The Smithsonian Says Games Are Art, OK

By Quintin Smith on February 15th, 2011 at 11:13 am.

From left to right: How I, Jim, Alec, John and Kieron see the world.

EDIT: OK! Looks like the Smithsonian’s site is struggling a bit. If you get an empty black space, just leave it. The voting application will load eventually.

Some things in life are certain. The sun will rise. We will age. Games will continue trudging their way towards being a globally respected medium like some decades-drunk bachelor trying to find his way home.

RPS reader Delirium Wartner sends word that the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC is going to be hosting an exhibition entitled The Art of Video Games which “will explore the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium”, and they want YOU (read: whoever) to vote on which games should make the cut. If you’ve got 15 minutes to spare, the voting process is easy and makes for a fun trip down memory lane. Most of the time, anyway.

Naturally there’s also a fair bit of “Wait, why is THIS game in here? Why isn’t THIS game in there? I can’t breathe! My soul is shrivelling up like a raisin!”, but for the most part the Smithsonian’s choices encourage nothing but a grin of fond remembrance. They’ve divided the candidates by platform, era and genre, and there’s usually at least one game in each category that I’d say is visually striking.

Where I expect things to get a little divisive is in the categories where classics like Deus Ex make an appearance. I mean, I’d be the last person to argue that Deus Ex didn’t contain some striking imagery…

(Exactly who commissioned that statue, anyway? Who thought it’d be a good image to provide for the employees of MJ12?)

…but I get the feeling Deus Ex is going to dominate its category purely because it’s Deus Ex, when Deus Ex was everything but a stylistically innovative game. And then there are the even more baffling choices. Baldur’s Gate II? Beautiful art, but horrifically cropped by the resolution limitations of the engine. Uplink? You want to try and show someone a beautiful screenshot of Uplink? In theory, the voting process will eliminate games with comparatively staid visuals, but in practice I can see people voting for the games they recognise and condemning hundreds of thousands of well-meaning strangers to stare at a real-life picture of Command & sodding Conquer.

Not sure quite why I’m being so cynical about this. Videogames in a museum! Hooray.

Any games in there you’re glad to see, readers?

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62 Comments »

  1. Meat Circus says:

    More bits = More art

  2. Brumisator says:

    Tony Montana commissioned that statue.

  3. Henk says:

    Wait, is ET for the Atari genuinly considered a candidate?

  4. Brumisator says:

    …Does the site show just a black screen for anyone else when trying to choose an era? (I tried chrome and firefox)

    • Cunzy1 1 says:

      Yep. Totally borked. :(

    • mda says:

      Firefox doesn’t work for me but Chrome loads it eventually (after a few minutes).

    • nofing says:

      It worked for me in Firefox, after deactivating adblock and waiting about a minute for each era.

    • de5me7 says:

      If you were trying to show case the artistic greatness, and history of video games, would you really short list these titles? I mean some of them have good visuals but..

  5. Bhazor says:

    I always thought Earthworm Jim was a bit of a looker. Even now it’s still full of character and charm that never got in the way of gameplay with no unskippable sequences of blocks of text. But picking it over Super Metroid? I’m sorry but no.

    It sounded great though.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhJtJD8OTQk

    Also: Moonwalker? Fuck that noise!

  6. Thule says:

    I registered, but the site isn’t loading for me. I clicked the Era1/2/3/4/5 buttons, but nothing happens.

  7. GreatUncleBaal says:

    I thought mine was buggered too (using Firefox), but it seems to just take a tremendously long time to load.
    Also, no Spectrum category? Boo.

  8. Ian says:

    Is Limbo of the Lost in there?

  9. Brumisator says:

    There are undoubteldy some off choices in there, as well as strange categories.

    some good surprises, too! But pitting uplink Hacker elite, a pretty obscure (but great) indie game against Starcraft is…hmmm….

    • dr.online23 says:

      Yeah but dont forget its an exhibition with a focus on the art sector, so probably don t take it to straight and go for the looks… uplink in my opinion is far more in a direction of artistic thinking then starcraft….
      ( i even like the style more … and someone can definetly see an artistic decission there… to go minimalistic… rather more then just have some nice state of the art-technic graphics)…
      so i know who should be presedient!!! definetly cthulhu

      end of line

  10. Alexander Norris says:

    Uplink? You want to try and show someone a beautiful screenshot of Uplink?

