Smithsonian to Host "The Art of Video Games"

April a year ago, Roger Ebert (the movie critic for Chicago Sun-Times) declared video games can never be art. The gaming community rose up in outrage, posting over 4800 comments on that blog (as I write this) and a firestorm on Twitter. In July, Ebert issued an apology, of sorts, noting that only about 300 of those thousands of comments supported his position and that he was sorry he ever said anything in the first place.

I was unimpressed with most of the “apology,” aside from him acknowledging that he wouldn’t have critically reviewed a movie he hadn’t seen, so he shouldn’t have criticically reviewed an entire activity he had pretty much never seen and didn’t play. That is quite on point. The rest of it struck me as a more erudite albeit wordy version of “w/e, idc, now lemme alone.”

I considered posting something about it at the time, but decided neither the gamer community nor the library community would benefit from my sticking my hand in. It was a huge dust-up but fundamentally I think it comes down to a culture difference. You can guess my opinion, and if you still need my point by point refutation of Ebert’s position, let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you.

I expect this furor contributed to the exhibit now planned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum on The Art of Video Games. To quote from the website, the “exhibition will 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.” In the end, eighty games will be selected, with the emphasis on those games that are “visually spectacular or boast innovative design.”

The Smithsonian is embracing the gamer community in this, asking them to help select among the thousands of games out there. Right now, they are close to a million votes and counting, coming from every part of the US and 139 other countries. As the @americanart Twitter feed notes, “More than 3/4 of the geographical world has voted!”

Did I mention they only opened voting five days ago? And log-ins then crashed or slowed the servers to a crawl? (They appear to have it fixed now.) Gamers are nothing if not passionate about their hobby, as Ebert found out to his chagrin.

The Twitter feed gives some interesting perspectives on what the Smithsonian is doing. You can follow @americanart directly, and also search the hashtag #avog to hear from those who chose to compliment the effort and those who criticize alike.

Not everyone is crazy about the idea of annointing certain materials as being of “cultural significance” through popular vote. Arguably, culture trends are defined by popularity, to a greater or lesser extent. Libraries carry popular materials because, well, because they’re popular. We’d be silly not to. We also select significant works that might be less visible but have obvious importance too. The Smithsonian is doing the same.

Others object that it is in the vested interest of scurrilous, venial game development houses to promote their games here in order to ransack the wallets of yet more naive and uncritical gaming nerds. Hmm, yeah. And the Cannes Film Festival that Roger Ebert attends so regularly has nothing to do with art, serving no other purpose than making money for the winning film studios either.

Many gamers cried out that their favorite games were not up to be included in the vote. The Smithsonian asserted that some games were such obvious candidates for inclusion that they would be included regardless.

It seems Myst tops that list, and will be one of five playable games available during the exhibition. Certainly that would be a game I’d vote for. At the time it came out, my roommates and I had to sign up amongst ourselves to take turns playing through its mind-twisting puzzles, simply wandering around the immersive world, awed by the breathtaking graphical beauty that was unmatched in its time. The computer ran nearly 24 hours a day until we finished the story it had to tell. You can still play the game today, as an app on your iPhone.

Museums and libraries share a common goal of housing and sharing knowledge, and I’ll be intrigued to see how the Smithsonian continues to handle, support, and expand on this exhibit. Librarians should care, even if gaming is not your bailiwick, because the museum always provides tie-in educational material that library patrons can mine for their book reports and research projects. If you’re a gamer and you haven’t voted, put in your two cents. And if one of your jobs in your library is to handle games, then this exhibit should provide plenty of ideas for new and expanded programs.

“The Art of Video Games” will appear at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from March 16 through September 30, 2012.

Time enough for me to start stashing away the price of a ticket to DC. Game on!



  1. Bibliotecher says:

    I would have never come across this SI event if it wasn’t for this post.