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Close, but no 1-Up: A critique of the Smithsonian's "Art of Video Games" exhibit
by Eric Schwarz on 02/17/11 01:40:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Last week, it was announced that the Smithsonian Institution, a museum and research institute funded and maintained by the United States government, would be opening up voting for a new videogame-centric exhibit entitled “The Art of Video Games”.  Seemingly every gamer in touch with industry news rejoiced at this: finally, gaming was getting the respect it deserved, and from a highly official institution no less!  The implications of such a decision are actually pretty magnificent for the games industry.  While the Smithsonian is by no means the ultimate judge of a medium’s credibility, it does show an increased mainstream acceptance of videogames and a greater appreciation for the endless dedication and talent that go into their production.  Perhaps most importantly, it gives some genuine validation to the notion of games as an art form; while designers and thinkers have argued this for decades, to see a body acting in the interests of the general populace make such a claim is heart-warming for nearly every gamer and developer out there.

While the efforts of the Smithsonian are undoubtedly appreciated by gamers worldwide (and I am certainly one such gamer), after a closer look at the arrangement of the exhibit and the selection process for inaugurating new games, I found myself increasingly sceptical as to the validity of the exhibit.  Collected below are the core problem areas that I’ve identified for how this exhibit is being arranged, at least with the information that is publicly available.  I’d like to make it quite clear that the goal of this article isn’t to attack the individuals who are behind the Art of Video Games exhibit or the Smithsonian as a whole – I’m sure they’re all wonderfully smart, talented people, but I get the distinct sense that very few of them are gamers, and even if they are, they haven’t thought out the exhibit nearly enough.

Popularity = historical importance?

This is probably the most plainly visible problem with the way that the exhibit is arranged.  Rather than rely on a panel of experts, theorists, game critics, or their own intuition and research to select the games put on display in the Art of Video Games exhibit, instead, the Smithsonian has elected to put the decision on the shoulders of gamers, by fielding a vote on which games should be included.  To claim that popularity, even among gamers, is a good metric for determining the historical relevance and art value of a videogame, is simply short-sighted and naive.  While I’m not here to indict the personal tastes of mainstream audiences or any other group of gamers, the simple fact is that sales simply aren’t the only thing games can be or should be rated on.  Looking to votes as a guide for how to arrange the exhibit isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but to frame the process as effectively a popularity contest in the eyes of most gamers, and to use that as the defining metric for inclusion in the exhibit, is colossally insensitive to the individual games on display.

Adding to this problem is the fact that many games are placed in direct opposition with each other, despite them being both hugely influential and exceedingly important to gaming.  Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn and Fallout are both considered, rightly so, to be some of the best CRPGs ever developed, and set the standards for Western RPG gameplay and storytelling even decades after their release.  And yet, as a voter, I am supposed to put my vote into one or the other?  Both games are phenomenal, for different reasons; chances are the victor in such a vote won’t come down to which game truly deserves to win out (they both do), but simply which one has more fans.  It doesn’t help at all that they’re from the same, genre, of course, which brings me to...

Genre matters

While the Smithsonian have done a fairly admirable job of trying to categorise games based on platform and on genre, the actual categories provided are both far too broad and feature far too few games to make truly adequate selections.  One of the most nebulous of all of these categories is the “target genre”, which I take it the Smithsonian means is a combination of first-person shooter, flight simulator and generally any game which involves aiming, but then, based on their own inconsistency in including shooters in the category, I’m not sure the Smithsonian knows what it means either.  For instance, on the DOS/Windows platform, Doom II, Deus Ex and Unreal are all lumped together under the “action genre” category, yet on the Nintendo 64, Goldeneye 007 is listed as a “target genre”.  Why the inconsistency?

One of these is not like the other.

One of these is not like the other.

It doesn’t end there, either.  One of the most ridiculous examples of the shortcomings of the categories provided can be seen in the Smithsonian including Diablo II, a point-and-click action RPG, along with Star Wars: TIE Fighter, a science-fiction space combat simulation, together in that “target genre”.  Not only were these games released a full six years apart (a massive amount of time in videogame industry terms), but they come from two completely different genres with completely different gameplay standards.  Even the primary mode of interaction with the game is different, in a category which is supposed to be defined by that mode of interaction!  To say that this is a bit of a mess would be an understatement.