    Is that the goal, though? Uplink may not be beautiful but it’s still visually different – it’s got a fairly realistic computer-y look to it that no other game has done, so I can easily see where it would fit into an expo about game art.

    • sinister agent says:

      I think that’s a fair comment. Art doesn’t have to be beautiful or even particularly aesthetically pleasing. Something like Uplink could fit in there under a design perspective, or as an artistic style that creates a notably suitable mood for the game/story.

  11. Pardoz says:

    Sloppy reporting as usual. Nary a mention of the direct causal link between visiting art museums and the rise in sexual assault. *tsks*

  12. Marar Patrunjica says:

    The Void is missing
    Braid is missing
    Machinarium is missing
    Stalker is missing
    Metro 2033 is missing
    Amnesia is missing
    Zeno Clash is missing
    Time Fcuk is missing
    Mirrors Edge is missing
    (I could go on)

    …Command and Conquer appears 3 times

    what the hell?

    • Marar Patrunjica says:

      Also Call of freakin Duty appears 2 times,
      Mario appears lots of times
      Zelda appears lots of times

      I know these games are popular but is it really necessary to include Mario in ~10 different categories?

    • Premium User Badge

      FriendlyFire says:

      Well it’s a start at least? They’ll learn eventually.

    • sinister agent says:

      Re: Call of Duty/C&C.

      They probably know what they’re doing. Pretty much all museums have to include an artistically dubious, but popular item or three to cater to the more dabbly visitors. Also deliberately choosing something that will cause debate among sections of the more ‘niche interest’ visitors isn’t an uncommon practice.

  13. LionsPhil says:

    Wait what.
    ERA 1 looks like Yar’s Revenge, a game for the 8-bit Atari range.
    ERA 2, labelled “8-bit”, is Marble Madness, for the 16-bit ST/Amiga.
    And Bit Wars looks like Earthworm Jim, which was also for the 16-bit DOS/console era!

    I guess doing any research on the subject was too much work for a museum.

    • CMelissinos says:

      Oh, we did the research.
      Yars’ Revenge is VCS
      Marble Madness is the Sega Master System version
      Earthworm Jim is the Genesis version
      Toy Commander for the Dreamcast
      Super Stardust HD for the PS3
      All games are correctly cited for their respective eras.

    • TeeJay says:

      What is that “screen shot” for Baldur’s Gate 2 meant to be? I can’t remember anything like that in the game.

  14. Premium User Badge

    RaveTurned says:

    Psychonauts!!

    *vote* *vote* *vote* *vote* *vote*

  15. airtekh says:

    Voted.

    Some strange choices sure, but it’s great to see the likes of Psycohonauts, Grim Fandango and Darwinia amongst the heavy hitters.

    I was pleased to see Bioshock showing up too, because it’s one of only a handful of games where I’ve actually stopped to admire the scenery around me.

    I was kinda hoping Mirror’s Edge or Team Fortress 2 would be there as well but no luck. They’re also games in which I love the art style.

  16. DeliriumWartner says:

    A lot of people here seem to be taking Games as Art very literally.

    I don’t think the “art” has to be the visual components of the game. I’ve always considered Psychonauts, for example, a great piece of art, and some of that is visual, some is writing/acting, and some is how the game feels.

    Just because Uplink doesn’t give a good screenshot doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

    • Waltorious says:

      THIS.

      I was sure someone in the comments would set this straight. Thanks for stating it so well, DeliriumWartner.

    • TeeJay says:

      However the website says:

      “The Art of Video Games exhibition will explore the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers. We want you to help us select the eighty video games that will be represented in the exhibition. Remember, this is an art exhibition, so be sure to vote for games that you think are visually spectacular or boast innovative design!”

  17. Premium User Badge

    Zephro says:

    Yeah some really odd category choices. Why is DOS listed as 95-2000 exactly? :-S

    The entire period of the “bit wars” I was playing Dos, Amiga and the like. Very odd. Also the 1 in 3 thing is bizzare as I get 6 games I don’t like then 2 next to each other.

