story behind the development of the game, Melissinos explained. The developer drew inspiration from his life. It was during this time that there was fear about the Soviet Union launching a nuclear strike against the United States. The six bases in the game are meant to be representative of six cities on the California coast, the home state of the developer at Atari Inc. Melissinos says the developer was making a social observation and taking, a moral stance, like any other artist. The only difference is the medium in which he is expressing himself.

Kern was also quick to defend the idea of video games as art. “What other ‘product’ brings together visual arts, performance, music and technology in this way?” he says. “This is an amazing confluence of seemingly separate things that work together in the best possible way to engage people, and it’s been happening for 40 years. So, I think what we’re looking at is a tremendous art form that is incredibly powerful for its ability to engage and attract and to sustain itself so well.”

Melissinos is excited where the level of technology has brought video games as a medium for artists.

“In the past, the systems were too underpowered to describe the artistic vision of the developer and so in the early years games needed additional materials, such as manuals, comic books and maps,” Melissinos says. “Technology is no longer a limiting factor. Now artists will start to limit themselves; we’re already starting to see this with games such as Fez and Limbo. It’s not about rushing to realism anymore.”

The question is no longer whether video games are a respected art form. Instead, the Everson and the show’s creator aim to look past that question and focus on the games, artists, and developers that have created an enduring, growing, evolving medium.

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