What era are you from?

No doubt for ease of understanding and to simplify the voting process, the Smithsonian have effectively categorised the history of videogames into five major eras.  While categorising games this way is in itself a bit haphazard, I do understand the intention.  However, once again the implementation is rather poor.  Put simply, games can’t be broken up into such discrete eras, especially in such a fast-moving industry.  There have been by most counts about seven major console generations so far, not counting some of the earliest gaming systems, and yet the Smithsonian have seen fit to break them down into just five.

Pause for a moment and consider: are games from 1993 really comparable to games from 2000, not just in terms of technology, but in sophistication of design, in game mechanics, or in narrative pacing and convention?  I think the only reasonable answer to that question is no, and yet the original PlayStation finds itself right next to the Dreamcast in the Smithsonian’s voting ladder.  Furthermore, why is there so much overlap between Era 3 and Era 4?  What is the major difference between an Era 3 game from 1994 and an Era 4 game from 1994, and why was this deemed a great enough reason to separate the two by something as drastic as an era?  Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it.

Arcade, arcade, where art thou?

Even though many gamers today are too young to so fondly remember arcades (in fact, I’m one of them), to underestimate the importance that arcades had on gaming’s development as an artistic medium and even as a language would be near-criminal.  Not only did arcade gaming by and large precede home gaming consoles, but it is responsible for forming some of our most fundamental notions of what videogames encompass, the basic building blocks that just about every game is made up of today.  Even if those conventions aren’t referred to in name, oftentimes mechanics can be traced back to their arcade roots.  Of course, I’m talking about things as important as extra lives, game over screens, power-ups, continues, bosses, side-scrolling, and too many other things to count.  The unique market conditions that determined arcade game development were responsible for these innovations, along with the technology that only arcade machines could provide.

The Atari version of Pac-man is not exactly the iconic version gamers know and love.  

The Atari version of Pac-man is not exactly the iconic version gamers know and love.

One of the most stunning examples of this can be seen in the Smithsonian’s casting of the Atari VCS version of Pac-man, considered not only to be largely inferior to the arcade classic in both visuals and audio, but also one of the worst adaptations of Pac-man ever.  Most gamers are intimately familiar with the original arcade version of the game, and to see it go inexplicably unmentioned in the Smithsonian’s voting process is, frankly, rather painful and even borderline offensive.  It displays an ignorance to gaming’s history that just shouldn’t be present what is an attempt at a definitive historical exhibit.

Bigger isn’t always better

This point is a little bit more esoteric and perhaps something that the Smithsonian isn’t directly accountable for, but I think it’s one of the most damaging flaws in the way that the Art of Video Games exhibit is arranged.  Marketing professionals have known for years that an easy way to sell a product is to attach a bigger number to it than its predecessor or competition.  The megahertz war in computer systems, the wattage war in speaker systems, the ever-increasing number of blades on shaving razors, the constant strain announcing that every sequel provides “more of what you love”... all of these examples are not the result of any truly inherent improvements in bigger numbers, but rather are an exploitation of a property that, for all intents and purposes, is inherent to humans.

Put simply, we always want more.  People are rarely satisfied, and when we are, often it’s only for a fleeting moment and we move on to other tasks centred around increasing our wealth, influence, happiness, etc.  Because of this, we’re also very easily duped by bigger numbers.  The implication of a larger number is always more, and that more is always better.  Gillette’s octo-bladed razors don’t sell because they provide a legitimately better shave than their cheaper two- or three-bladed razors, they sell because many people perceive the quality of the product to be better.  While many arguments can be made regarding the emotional benefits of the “feeling” these sorts of products provide, the simple fact is that in actuality, higher numbers don’t always mean that something is an improvement.

The divisions between these eras may be arbitrary, but the banner makes it appear otherwise.

The division between these areas may be arbitrary, but the banner makes it appear otherwise.

I mention all of this because the Smithsonian’s exhibit seems to be entirely centred around this arrangement.  The linear ordering of eras from 1 to 5, for example, suggests not only a very clear, predictable progression, but also that games from later eras are better than games from earlier eras.  Additionally, the numerical and progressive ordering of eras also suggests a clean, causal relationship which reads something like “and then this game led to this game, and this game led to...”, which, even in a highly iterative and even derivative field like videogames, simply isn’t the case.