    Still being able to vote for Grim Fandango forgives all.

    Also i’d like to have seen some old Lucasarts games, Day of the Tentacle looked fantastic!

    • CMelissinos says:

      Because we had to stick to 20 platforms for the entirety of the show. We just could not have the PC in every era in which it existed. This has been an extremely difficult collection to curate, as a long time gamer, someone who has worked in the industry for over a decade, etc.

      But, we have chosen games that will allow us, regardless of the winners. I should also mention that the exhibition is designed to follow a narrative that shows the evolution of the form over time within four genres. It was structured this way so that the progression was obvious to the patrons and allowed them to see the evolution in a very obvious manner (i.e. Pitfall Harry and Nathan Drake in the same jumping pose) while explaining how technology, technique, and authoritative voice allows for a wide variance in experience while staying true to the mechanics of the genre.

      Again the exhibition is about the evolution of the art form, not just the games in and of themselves.

    • TeeJay says:

      @ CMelissinos “But, we have chosen games that will allow us, regardless of the winners.”

      Allow you to do what?

      Why haven’t you included any arcade games in your line up? For example you have the very poor graphics of the Atari VCS version of Pacman (this isn’t just my retrospective view as I had a VCS at the time and remember not being impressed by the Atari version of Pacman even back then). Why not feature the original arcade version of Pacman in your lineup instead?

  18. Premium User Badge

    frymaster says:

    eh, it’s games as art, not art in games, so as far as I’m concerned, uplink counts :P

  19. giohas says:

    They had Shadow of the Colossus, but not Ico? That seems a bit odd; they don’t seem to mind including multiple games from other series.

  20. IsenMike says:

    I have to choose between Grim Fandango and Fallout? NOT FAIR!

  21. Terraval says:

    Sounds similar to an exhibit I attended in Manchester at URBIS a year or so back. Very fun to experience, very gratifying to see videogames taken seriously as a medium.

  22. Da5id Jaz says:

    I feel it necessary to point out that the art of video games lies not in the visuals, but in the merging of the visuals, gameplay, and possibly a story or narrative together in a cohesive manner, much in the way that film is not judged solely on visual aesthetic, but also on its audio, its story, and the manner in which these elements interact. Not to mention that video games as an art must develop a unique qualitative dialog that reflects its development, its strengths and its weaknesses. One wouldn’t praise a painting for its editing, but to praise a film for editing makes perfect sense. Games cannot be judged solely on analogy to other media.

    Thats just the rant I needed to get out. I feel better now =]

  23. Bfox says:

    Minecraft is under “COMBAT/STRATEGY GENRE”, whaaaat?
    Alot of these games really do not fit the genre, need a much more sensible list going on…

  24. faelnor says:

    Their categories are borked, missing at least the real 16-bit era and early Windows gaming. Some of the games on the Amiga and the birth of 3D gaming on the PC really do deserve to be mentioned w.r.t. art. Also I’m pretty sad that we all know how this will end up:
    1 DO vote
    2 CHOOSE japanese game, blindly disregarding any artistic merits of the game
    3 IF there are multiple japanese games, CHOOSE in priority anything with Final Fantasy OR Metal Gear OR Zelda in the title
    4 GO TO next category

  25. Resin says:

    What about ET for 2600? The pure epic of that fail would become the golden poo standard for all the later games that failed at launch. A truly influential title.

  26. Commisar says:

    Already voted, but some of the choices were quite difficult, Fallout or Baldurs Gate 2???

  27. sinister agent says:

    The Settlers (Amiga, for the much better sound). Gorgeous game, wonderfully animated (It’s, what, 17 years old, and I can still sit there and just enjoy watching the little farmers work their fields, the woodcutters do their thing, the geologist doing his wonderful backflip, the fisherman sitting there doing nothing), and with lovely sound design and a brilliant, long, looping theme that never gets old. And in terms of design it’s practically flawless.

  28. Jimbo says:

    Seems like they should have called it “The Art In Video Games”. Video games can be ‘an artistic medium’ in their own right, but not because they have striking visuals people can look at and appreciate in isolation. That’s just striking visuals as art.

