x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Videogames move up to the 'art' level at Smithsonian

As the Smithsonian Museum asks the public to vote on which videogames should be included in a forthcoming exhibition, we take a look at the history of videogame art.

A screenshot from Hasbro's 3D version of Pac-Man, a computer game originally played with simple 'sprites' - animated graphical objects - inhabiting a two-dimensional maze.
A screenshot from Hasbro's 3D version of Pac-Man, a computer game originally played with simple 'sprites' - animated graphical objects - inhabiting a two-dimensional maze.

Despite its economic status as the world’s biggest form of entertainment outside the humble television, there’s still a huge reluctance to credit the videogame with the same artistic or cultural relevance as film, music or books. The stereotype of the geeky boy locked in his bedroom racking up high scores might finally be disappearing, but the notion still persists that games are shallow, crass and lacking in insight.

But to suggest that the phenomenal success of the all-action Call of Duty – credited last week with 13.7 million sales in the US alone since November – is somehow representative of videogames’ emphasis on the lowest common denominator ignores the raft of inventive, creative and sometimes genuinely beautiful games produced over the past 35 years. And proof that the artistic element of gaming has rippled way beyond its usual fan base came with the news last week that the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington – more used to staging work by such artists as Edward Hopper and Earl Cunningham – is planning an exhibition next year called The Art of Video Games.

Focusing on the visual look of games rather than the way they play, it aims to “explore the evolution of video games as an artistic medium”, highlighting the key artists and designers over a 30-year period. It begins with the simple, eight-bit thrill of the 1977 shoot-’em-up Combat on Atari, moves through Space Invaders and the colourful fantasy world of Super Mario Bros in the 1980s, celebrates the atmospheric corridors of Doom in the 1990s and alights in the futuristic dystopias of Halo in the 21st century.

It’s telling that the selection process for the exhibition – the curators want to feature 80 games – is via a public vote on the Smithsonian website. The videogame industry may have grown exponentially, and there are of course experts writing reviews for magazines and newspapers, but generally, there isn’t the vocabulary or the expertise to discuss the artistic merits of a game beyond noting that it looks good.

This is not a criticism – just a reflection of an art form that is decades rather than centuries old. So it makes sense to ask the players themselves – although the process is arduous, to say the least: the curators have picked 240 games from five eras, subdivided into genres such as action or adventure. Everyone has – count them – 80 votes.

Still, such categories are important – comparing Pac-Man on Atari (1980) with the cinematic crime drama Heavy Rain on PlayStation 3 (2010) is like putting a cave drawing up against the Mona Lisa and asking which is better.

Simplicity, though, does have its own beauty. As consoles have become more powerful, the general trend has been towards realism, and thus it’s no surprise to see Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010) or the skateboard game Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 (2004) among the 240 entries here. But if art were all about realism, galleries would just be full of photographs, so the presence of the puzzle-solving platform game Limbo on the longlist is hugely encouraging.

Released last year on Xbox360, Limbo eschews whizzy technology and instead pursues an incredibly striking aesthetic – a simple, monochrome world inhabited by a beautifully animated boy who must be guided through a trap-laden landscape. Without its incredible atmosphere – it feels like an art house film noir – it would be just another platform game. But it’s the design that is key: it gives Limbo emotional impact.

It’s also good to see the action adventure The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker (Nintendo Game Cube, 2003) included. Since the days of Donkey Kong and Mario, Nintendo has been the most inventive producer of games, the look of its titles intrinsically and intricately linked with how they play.

The version of Zelda on the Game Cube was groundbreaking for the same reasons that should see Limbo recognised – Nintendo could have made its protagonist, Link, more realistic had it wanted to, but instead the company created a stunning, cel-shaded animation that gave the game real depth and character.

Is squeezing out every last ounce of processing power from a 1987 Nintendo Entertainment System to make a believable version of Top Gun really “art”? Not particularly. But perhaps this exhibition isn’t really about art at all – it’s more about celebrating the talents of the creative people who tried to make games look as good as possible, despite the restrictions of the ­medium.

* Ben East

•Sign up to see the longlist and cast your 80 votes at www.artofvideogames.org.

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