Monday, March 26, 2012

The Art __ Video Games

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. recently opened a new exhibition: The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. It runs through September, then goes on tour. I arrived with high hopes: most regular consumers of video games have for years recognized their merit as an artistic medium, and it's great to see a real art gallery concur. Furthermore, flaunting the most artistic aspects of the highest-quality games is a great way to re-introduce the rapidly-changing industry to a wide swath of older non-players who often seem to define all video games by their shittiest, most addicting and violent elements. Unfortunately, I walked away sorely disappointed.

The show is basically divided into three sections. First, an introduction to the medium and a brief justification for the exhibit's existence. This area is eclectic and contains some cool concept art and quotes from game designers. Next, viewers have the opportunity to actually play some games: huge screens and modified controls are set up for legends like Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros., as well as more recent games like Flower. The final section, which comprises most of the exhibit, is a series of identical kiosks, one for each major game system (Nintendo, Xbox, etc.). A touchscreen lets the viewer watch game clips and listen to a brief analysis using a hand-held telephone speaker. Each kiosk sports four popular games from the system, one each for the following categories: 'action', 'target', 'adventure', and 'tactics'.

On the face of it, the exhibition suffers from three basic defects. First, there exists a strong focus on the gameplay mechanics and technical details of games, rather than on their artistic aspects. Innovations in graphics resolution and context-sensitive control schemes are interesting, but not really relevant. Compounding this is an unfortunate desire to provide mainly representative samples of games. Due to the restrictive nature of a gallery show, viewers are only able to get a small taste of a game relative to its length and richness. But instead of having this taste draw from the best, most artistically sophisticated moments of a game, we're supplied with boring screenshots and clips from mundane parts. And here's the thing: the best video games simply can't be broken down like that. People play for the peaks of enjoyment--the boss fights, the cinematic cutscenes, the particularly quirky or detailed rooms or characters. Incidentally (though perhaps not), these peaks also tend to be the most 'artistic' in the classical sense, and were unfortunately mostly absent from the exhibit.

This brings me to the second point: the poor use of the gallery format to showcase the artistic aspects of video games. Generally speaking, it's best to let the art do the talking in any show, which means limiting intervention to decisions about the order of works and to small white informational  plaques with vacuous blurbs. For art forms specifically designed with the gallery show in mind, this works pretty well. Visual artists want to differentiate their work, and so galleries are filled with a diverse assortment of art--paintings of different sizes and shapes, sculptures, etc. The problem comes with gallery shows consisting of art never designed for the gallery. If the exhibition topic is visually homogeneous (say, video games played on simple television screens), there exists a design challenge: how to convey the art's diversity and richness to the viewer? This exhibit certainly failed that challenge, and in spectacular fashion (20 identical plastic kiosks, really!?). There's great scope for exploring the capacity for gallery space to amplify the artistic value and diversity of video games, but instead the exhibition muted the artistry through dull homogeneity. Imagine the sublime voice acting of Bioshock booming through the gallery corridors, or the cinematic cutscenes of Blizzard enjoyed in a darkened theater setting. Many modern video games are filled with screenshots of such visual heft that they almost scream out to be displayed on a massive wall in some gallery, but instead we get tiny television screens.

Thirdly, the general failure of the exhibit to demonstrate the artistic aspects of video games is due in large part to the way it is organized conceptually. Essentially, the gallery is a list, compiled using two dimensions of analysis: time (past to future) and gameplay emphasis (action, target, adventure, tactics). Although employing a chronological structure is understandable for contextual reasons, I take issue with the equal weighting of each historical period. Frankly speaking, video games today are much more artistic than they were in the past. With access to higher informational content and processing power, there is simply more space for artistic pursuits within games (as well as non-artistic pursuits; video games are much longer now). As such, more gallery space should have been spent showcasing modern games. On a related note, as the video game industry has grown in size and prestige, its games have changed dramatically. We have games-within-games, narrative-based games, multiplayer games, sports and simulation games, etc. All of this complexity confounds and renders meaningless the categories used by the exhibition kiosks. Older, less complex games adhere to these categories better, but it begs the question: why, in an exhibition purportedly featuring the artistic value of video games, do we have an organization scheme driven by gameplay mechanics?

This brings us to the real conceptual problem: the muddling of the different dimensions of value of video games, preventing the distinctly artistic value to shine through. Usually when an art gallery picks some obscure topic traditionally considered non-artistic and does a show, it works pretty well. That's because the topic's other dimensions of value are relatively boring. Take motorcycles, for example. Say I wanted to do a show about the art of motorcycles. You can imagine it: exquisitely detailed and creative paint schemes, strange metalwork, etc. The show would probably be good, in part because it would be focused squarely on the artistic stuff. Motorcycles have other dimensions of value, but no museum-goer much cares about the safety, transportation, speed, or comfort of the motorcycles. But here's the problem for video games: their other, non-artistic dimensions of value are really interesting. Gameplay mechanics is interesting! The difficulty balancing and camera angle setup and controls stuff are really fascinating and worthy of thoughtful inquiry also. But that stuff isn't artistic per se, and shouldn't have dominated an exhibition marketed as showcasing the art of video games.

The bottom line seems to be this: the relation between the idea of art and the video games themselves was vague and confusing. The show had some good bits, but overall it seemed more suited to a 'history of video games' classification than anything else. So what would a more conceptually sound exhibition look like? Without trying to define what art really is, there seems to be an important distinction between the art in video games, and the art of video games. This distinction can best be described as a continuum, going from existing artistic categories to novel artistic categories. Let me explain. First, video games showcase a wide variety of art from many existing media (music, architecture, interior design, story, etc.). Second, video games allow the player to experience this art in new ways (musical cues based on player decisions, exploring the architecture of a virtual building, etc.). Third, video games also create new artistic categories (immersiveness, storyline linearity and replayability, etc.). There's certainly quite a lot of nesting within this continuum (many video games contain short films, which are themselves collections of other media), and I don't think it's possible to draw a strict line between any level. It's not clear what cinematography actually is, but it's a useful concept and over time the public has accepted it as a legitimate dimension of artistic value. Perhaps it's too big a job for a single art exhibition, but it would be great to see a show starting with areas like 'architecture in video games', or 'the music of video games', then gradually moving on to higher-level stuff like 'storyline interactivity' or 'multiplayer experience' in later rooms. And then you could get into the artistic movements...

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