    I really don’t know how you go about exhibiting games in order to show how they themselves can be art. You can’t just show a screenshot or play it for five minutes – that’s like listening to one instrument out of a symphony, or tapping your foot to it for five minutes and expecting to understand the meaning of the piece.

    The end of Prince of Persia ’08 is my go-to example for ‘games as art’ (and plenty of people hated that ending!). Elika is dead, but the Prince is intent on bringing her back to life, even though it means undoing everything she worked for. The player at this point is almost certainly asking “This is selfish, why am I being forced to do this? This isn’t what Elika would have wanted at all – I’m better than this!”, and it isn’t until you miss the double jump you’re guided towards without even thinking about it -a simple task you have completed thousands of times by this point- and fall unceremoniously to the ground, that you realise *you* are the selfish jerk who has taken Elika for granted. You miss the double jump because Elika is no longer alive to help you do it. You’re just as guilty as the Prince is and you’re getting the ending you deserve. The Prince is a fraction of the man he was with her around, and that’s why he’s being so selfish and bringing her back to life. No other artistic medium could have achieved this, because no passive medium could have made the Prince’s mistake my own mistake and made me feel responsible for it. It was designed and executed flawlessly, using basic interactive game mechanics we see and take for granted all the time.

    This was somewhat long-winded (and I’m sure plenty of people didn’t take any of this from the ending at all), but my point with it is this: unless you’re prepared to sit down and play through the entirety of PoP, to the point where you are taking those double-jumps for granted and thinking of Elika as little more than a mechanic, without even realising you’re doing it, then that genius piece of game design at the end is always going to be utterly meaningless to you.

    PoP08 looks incredible, and you can show somebody a screenshot or let them run through a level and they might say “This looks incredible!”, but that doesn’t do it justice at all, and I question whether exhibiting games in this fashion does gaming justice either. Games can do far more than just look pretty. Games can achieve things that no other artistic medium can.

    • Foxfoxfox says:

      Glad someone brought it up – is this exhibition just about the visuals? If so – why? If ‘games as an artistic medium’ boils down to what they look like then.. why aren’t we just looking at the back of the box and shaking it around a bit to make it look like it’s moving? This is the ultimate multi-disciplinary artform – lets celebrate it as such.

  29. littlewilly91 says:

    So Quintin, isn’t there a chance they could be selected as art for reasons other than aesthetics?

    • Jason Moyer says:

      “Video games use images, actions, and player participation to tell stories and engage their audiences. In the same way as film, animation, and performance, they can be considered a compelling and influential form of narrative art.”

      That’s the first line on the Smithsonian’s page for the exhibit. Seems to me like they understand the artistic merits of gaming and aren’t just aiming for something aesthetically pleasing (in other words, fly).

  30. Springy says:

    What sort of nefarious evil-doer would put Chrono Trigger, A Link To The Past and Earthbound all on the same page? When there’s pages before where I feel like clicking on Super Mario Bros by default. BY DEFAULT.

  31. DOLBYdigital says:

    I’ll check out the site but will surely be disappointed with their selections since like you mentioned, many people will just pick the games they liked.

    Showing my diverse gaming palette here are some games that first spring to my mind when I think of aesthetics in gaming:

    - Okami
    - Aquaria
    - Muramasa, the Demon Blade
    - Odin Sphere
    - Machinarium
    - Zelda Wind Waker
    - MadWorld
    - Shadow of Colussus
    - Flower
    - Team Fortress 2
    - a couple others that are really bothering me since they are right on the tip of my tongue :)

    I do agree that some games are artistic for other reasons than their visuals.

  32. anotherman7 says:

    I voted for Grim Fandango and Wasteland. I love art.

  33. Nighthood says:

    They don’t have Mirror’s Edge, one of the few games which is genuinely breathtaking artistically.

  34. Sic says:

    Syndicate on the SNES and not on the PC?

    O_o

    Even as “art in games” and not “games as art”, I still think they’re missing a lot of games. Most of them do make sense, however, but the research behind this whole list seems very grounded in traditional art, which makes precious little sense for gaming art.

  35. zipdrive says:

    Why isn’t there a DOS option until ERA 4? Did they decide all the games were categorically ugly?