How Video Games Ended Up in the Smithsonian

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An interview with the curator of a new exhibit about the history of the form

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The most striking thing about The Art of Video Games was how old it made me feel. Walking through the technological retrospective at the Smithsonian's American Museum of Art, I saw the artifacts of my youth, the insatiable Zergling terrors of Starcraft, Half-Life's cold-blooded assassination squads, the zany cartoon violence of Worms Armageddon, hung on the walls of the Smithsonian like any other relic. The sight exposed a thread that until now had run unnoticed throughout two thirds of my life: the virtual worlds that, in the absence of companionship, had given me a kind of comfort that my peers in seventh-grade homeroom were unwilling to provide. Anyone who had long forgotten or ignored the role these games played in their lives will probably find something here that moves them.

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Though the exhibit chooses not make overly aggressive statements about the cultural importance video games, its historically focused approach is nonetheless an effective tool. It makes a methodical, academic progression, from the pixelated days of Pac Man to the fully-realized virtual worlds of Mass Effect 3. The approach allows you to place yourself and your experiences in the context of a larger movement, and lets you see exactly what technological movements and innovations you were a part of. I can see now that my years spent silently glued to the Starcraft campaign unfolding on my screen were rooted in the transitional era between 2D and 3D technology.

But Starcraft is only 14 years old. Pong, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong, the games that exhibition curator Chris Melissinos grew up with, are all 30 years old or more at this point. Melissinos remembers when games had to be programmed by the user themselves into a home computer. He spent 15 years as Sun Microsystems's chief video game officer and technological evangelist, i.e the man responsible for spreading the gospel of a particular piece of tech with the goal of making it the industry standard. In 2009 he founded Past Pixels, an organization dedicated to the preservation of video game history. When it comes to spreading the gospel of video games, he's practically an ordained priest.

Melissinos spoke with me about his personal relationship with video games and why gaming's time is now.


I've been a gamer my entire life. I was born in 1970, in an era that I lovingly refer to as the Bit Baby Generation. We were the first kids that grew up with video games and computers at home, and we never stopped playing or looking back ever since. Now 40 years later, we're able to look back and understand that this medium has always been a medium of art.

Do you find it strange to see the entire contents of your adolescence displayed on the walls here?

What's been so rewarding about working on this, with the amazing team at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was the ability to really imbue the space with the entire progression of games from my personal life. Most of the selection that you'll see in this exhibition, are actually from my house. I'd say 80 percent of the materials here are probably from my personal collection. Being able to use that to inform video games as a form of art, has just been tremendous.

Interview continues below gallery.

What's the first game you remember playing?

Of course the first game I remember playing was Pong. This is back in the early 1970s, but it was really looking at games like King's Quest, or typing games into the TRS-80 computers back in my public school in New York and playing rudimentary versions of Lunar Lander. Things I remember very distinctly; rudimentary versions of Space Invaders. I have very fond memories of highly pixelated, highly abstract notions of games and characters from those years.

Do you remember your first addiction to a particular game?

Probably the one game that resonates most with my past, is a game called Robotron 2084, which isn't even in the exhibition. It's an arcade machine, but it's one that I have so much affinity for, even today, I actually have an [arcade] cabinet in my house.

What is it about gaming that you want to share with people? It's a sub-culture. I grew up gaming a lot, and I was a huge heavy metal fan, and I found that part of the appeal of a sub-culture is keeping it insulated. What is it that you want to share with people? Do you feel like it's been unfairly represented and you're trying to correct that? Do you feel that the culture's exposure is inevitable and you're just trying to make sure it's done right?

That's a great question. I don't believe that this exhibition could've been done at any other point in time. One of the issues that we had playing video games and building games in their earliest forms, was that we lacked the vocabulary to really describe what it is that we were creating. Those of us that grew up writing video games, building these experiences, imbuing the system with our own imagination, and our own world perspective, we always knew there was something bigger to it. We were just too immature to accurately describe it and I believe that the recognition of video games as art is one of these things that happens gradually, then suddenly.

Why now? Because those of us that grew up playing these games from the 1970s forward are at the age where we are now raising gamers of our own. So for the very first time, in American culture, we have gamers, raising a generation of gamers, and that's why you're seeing this massive acceptance of video games as a dominate form of not only art, entertainment, and inspired works, but as part of native American culture.

What do you want non-gamers to learn from games?

Video games, being an amalgam of all traditional art, from illustration to painting, narrative, music, and intent, give us an extraordinary opportunity to craft experiences, to craft a story, to craft modes of communication and connections to each other that will allow us to better examine what it means to be human, what it means to imbue the game with our own moral code, to look at society and have it reflected in the games that we play. I think it's incredibly inspiring and exciting that video games have reached this point.

Are you now, or have you ever been, a gamer?

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Daniel D. Snyder is a writer based in New Mexico.

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