Videogames are no longer the niche of a few geeks with no girlfriends. They are a billion-dollar industry with a wide-ranging influence over pop culture and emerging technology.
One man even thinks videogames are art.
His name is Chris Melissinos. He is the chief gaming officer at Sun Microsystems and founder of JavaGaming.org. Four years ago, he added another title to his resumé: art curator. On March 16, 2012, "The Art of Video Games" opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibition is Melissinos' homage to the world of Marios and Sonics.
For the past three years, “The Art of Video Games” has been on a cross-country adventure visiting various museums. The final stop of the tour is Miami's Frost Art Museum, located on the Florida International University campus on SW Eight Street. From now until April 17, the museum will be home to a passion that's consumed millions of hours of daylight from so many players.
Printed on a wall near the entrance of the exhibit are the words of Melissinos, which describe the exhibit's origins. Midway through, he breaks down precisely how videogames are, in fact, art: “The short, yet prolific, 40-year history of video games offers some of the deepest personal and 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 hold games together. The common thread, regardless of intent, is that they are an amalgam of disciplines — storytelling, animation, music, and cinematography — whose sum is greater than its parts.”
The exhibit is as vibrant and inviting as the games themselves. All systems and genres are represented in this interactive history of videogames, from its 8-bit infancy to the ultra-photorealistic monsters of today.
Some games in the show — such as Flower, in which the user controls the wind as it ushers along a flower petal — are playable. Others are the subject of very short documentaries that visitors can watch on small screens and hear through old-school telephone receivers.
For example, the PS3 display discusses some of the system's groundbreaking titles, such as Uncharted 2 and Heavy Rain. In the "Next Generation" (2000s to today) room, a PS3 sits alongside other recognizable consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, Xbox, Xbox 360, and PS2.
However, the real treat for longtime gamers is in the adjoining rooms. Depending upon whether you begin your journey by passing through the door on the left or the one on the right, you can be taken back in a time capsule of collective nerdy childhoods or propelled headfirst toward the pinnacle of videogame innovation.
The remainder of the exhibit is organized chronologically. It begins with Atari VCS, ColecoVision, and Intellivision — all children of the '70s and '80s. Then there's the 8-bit collection (Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Master System), where some of the true masterpieces reside. And finally, within the transition phase (mid-'90s to '00s) are some of Sega's almost-greatest hits, like an actual Dreamcast, a Sega Saturn, and the venerable Sega Genesis. The true winners of their day — Super Nintendo, N64, and the first-generation PlayStation — are included as well.
Beyond the hardware, one of the standout elements of the exhibition is the opportunity to play. In addition to Flower, there's also the Secret of Monkey Island and Myst — the latter a huge leap forward in desktop gaming — and two legendary giants of the industry, Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man.
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One might argue that adding a few more playable games would be cool, but then "The Art of Video Games" would turn into a throwback arcade. The focus should be on the art. When you're hunkered down in your living room during day four of a Fallout marathon, it's easy to forget the creativity, work, and vision it took to make these immersive fantasy worlds come to life.
“The Art of Video Games” showcases the conceptual sketches of Earthworm Jim, a game that was ahead of its time and evokes a nostalgic wave of emotion. Perhaps it will reawaken that sense of wonder you felt as a kid the first time you landed that difficult jump on a platformer and excite you about that next great work of digital art just beyond the pixelated horizon.
"The Art of Video Games"
Through April 17 at the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Visit thefrost.fiu.edu.