Exhibit Explores The Art Of Video Games

August 09, 2013

Have you ever had the experience in a museum, where you see something on the wall, and it instantly puts you in a place? Where you can see and smell and just feel it?

super mario brothers Super Mario World, 1991. Hiroshi Yamauchi, executive producer; Shigeru Miyamoto, producer; Takashi Tezuka, lead director. Nintendo of America, Inc. All rights reserved. (Photo courtesy of Nintendo of America, Inc.)

For KJZZ's Mark Brodie, it happened this week at the Phoenix Art Museum, and he had Christian Adame, the museum’s assistant curator for education, to share it with.

"This is the first video game console I had as a kid, and that top screen there, that shows Donkey Kong," Brodie said. "I think that was the first video game I ever played, so this is taking me back to my parents’ basement."

"Absolutely, and you know, I think what’s really fun about having this exhibition in the museum is that it does really bring people back," Adame said. "There’s a real nostalgic element to this, because it’s a console show, because you experienced this in your living room, so I think seeing that on the museum walls, not only does it bring people back because you’re remembering what that console looked like and what these games look like, but there’s that experience associated with it."

This blast from the past is part of an exhibit at the museum called "The Art of Video Games." It is set up kind of like an arcade, if arcades lived in art museums, with consoles from the 1970s to today and five games visitors can play.

Like this one. Possibly the most famous video game of all, Super Mario Brothers. The exhibit covers about 40 years, and when Adame is asked to describe the evolution of the art of video games over that time, he does not hesitate.

"Quick," Adame laughed. "I would say the evolution of video games has been very rapid, because video games rely so much on the technology and the innovations, the possibilities of video games have been very quickly transforming before our eyes."

And, Adame said people in the gaming industry say we are currently only scratching the surface of what could be.

"Designers who always had the vision of creating something really beautiful and aesthetically interesting were very limited in the early days of video game development by because of the memory size, and again, as the technology has changed, the creative world has completely opened up," Adame explained.

Adame, who considers himself a gamer, points out that even though the exhibit is relatively new, it does not really include games played on smartphones or tablets. The Museum’s Director Jim Ballinger who does not consider himself a gamer, said he knows an art exhibit about video games is not for everybody, but he said this kind of show is important for the museum’s future.

"I think the capitol “A” of art is not going lowercase, but it’s shrinking a bit to be more inclusive, as we look at broader audiences and what people are really interested in. We want to bring the highest possible understanding to them," Ballinger said.

The exhibit was developed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Ballinger notes MOMA in New York City earlier this year added video games to its collection. He said if you listen to game designers talk about their craft, it is not that different than what painters say about theirs.

"I think you’ll see that technology artists of all kinds, 500 years from now, the very best will be celebrated and recognized," Ballinger said.

pacman Pac-Man, 1981. Toru Iwatani, original concept; adapted by Tod Frye TM and c NAMCO BANDAI Games, Inc. All rights reserved. (Photo courtesy NAMCO BANDAI Games, Inc.)

Ballinger said it is important to treat an exhibit about video games with the same care curators would treat an exhibit about the Dutch masters or anything else. Adame said traditional artists and video game designers use many of the same techniques, and both respond to the social issues of their time.

"I think it’s both a traditional culmination of arts, but also in its own art form, because video games are interactive. You have to have the gamer to make the game work," Adame said.

"When you hang out, fly on the wall in this exhibit, we saw some kids over there playing Super Mario Brothers and some of the other earlier ones, is there any sense of, ‘Wow, this is really lame. I can’t believe you guys thought this was cool,' and then they suddenly go over to the Wii or the PS3 or the X-Box?" Brodie asked.

"It’s really fun being a fly on the wall in the museum anytime, but I think particularly with this exhibition it’s been really interesting," Adame responded." You start with Pac-Man, which is the earliest playable game in the show, and the parents are teaching the kids how to use the joystick, and by the time you get to the most contemporary game, which is Flower, playable in the show, the roles have kind of reversed."

The Art of Video Games runs through September 29 at the Phoenix Art Museum.

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