Screenshot from the game Skyrim, showing an armored man standing atop a rocky hilltop

Review: The Art of Video Games exhibit

Location: Phoenix Art Museum
Exhibition Description:
Dates: June 16, 2013 – September 29, 2013

When it comes to video games, parental and other authoritative lamentations have long filled the air. This great weeping and gnashing of teeth has been directed at the supposed mind-melting properties of everything from Pac-Man to Master Chief, a sentiment which any gamer knows to be uncoupled from reality. More and more, however, respect for video games has been growing. As the average gamer ages, awareness of the potential for games to enhance cognitive functions and even improve the world has similarly developed. But acknowledgement of their potent artistic power has been somewhat more elusive. And so it was with great exultation that your author received news of The Art of Video Games exhibition opening at the Phoenix Art Museum. Finally, the time had come to put away childish things and embrace video games in all their glory. Or so I thought, and in doing so placed the herculean burden of somehow elevating the experience of video games to new heights upon the exhibition’s shoulders.

The exhibition turned out to be comprised of informational modules based on basically every console of any historical significance, from the Atari to the PS3 (with the result that you can find much of the exhibit in my closet). Interspersed between these modules were several massive interactive gaming units (featuring Pac-Man, Myst and Monkey Island), concept art, timelines and paintings. The exhibition provides a great feel for the history of video games as well as an understanding of how artistic concepts have been integral in their development, which is illustrated by at least two hours of explanatory content from experts in the field. It is undoubtedly educational, and offers an experience that would not be out of place at a quality history museum.

But I, and I suspect many others, did not go there for a history lesson. I attended the exhibition for a unique artistic experience, but the exhibition itself focused on elucidating the history of video games and the artistic principles involved in their making. But other halls in the museum are not filled with plaques detailing the childhood of the artists, or of posters explaining the kinds of brushstrokes the artists like to use; they are filled with the art itself. So was the video game exhibit, one might protest. Yes, but art is first and foremost an experience, and this experience only results from direct engagement with the art. For video games, playing Pac-Man in a crowded, noisy room for 2 minutes just doesn’t capture the experience of being immersed in the game.

This seems rather harsh, so it’s only appropriate that I should provide an alternative proposal of how a future exhibition could operate more effectively. Video games are specifically designed to be experienced alone or with friends, often over extended periods of time with considerable focus and relative relaxation. In other words, the average gamer has already erected the ultimate video game exhibition by virtue of lying on the couch and consuming Cheetos while Zerg-rushing. How can any professional artistic institution hope to compete?

There are two basic options here: (1) Build upon the standard experience or (2) Approach video games from a different direction entirely. Concerning Option 1, one can imagine games designed specifically for the museum environment in which the plot is minimal, the controls are simple, and yet something provoking, surprising or otherwise memorable and artistic occurs within a few minutes. This calls for the commissioning of a new type of art and a new type of video game. Imagine an exhibition where the paintings and sculptures have all been replaced by enclosed modules wherein one plays a uniquely crafted video game for a few minutes. Or perhaps the museum could present these games online. But issues of cost and the level of expertise required to create these types of games make such a shift in the art world seem far-fetched at best.

Option 2 is essentially what The Art of Video Games attempted. Perhaps they should make their framing more clear by renaming the exhibition The Art History of Video Games, and then double down on the history and/or artistic concepts common to both traditional art and video games. After much reflection though, I find the affair to be a bit hopeless. As much as I appreciate the nod, video games just don’t belong in museums. Greater success has been achieved in combing video games with music concerts, though some of the same issues exist there as well. I suspect that all future artistic developments will result from artists conforming to the world of video games, and not video games being forced into traditional institutions. I could be wrong, but for the time being I’ll stick to the tried and true method of enjoying video games: locking myself in a dark room until I run out of water and chocolate-covered pretzels.

Image courtesy of Tamahikari Tammas, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 license. Thanks Tamahikari!