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The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effectby Chris Melissinos
the resonance of games as art
The Christmas of 1980 would ultimately chart the trajectory for my future career. It was a year that a device of untold mystery and excitement was gifted to me: the Commodore VIC-20. This amazing little device was able to transport me to worlds beyond my dreams; worlds that I could create, control, and type into existence. What the VIC-20 gave me can be reduced to a single word: power.
Learning to program that little machine, with its severely limited canvas, opened up a fascinating world and a growing love for science, storytelling, and art. Art. It is a term that brings up a range of images, from the stark, marble-encrusted halls of old museums to a student studying late at night in the daunting pursuit of an art history degree. I believe that my definition of art is more serviceable. When the viewer is able to understand the artist’s intent in a work and finds something in it that resonates with him or her on a personal level, art is achieved. If it elicits an emotion—from disdain to delight—it can be viewed as art.
The short yet extremely prolific forty-year history of the video games industry has offered the world some of the most personal and most globally connecting experiences in human history. Of course, many games never aspire to be anything more than an adrenaline pump, where high scores rule and the loosest of stories are employed to hold the game together. But there are also a wealth of examples of games that force players into uncomfortable moral quandaries, make statements about the act of war, and profoundly affect the player using music, environments, and whimsical details. Some games can make you cry, others can make you smile. The common thread throughout a majority of games, regardless of their intents, is that they are an amalgam of art disciplines whose sum is typically greater than its parts. This defines a new medium that is beyond traditional definitions used in the fine art world.
I find this fascinating and truly inspiring. Computer games came into existence as a way for computer scientists to demonstrate the capabilities of archaic systems that marked the dawn of the information age. Over time these systems grew in complexity, and as they became more powerful, the potential to create deeper and richer experiences opened up to designers and artists. From “fill in the gaps” and text-based adventures that engage a player’s imagination to deeply narrative games like Heavy Rain that pulls the player in as the story unravels, video games have a unique ability to connect with the player—and an unrivaled set of resources to do so. Combining fundamental elements—image, sound, story, and interaction—no other medium comes close to offering the audience so many points of connection.
It is precisely their interactivity that provides video games the potential to become a superior storytelling medium. I say potential because video games are still in adolescence. The advantage that books, movies, and television have over video games is with time only. Like all other forms of media, hindsight will tease inspired works from the digital past, and these will serve as the cornerstones of great works yet to be created. No doubt that some of those games are collected here.
As a denizen of the “Bit Baby” era, I realize that video games have had more of a profound impact on my development than any other form of media. Our children are being born into a world in which the digital and physical collide, and video games are the expressive voice of that collision. This trend will continue to change the way society at large views video games, which one day will be held in the same regard as painting, movies, writing, and music.
Opening in March 2012, The Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is yet another example of the attention this medium is starting to receive. Together with the museum and an advisory group of game developers, designers, pioneers, and journalists, we selected a group of 240 games in four different genres to represent the best of the industry. The criteria used for selection included visual effects, creative use of new technologies, and how world events and popular culture influenced the game. The museum created a website and invited the public to help select the games for the exhibition, and almost four million votes across 175 countries narrowed the list to the eighty games you’ll read about here.
Using the cultural lens of an art museum, viewers will be left to determine whether the materials on display are indeed worthy of the title “art.” A majority of visitors will most likely encounter a game that transports them back to their childhoods and tugs at their emotions, or they may learn about an artistic or design intent in a game that they never knew before. My hope is that people will leave the exhibition—and finish this book—with an understanding that video games are so much more than what they first thought.
They may even be art.
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