Also concerning is that the same logic spills over to sequels.  Including both Fallout and Fallout 3 on this list, replete with screenshots which reveal little but visual improvements, suggests not only that Fallout 3 is a superior game to Fallout, but that Fallout 3 is a forward, linear improvement of Fallout... which, given the incredible differences in developers, game mechanics, camera perspectives, pacing, world design, narrative, problem-solving, quest design, and more, is obviously not really the case.  I don’t mean to suggest that my complaint here lies in that I think Fallout 3 is an inferior game to the original (although I do), but rather it’s all about what someone viewing the exhibit is going to take away from it.  Unless someone has had direct exposure to both games, or the Smithsonian provides very detailed write-ups and explanations of the differences between certain games, and ensures that these comprehensible by those attending the exhibit, chances are all but the most experienced gamers are going to walk away with a good degree of misinformation... and for an exhibit on a contemporary form of media where these problems can be much more ably remedied, there’s just no excuse.

What is this exhibit even for?

Once again, I want to stress my respect and appreciation for the work that the people at the Smithsonian are doing.  Considering that they are likely a fairly small team of people working to meet the needs of an entire industry, while at the same time perhaps not even possessing much background in videogames (I can’t say for sure), I think they’ve done a pretty good job so far.  But one major issue remains that I haven’t touched on directly yet, and that is, what is the purpose of this Art of Video Games exhibit?

Let me break things down a little bit more, here.  The Smithsonian website states that the Art of Video Games is to “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”.  Sounds good on paper, but what does it mean?

First off, there’s a very strong emphasis on visuals above all else.  While aesthetics in gaming are an extremely important thing, and no doubt the exhibit should stress in particular the technological constrains on art direction and design, at the same time this isn’t really fair to games as an artistic medium.  As a government-sanctioned institution, the Smithsonian should work to be open to all interpretations of art and media, and I have no doubt that they work hard to do this for other forms of expression such as film and sculpture.  Any reasonable art historian will argue that aesthetics are only a single component in understanding the importance of art, and the same credibility should be given to videogames.

The Smithsonian do seem to try to compensate for this by adding on the bit about “designers”, but who are they talking about here?  Art designers and design?  Game designers?  Project directors?  Sound engineers?  Foley artists?  Programmers?  Game development is such a multi-disciplinary field, and includes so many distinct talents and individuals, that it’s simply unacceptable to try to encompass all of these things by using an ambiguous word like “designers”.  “Design” itself is also mentioned, along with “innovation”, but similar problems arise: are we talking about visual design, sound design, original game mechanics, well-made game mechanics, novelty, or storytelling?  The juxtaposition of the word with a stress on aesthetics also suggests that they are even using the word as a synonym for artist, which again shows a lack of appreciation for the specifics of the videogame world.

Judging by the sorts of games that the Smithsonian includes on their list, they seem to be remarkably inconsistent... on the one hand, their official statement stresses visual splendour, with only a passing mention of design, and yet on the other hand most of the games on their voting list seem to be there for their excellence in design, storytelling and game mechanics more than anything else.  If I was going to focus on games with phenomenal art direction, I sure wouldn’t include Deus Ex or The Typing of the Dead on that list.  This lack of consistency really suggests to me that the Smithsonian just aren’t sure precisely what the purpose of their own exhibit is, and that is a real shame considering the symbolic, cultural and academic importance of the institution.

Room for improvement 

In light of all these somewhat scathing complaints, I do want to mention that there is plenty of time left for the Smithsonian to amend their arrangement of the Art of Video Games exhibit.  Hiring on more consultants for the historical and factual validity of their exhibit would be a great start, as would ensuring that the votes of mass audiences are a less central component to the selection process.  Many of the additional problems could also be solved by getting rid of some of the more nebulous and ill-defined genre and era categories, and replacing them with in-depth write-ups detailing how certain games are artistically important, and for what reasons they have been honoured by their inclusion in the exhibit.  As it stands now, though, the Art of Video Games is a nice gesture with poor execution backing it up; as someone who loves videogames, I’d too love to see them acknowledged in a manner that truly befits them.

Originally posted at Critical Miss

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