The Art of Video Games – Promoting Art One Pushed Pixel At A Time


If practice is what it takes to get to Carnegie Hall, what does it take for video game design to get to the Smithsonian?  That’s the question being answered by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in a new exhibit starting this weekend: “The Art of Video Games”.   Despite its “American” name, the museum’s exhibit is a recognition and celebration of video games and their place in global pop culture.  The accompanying book, “The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect” makes the case for video games as a legitimate artform.

Written by Chris Melissinos (of fame and who serves as the exhibit’s curator) and designed by Patrick O’Rourke, the book is typical of works which accompany such shows – a sturdy hardcover with the heft and authority of a good coffee table book. The book is split into five chapters: Start!, 8-Bit, Bit Wars!, Transition, and Next Generation.  The chronological construction allows the reader to follow video games from their most primitive, formative days to the graphical heavy-hitters that have fans clamoring in line at a midnight release or kids busily scribbling on their Christmas wish lists.

In an essay within, celebrated game maker and industry icon Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Disney Epic Mickey) notes that “all art happens within constraints – all art.” Defined mainly by technical limitations, video game makers have strived diligently to find ways to provide story, context, and quality gameplay for consumers.  Where graphics can easily show a person crying today, innovators such as Activision’s David Crane used an ominous musical cue and disappearance of the player character to convey dismay in his 1982 classic, Pitfall.

At the exhibit’s launch yesterday, Melissinos expanded on this: “This conversation among the game, the artist, and the player is critical to understanding video games as art. It’s at this moment that it transcends just being a game.” Melissinos and O’Rourke do a nice job of presenting this evolution and synergy in the book. Each exhibit item features a picture (or series of pictures) from the respective title, along with accompanying text describing the gameplay, background, and cultural impact. For many people who grew up with the games, the information may seem rather thin. To revisit the coffee table book analogy, though, it is just the right amount of information for newcomers to understand what they are looking at and why it matters.

In that respect, a sole criticism would be the lack of context provided in certain portions of the book.  Peppered throughout the artwork are essays from industry legends and today’s standard-bearers, covering topics from their own creative development to the essence of gaming as an artform. To industry types and avid fans, these are well-known names. However, no context is provided in the book about who these people are or why their words should be heeded.  Though their relevance to video games usually comes out in their essays, that lack of initial clarification will be off-putting to the casual reader.

Apart from that one hiccup, the essays are as compelling a part of the book as the images themselves.  From Atari founder Nolan Bushnell to thatgamecompany’s Robin Hunicke, the story behind the creation of the iconic images featured in the exhibit (and beyond) is told. Some of the essayists concentrate on their personal journeys into the industry.  Others (like Spector above) concentrate on the almost symbiotic relationship between the developer and the player.  A few delve into the evolution of the industry and the games.  The perspectives range from people who invented video games to people in the industry today because of the games created by those same pioneers.  All of it helps to outline the unique qualities of video games as an artform.

After decades of trial and tribulations, crashes and reboots, and more quarters than anyone of a certain age cares to admit to, video games have earned their place of admiration in our hearts and in the Smithsonian. Between the essays and the images from the exhibit, “The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect” is a worthy companion piece to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit.  Melissinos and O’Rourke do an excellent job of laying a foundation for any reader to educate themselves on video games and their place as a modern artform.  Video game enthusiasts have a lot to enjoy here, too.  Besides the first-rate production values, it is a lovingly crafted narrative of the industry’s evolution from its most rudimentary beginnings to the multi-billion dollar cultural powerhouse it is today. Any fan of video games will enjoy the opportunity to pick this book up from the coffee table, flip to a random page, and immediately begin to “remember when…”