By Hans Morgenstern
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It's been 40 years since the first videogame grabbed the attention of besotted television watchers and thrust them firmly onto the couch and into an interactive world of multimedia home entertainment.
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Browsing your local GameStop is one thing, but appreciating videogames as art is a relatively new concept. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has put together an exhibit, "The Art of Video Games," that explores games as a dynamic, evolving art form. Painters, writers, sculptors, composers, and filmmakers have all had a hand in creating them, and the end product is full-fledged entertainment. Videogames, the exhibit shows, are a phenomenal blend of technology and storytelling and have impact on a massive scale.
The Boca Raton Museum of Art scores major cool points for being the first tour stop for this traveling exhibit. It opened here October 24 and remains on view through January 13.
The impresario behind this project is curator Chris Melissinos, a fervent preservationist whose personal trove includes more than 40 gaming systems plus hundreds of games and artifacts. His book The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect is an extensive overview of games and their makers. In a stroke of democracy, Melissinos created a ballot of 240 games he would potentially include in the exhibition and then asked 119,000 people in 175 countries to select the games that are on view. (Melissinos will be on-site at the museum for a book signing Saturday, November 3, at 3 p.m. and Sunday, November 4, at noon.)
The museum is set up to feel like an arcade, and sound effects beep, blip, and explode throughout the galleries. Young people accustomed to monitoring television while listening to iPods while playing games on their laptops should feel right at home. This younger demographic may be surprised to learn that the ancient history of their favorite pastime goes all the way back to the 1970s. The slightly older crowd will love seeing the original consoles from their youth on display, starting with devices that resemble your mother's waffle iron to the gradually sleeker, more streamlined units such as Game Cube, X-Box, and Wii.
Eighty games are featured on 20 gaming systems, from the Atari VCS to the PlayStation 3. The exhibition takes viewers through a complete history of them, from the most rudimentary eight-bit games such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, which first brought the arcade game experience into the home, to contemporary games such as Halo and Heavy Rain, whose technological wizardry and storytelling power rival any feature film in your local multiplex.
Visiting "The Art of Video Games" is an intoxicating experience. Highly creative exhibition displays resemble arcade games and invite the visitor to push buttons to see game clips from each era. Four key elements that make a successful game are defined — action, target, adventure, and tactics — and the exhibit examines how each game approached these considerations and how each fit on a rapidly evolving timeline. Eras are defined by improvements in image quality, range of motion, and graphics capability.
While some of the old-fashioned among us bemoan that the days have passed when kids would just "go out to play," this exhibit suggests that gaming is a worthwhile pastime. On game systems, kids are enjoying vicarious experiences in virtual playscapes, finding hidden objects and secret places, flying through imaginary realms like Peter Pan. While doing so, they're learning to rapidly code unique patterns of motion and to hone subtle, precise hand-eye coordination. It's exciting to visit a highly detailed, convincing universe — especially when you "only have two lives left" and your faculties for self-preservation are activated. Melissinos describes the advent of videogames as an unprecedented method of engaging audiences "by including a new element, the player, who completes the vivid, experiential art form by personally interacting with the game elements."
The exhibit shows an appreciation for hardware and software design and for storytelling. The first gaming systems appeared in the 1970s, mostly courtesy of Atari, and featured simple shooter games such as Space Invaders. Their primitive low-resolution graphics offered large, crude pixels, and a limited range of sounds, making only the simplest characters and story lines possible.
By 1983, a huge boom in gaming was launched with the Star Trek Strategic Operations Simulator, and story lines got more sophisticated. Some games of this era translated the outer-space narrative to the inner space of the computer itself, spinning yarns about attacks on CPUs by rogue elements within the computer's own system. An Atari game based on the 1961 Spy vs. Spy characters from Mad magazine was inspired by Fidel Castro. In 1989, the Sega Genesis system boasted 16-bit graphics, enabling a finer picture and greater detail. Another salvo in the gaming world's "bit wars" occurred in 1991, when a powerful new processor in the Super Nintendo series wowed players with early 3-D graphics.
After making the jump from 2-D to 3-D, the texture and detail of gaming landscapes was never the same. Simple grids and mazes were replaced by evocative realms of undersea and outer space. By 1996, the imaginary worlds become more vast, fully realized escapist fantasies with more interactivity for players. Handsets became gradually more ergonomic, responsive to the reflexes of the player, a fully integrated extension of his or her hand and will.
By the time we arrived at Halo 2, introduced in 2004, the digital code of games exhibited deeper artificial intelligence, spooky ambient soundtracks, and more elaborate stories with characters who enacted a complex "space opera." Massive Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft exploited the power of the internet in the mid-1990s.
Today's gaming landscape is brimming with cinematic complexity and fluid, lifelike motion in games such as Heavy Rain (2010). Minecraft, introduced in 2009, is a build-it-yourself world with no discernible plot or missions. Millions of online players create environments in a free-form "sandbox" of varied eccentric materials. Other recent games, like Myst and Flower, require more decision-making, more strategic or abstract thinking by the player.
What games can you actually play in this exhibit? There's one console each set up for Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, the Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. The exhibition is rounded out with instruction books, comic books, box art, and pamphlets.
A few large, flat-screen monitors broadcast interviews with game designers who describe the process of creating their work, from brainstorming to storyboarding to coding. Another series of large monitors turns the camera on players, capturing the range of emotional reactions while playing. People of all ages and ethnicities are seen jumping, ducking, grimacing, and sticking out their tongues as they play.
It is this human element that gives meaning to all the bright pixels and blips and beeps. Marisa Pascucci, curator of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Art at the Boca Museum of Art, says, "These games are binary computer code basically, but visitors can see the game designers giving interviews, sharing behind-the-scenes experiences and all the teamwork involved in creating what is a true art form. An all-encompassing art form with music, sometimes entire symphonies commissioned for them. The storytelling has a human point of view, which makes it like other art forms, like literature."
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