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Smithsonian Adds Games To Its American Art Collection

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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