Smithsonian Adds Games To Its American Art Collection

By Graham Smith on December 18th, 2013 at 6:00 pm.

One art, please.

The Smithsonian are inducting two games into the American Art’s Collection, recognising videogames as “crucial to our understanding of the American story.” They’ve even gone so far as to select two interesting games for the collection: Flower by thatgamecompany and Halo 2600 by Ed Fries. The latter is a de-make of Halo built and released for the Atari 2600 in 2010, though there’s a Flash version also.

As reported by Wired, the inclusion follows on from the museum’s 2012 exhibition of videogames. I’m a little in love with the post explaining the two games now included in the permanent collection, and it has nothing to do with the medium being patted on the head by a traditional institution (though that does make me feel warm and loved). Rather, I’m pleased that Flower and Halo 2600 aren’t being included solely for conforming to some traditional notion of ‘arty-ness’ – though they do – but seemingly through an understanding and appreciation of the qualities particular to videogames.

From that post:

“”Introducing these two games to the permanent collection simultaneously is notable,” said Michael Mansfield, the museum’s curator of film and media arts. “Whereas they may have dramatically different visual approaches—the lush and emotional landscape of Flower versus the elemental figures and mechanics of Halo 2600—these works taken together stake out the rich creative and conceptual potential in video games.””

In 2012, the museum organized The Art of Video Games, an exhibition that identifies video games as a new mode of creative expression. Following on that research, the museum’s media arts initiative is exploring ways to fully represent interactive and code-based video games in its permanent collection of film and media artworks. Video games articulate a compelling avant-garde performance space, activated by artists and players alike. These media art practices are distinct from film, video, and theater and mark a critical development in the history of art. They are crucial to our understanding of the American story.”

[…]

“While visually beautiful, Flower also demonstrates the importance of the interactive component. The work cannot be fully appreciated through still images or video clips; the art happens when the game is played.”

[…]

“In Halo 2600, Fries recreated Halo for the 1977 Atari VCS (more commonly known as the Atari 2600), distilling the essence of the action game to its elemental parts while also paying homage to the classic elegance of early game design. The resulting experience compresses the complex, contemporary game into just 4K of RAM, creatively reversing the dramatic evolution that video games have experienced during the past four decades. Commonly referred to as a “de-make,” Halo 2600 deconstructs the gamers’ visual and virtual experience and returns game play to its most basic mechanics. Through Halo 2600, Fries illustrates the ever-changing relationship between technology and creativity.”

The Smithsonian are still exploring how they might best display the works in a museum, but the comments above suggest they’ll be made playable. That would be different from MoMA’s videogame exhibit, which approached its fourteen selected games as “interaction design” but displayed some of them as non-interactive videos.

Games have been getting accepted into museums for a few years now, but I’m excited by the comments above because it suggests that traditional institutions are rapidly gaining a better understanding of what makes the medium special. A few years ago, the Smithsonian might have selected Myst and called it a day. Now they’re talking about mechanics and player performance.

What games do you think Smithsonian should include next? Don’t think of it in terms of, ‘Which games qualify as art?’. Instead, what games when placed in a museum setting would further communicate the aspects outlined above? I’m going to go for N+, the platforming mechanics of which induce players through play into performing an elegant dance around its machinery of death. Also it has a ninja and lasers and missiles and explosions and shit. VIDEOGAMES.

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24 Comments »

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  1. Heliocentric says:

    What makes a good playable exhibition? What does in games that other mediums can’t? Hmm…

    What’s the side on sword fighting game we had at the RPS Manchester meet up?

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Nidhogg is the game which still hasn’t been released, despite an announcement that they planned to do so this year.

      • Heliocentric says:

        Nidhogg is art.

      • Reapy says:

        Based on what it looks like I don’t get the delay at all, I feel like someone could whip up this game in like a month or less in unity.

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          Go on then.

        • arsenalagent says:

          I try not to be too grumpish about delays when it comes to small projects like these (I feel many people tend to underestimate just what it takes to get a game of even modest means like this one just right and than get it distributed), but having updates on the status of a project always helps. What irritates me about Nidhogg is the lack of updates (even the official site contains literally nothing informative) which seems to indicate unconcern about the fact that people are still waiting to play this game and also makes that wait feel all the more interminable.

  2. jt29 says:

    Great news and perfect timing too. I’m a Museum Studies student and my dissertation is going to be on exactly this topic. The more ninjas and lasers and missiles and explosions and shit I can smuggle into the world of academia the better.

    Besides the obvious ‘important’ games (milestones like Tetris, Halo, Minecraft etc.) I can’t think of a decent suggestion off the top of my head, but the thing that fascinates me isn’t the possibility for getting whole games into a museum, but creations within those games made by players. Virtual economies like EVE and so on are only going to get bigger and crafting elements are going to go the same way. Games have already started developing their own virtual material culture, bought and sold with real currency. It’s not so difficult to imagine museums of the future collecting these virtual objects alongside tangible ones. They’ll provide just as much evidence of early 21st century culture to a future researcher as more traditional collections.

