The Age of Video Games at the Smithsonian

Although I missed the grand opening, I was eventually able to run up to the Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian, about 45 minutes out from where I live. I honestly don’t know what everyone else has written on it but I personally think it makes great efforts to fight some of the biggest specific obstacles to mainstream acceptance of games.

The main thing that caught my eye was how so much of the exhibit is devoted to illustrating the chronology of game design. Nearly the whole thing is devoted to showing people how games evolved from the ColecoVision to the Xbox 360. I’ve been waiting for someone to go through the trouble of describing this to the non-gamer.

Back when the Supreme Court presided over one of those video game laws that keeps getting struck down, what jumped out at me were some of the justices’ attempts to confirm themselves to be gamers – by mentioning Pac-Man. I hope that illustrated the core of this problem to everyone paying attention.

A lot of these people misunderstand video games mostly because they haven’t played one in 30 years. Pac-Man and Pong are still the images that mainly pop into their heads when talking about playing video games. Look at what games are popular with the mass audience now – Wii and iOS games that aren’t a whole lot more complicated than what they were playing back in the 70’s. I’m willing to bet that a lot of these people dropped gaming after the 1982 industry crash and have only just now picked it back up in the last couple years. For them, gaming went straight from Pac-Man to Wii Sports and Angry Birds. The Smithsonian exhibit could at least begin to fight this problem.

I’ve seen myself how many, shall I say, “old people” can’t grasp how much console video games have changed in the last 30 years. Music, movies, and literature haven’t changed nearly as much in that amount of time. Styles may have changed for those media, but none of them has gone through several quantum leaps over the last quarter century.

When some people catch me playing a PS3 game, most of the time they’ll glance and think I’m watching a movie. When someone does realize I’m playing a game the most common reaction is utter disbelief at the visual realism and the range of actions I can perform. They never fully wrap their heads around what’s happening on-screen.

The Smithsonian exhibit is the first place I’ve seen in the midst of the general public that actually tries to show the gradual evolution that we all take for granted. One of the rooms has playable demos of five different kinds of games: Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. The next room has a display case for every major gaming platform accompanied by screens and videos of four of each platform’s best games. They’re all displayed in a linear fashion starting from ColecoVision to PS3. For the first time I can show someone exactly how video game graphics transitioned form what they remember to what I’m playing today.

One of the smaller parts of the exhibit tried to show the evolution of game design pertaining to different themes and genres. Five screens side-by-side would show an isometric pre-NES shmup, then Afterburner, then Star Fox, then Einhander, then Rez. The screens would flip from that display to one showing RPGs through the ages, adventure games, and so-on.

One unrelated thing I really liked that they put front-and-center were pages of concept art from classic games so the mainstream audience can notice that part of the game making process. The final thing that blew me away at the exhibit were the screens showing footage of what people look like while playing video games – not the controllers, just the players’ faces. On one hand it’s kinda shocking to see these stern-yet-zombified expressions and think “is that what I look like?”On the other hand people can see how inaccurate the TV and movie representations really are.

I’m not gonna suggest everybody come up here to see the exhibit since everyone doesn’t live near DC, but I do think it’s worth it if you live relatively close by between now and September, especially if you plan to bring someone whom you want to better understand your hobby. After September I believe the exhibit is moving to other parts of the world.


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