Touring The Art of Video Games Exhibit

There is a story I’ve written about my life through video games.  It will most likely never see the light of day.  It’s long, it’s tragic, it’s stupid and heartfelt.  It’s incredibly personal in the way that it is not just my story, it is your story too.  If there is any resonance, it is because it’s wholly un-unique.  Likewise, going to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s The Art of Video Games show in Washington, D.C. channelled the same feeling of community.

The gallery, completely free and touring here, hosted a wealth of amazing riches.  Original concept art, outtakes, old game covers, fan art, everything.  This alone is worth the trip.  You want to see some original WoW art, the pencil’s indentation on padded paper still visible almost a decade later?  Here you go.  Worms screen prints (almost ironically placed with honest-to-goodness museum caliber treatment)?  Just over there.

My personal favorite display was a set of simple video recordings showing people’s faces while they played, going through the full spectrum of emotions.  Every nuance exposed with a total lack of context.  Whatever game(s) they were playing was a mystery, leaving the joy, the strategy, the confusion, the crestfall to take center stage.  It was poignant and brilliant, encapsulating exactly why we play video games.

All this was in a relatively small room.  So much history in such a small space.  However, the next room is giant.  In this room were five giant displays, each one housing one playable game.  These titles were hand-picked and read like a Who’s Who list that engrosses gaming from 8-bit to modern.  The games were Pac-ManSuper Mario BrothersThe Secret of Monkey Island,Myst, and Flower.  Here is where the real magic was to be found.

Yes, that’s me dying on 1-1 in front of hundreds. Making GA proud, I’m sure.

Children, some the same age as my Playstation 3, walking around and playing titles older than me.  With parental joy, my beaming face looked down at kids literally standing in a 15-minute line to play Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man.  At the SMB booth, one looked up to me frustrated, asking “Do you even know how hard this game is?”  I did.  It was the first game I ever owned on the first system I ever played.  I knew the game intimately.  And yet, to him, this was alien.

Some of these kids had never played Myst, never heard of Monkey Island or never darted around in Pac-Man.  While this is certainly logical, stop and think about that.

Then, to see them play.  There has been so much ink spilled on the qualities of these great games; it’s certain they have experienced them in some way.  But, my goodness, if there ever was an argument for shared consciousness!   Simply watch a child play SMB for his first time (talking about how he’s seen it on the 3DS eShop, no less).  The game, so simple and difficult at once, is beautifully organic.  The controls are intuitive, the colors so familiar, the characters so iconic.  Just pick up the controller and run to the right.  Everyone knows how to play Mario.  He’s comfort food.

Without getting too much into these intangibles, it is the very essence of fun that pervaded those five playable games.  Exploration, chasing, running, growing and discovery are central themes, not aiming and clicking.  The disparity between great games and good games is bleedingly apparent when sat down right in front of them.  While these games all play wonderfully (perfectly, some would say), they all feel even better.  Those are my two cents; moving along.

In the next room, there was a kiosk for just about every major system you could think of.  With each system came four games, exemplifying a different genre so-to-speak: Action, Adventure, Tactics and Target.  These were accompanied by a nice, narrated movie explaining just what that game did for the genre and system.  I could easily have spent all day here, reading and listening to every last crumb.  Nostalgia welled up and heartfelt memories crept in, walking past those relics of yesteryear, seeing their relevance solidified in a museum.

So, yes, you should certainly get out there if you live in a city near one of the stops.  Don’t just get out there, think about what you see, learn and remember there.  If you can’t make it out, support it with some money.  Gaming is there for all of us.  A gallery this intimate and insightful shouldn’t be missed for any reason.

It is not so much the gallery that amazes, though.  As you can guess, it is the collective narrative we have in common.  The very same joys, successes, pains and failures we all have journeyed through.  Gaming is something that some people just get while others don’t, and there’s no shame in either.  But to be there, to pass the torch, to celebrate the future, was nothing short of magical.  All the threads of our yarn were present and accounted for, all the bricks in the monument were mortared.  If we ever feared that our past and history would be forgotten, we can rest easy now because we’re all in it together.

Written by: Nick Cane

Game writer, fervent lover of mac and cheese. Favorite games are ES4: Oblivion, Kirby's Adventure, Link's Awakening, Final Fantasy 8 and Mario Galaxy.