    • boundless08 says:

      +1 to EVE. I was thinking freelancer, but that’s just because I’m biased!

    • drinniol says:

      Oh god, the EVE economy does not paint a pretty picture of 21st century culture. It’s more a 19th century mindset.

  3. DatonKallandor says:

    I’d go with Antichamber, because a non-gamer would be just as mind-screwed as a gamer by it. Plus it’s not a shooter, very abstract and cerebral. The best parts of gaming.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Matt_W says:

    An interesting question is who they’re communicating with here. An exhibit of games for people who actually play them can include self-referential content involving game mechanics and narrative contrivances that are typical for games, e.g. the way that the first level of Super Mario Brothers teaches you how to play the game without you noticing it. Terraria, for instance, provides an homage to a classic look-and-feel while simultaneously creating opportunities for novel gameplay. Dwarf Fortress would be totally impenetrable to a non gaming audience. Don’t Starve, I think is genius, but hard to explain to a non-gaming audience.

    For non-gamers you’d want to have stuff that’s visually compelling and easy to parse (hence flower.) I think Thomas Was Alone qualifies; it’s beautiful and accessible, boils gaming (platforming) down to its essence, and reveals how narrative informs the interactive experience.

    And I’m not sure what they mean by code-based video games.

    • wwwhhattt says:

      Maybe code-based instead of made in gamemaker/Multimediafusion or stuff like that?

  5. Zonker says:

    I’d think the recent examples of “narrator-driven” games would be good candidates. We had examples of games with smooth mechanics, which would work on their own, but got most of their soul by their narrators – like the Portal series or Bastion. They were dynamic, too, sometimes reacting to player actions.

    Then we get games like Thomas Was Alone (as Matt_W also mentioned), which wonderfully managed to create characters from simple shapes in an also simplistic environment and gameplay.

    There was also Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (and the Tiny Tina DLC of Borderlands 2), using narration to compose the levels and events by or even changing them afterwards, allowing the player to experience a different version of what happened.

    And last but not least (and this may be obvious) The Stanley Parable, in which the narration is not only an integral part of the fun, but also the subject of itself, more or less.

    In all these games narration wasn’t just happening somewhere in cutscenes and cinematics or buried in bits of lore in collectables or some dialogues, it was an essential part of the game and the experience. These are stories, voices and games that I will remember for quite some time, I think. And this can be shown as an interactive exhibit as well, I’d imagine,

  6. Geebs says:

    I’m afraid all I learned from this is that Ed Fries doesn’t know why Halo was good

    • Nick says:

      Co op?

    • Soci says:

      I have to agree with this. Where’s the shield mechanic or the iconic Warthog? Where’s the different weapons or some semblance of mimicking Halo’s enemy A.I.? Seems like barely any effort at all and more a novelty than anything else. I’m sure there are better examples of how far we have come. If games are going to be classified as art that’s great but I guess this is the equivalent of Tracey Emin’s bed.

  7. Premium User Badge

    jrodman says:

    Re: hacks on the atari 2600, i have this to say:

    aTaRSI: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXWyUUQ2EtI
    Ataventure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOP5K8nrS3w

    These may not seem interesting to those who haven’t spent much time on the 2600, but to those who have…

    in case it isn’t clear, there’s no way to, for example, calculate what should appear on the screen ahead of time, because it’s impossible to store the amount of data that the screen will contain. Instead you have to decide what to do with the display as the electron beam is scanning that portion of the display.

    Of course these demos cheat a bit by making the entire rom decide lots of things ahead of time specific to the program. But it’s still amazing.

    Programming for the system was always a bit of an adventure, but doing these sorts of full-screen algorithmic things is a feat and a half.

    —-

    Meanwhile the article is inaccurate, halo 2600 doesn’t have 4k of ram to work with. The TIA design of the VCS had 128 *bytes* of ram. A typical cartridge size was 1K 2K or 4KB of rom though.

    • Geebs says:

      Those demos should definitely be classified as art. Like a lot of the demoscene, they brilliantly encapsulate what going through puberty is like.

  8. fish99 says:

    Someone is going to have to explain to me why Halo 2600 is art, or even a good game. I’m sure it’s a impressive technical accomplishment, but it seems like a horrible frustrating experience to me, like the majority of 2600 games. Actually, playing it reminds me of how few 2600 game were actually fun.

    • lokimotive says:

      Well, as it says, “Through Halo 2600, Fries illustrates the ever-changing relationship between technology and creativity.” It’s not really about ‘fun,’ per se, so much as an illustrative example. With it, it seems they want to show how people take inspiration from something new and interact with from a cultural perspective.

      • Eukatheude says:

        Yes, but why this game? There are plenty of other, better made demakes that were probably released before this one.

        • lokimotive says:

          I would guess that part of it has to do with the exposure it got. Also, the fact that Ed Fries went so far as to design it within the constraints of an Atari 2600 cartridge.

  9. Darth Gangrel says:

    I’d suggest Deus Ex 1, both for its varied gameplay and the questions it raises with its story.