Video games become an art with Smithsonian exhibit

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 21, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Chris Melissinos, 42, fondly remembers his first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, on which he played “Pong” (the 1970s game based on table tennis).

Melissinos is the guest curator of “The Art of Video Games,” a new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. He now works for VeriSign but, at one point, he was the chief gaming officer at Sun Microsystems.

Born April 2, 1970, he is part of a generation he’s dubbed “bit babies … the first kids that grew up with computers in the homes.”

The exhibit, which opened March 16, took three years to prepare. Melissinos has lent many of his games and he wryly admits that he hadn’t realized that meant he won’t be playing any of them for a number of years to come. He and his three children play games almost daily.

The exhibit’s introductory plaque gives his personal story:

“Learning to program that little machine opened up a fascinating world and a love for science, storytelling and art. The short, though prolific, 40-year history of video games offers some of the deepest personal and globally connecting experiences in human history.”

Museum Director Elizabeth Broun says that this exhibit stemmed from an early 2009 conference, Smithsonian 2.0, that drew participants from across the technology industries — “the 20- and 30-somethings that were on the cutting edge of what’s new.”

Her take on video games, “They first burst onto the scene as entertainment, they’ve now moved into every aspect of our lives. They’re being used in simulations and training in the military, education in the classroom, medical imaging many different ways. “

The museum invited the public to vote on different games to be exhibited. Broun says, “In five weeks, 119,000 people gave us their email addresses for the privilege of voting.” There were 3.5 million votes and “the votes came from 175 countries.” 80 games were chosen.

The exhibit will travel to 10 cities, including Miami, Seattle and Boca Raton, Fla. Five different playable games include the 1990 “The Secret of Monkey Island” from LucasArts and the classic Pac-Man from the 1970s. Other examples on display are “Final Fantasy VII,” “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” and “Space Invaders.”

“It is interesting when you take a look at video games because they stand apart from so many traditional forms of art because they are an amalgam of all,” Melissinos says. “Some games are an amalgam of historical context, of art progression, of music, of narrative of social reflection, you know, all wrapped up in a social experience.”

He points out that “you can’t have with so many of the games you have today without a strong understanding of literature … or a strong understanding of history.”

For the first time, the Smithsonian American Art museum is attempting micro-donations. “From a cell phone you can text $10 and have your name in the scrolling video credits in the exhibition,” says Broun. So far donors include ThinkGeek, the Entertainment Software Association Foundation and Punkrawk Bbob.

One donor wrote, “To Dreamers who are game designers — Your games help me heal.”

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