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The Art of Video Games on display at the Smithsonian

People have been discussing whether video games are art for a long time. Are games merely entertainment, a diversion? Or are they an artistic medium that can inspire us? We hope we’ve answered that question.

“The Art of Video Games” exhibition, opening on March 16th at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, is an examination of the progression of video games as an art form.  Not just the art within video games, but video games themselves as an artistic medium.  It is my humble opinion that we could not have had this exhibition at any other point than right now.  We are on the cusp of a cultural mainstay that will become the dominant form of creative expression for the 21st century and we have the opportunity to understand its place in society while the creators of the medium are still with us.

Born in 1970, I grew up in an era that I refer to as the “Bit Baby” generation.  We were the first generation of kids who were introduced to computer technology through video games.  And these games have been an ever-present fixture in my life for as long as I can remember.  We knew that there was something bigger than what we experienced through the movement of two paddles of light and a square ball of phosphor.  The television was a portal to an alternate universe, one that we could see and influence, but not touch, always out of reach behind the glass.

The earliest of game systems were trying to articulate a thought through a language that was not fully formed; trying to express more than their vocabulary will allow.  It was the introduction of the Atari VCS to America that ignited the possibility of what video games could be.  This marked an awakening that gripped the public and started creating that vocabulary of technology that would become central to modern society.  From the first computers in the home, to the reliance upon the world wide web, video games were the catalyst that opened people’s imagination and minds to the impossible.  Video games provide an ever-expanding canvas for artistic expression to new generations of poets, artists, and storytellers.

The companion book to the exhibition, titled “The Art of Video Games: From Pac Man to Mass Effect”, expands on the materials that are presented in the exhibition.  Focusing on the 80 games that demonstrate the progression of the art form over time, the book further dissects the games to demonstrate artist intent, social reflection, or personal connection between the designers and the audience.

The book also contains interviews with 14 influential designers and creators that span the five eras of games represented in the materials. From Nolan Bushnell to Tim Schafer, the interviews are among the most personal ever conducted with them.  From how they started in game development, to their hope for the future and how video games can transform the world, the interviews help to shine light on the humanity and sense of purpose from which designers approach the craft.

Video games are still a nascent medium. Yet, in a very short forty years of existence, video games have managed to emerge as a dominant, cultural force of idea exchange, artistic expression, and delight. As we are just beginning to truly understand the importance of the medium, we need to take the responsibility of protecting and nurturing this art form so that it continues to grow and be present for generations of future designers, storytellers, and artists.

I hope that you find the book, and the exhibition, to be as fulfilling to you, as the games contained within are for me.

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