Putting video games in a museum is a potentially stifling move on par with putting rock ’n’ roll in a museum. Fortunately, EMP’s opening night gala for The Art of Video Games proved that any media blown up to IMAX proportions—the EMP’s Sky Church features the world’s largest indoor LED screen—is impressive enough to justify the cost of admission.
The value of the exhibit itself was less obvious. Housed in a smallish chamber in the center of the museum are 20 kiosks displaying 80 video games that span the 40-year history of the medium, from Combat for Atari VCS to Mass Effect 2 for Xbox. Each is classified under a genre: action, target, strategy and adventure. Viewers can trace the lineage of genres across decades, noting advances in graphics, sound, concept and storytelling along with the development of different game consoles.
Of those advances, storytelling is given the most emphasis. “What story does in games is it provides significance,” says game designer Warren Spector in one of several videos on loop in the exhibit. “You have to save your brother. You’ve only got 10 minutes. Here’s the problem that you have to solve to save your brother. Go.”
In this light, the exhibit likens video games to comic books—a post-modern form of storytelling only beginning to gain credibility as an art. As Chinese designer Jenova Chen says in his voiceover, “Anything a human does has a potential to express and they are all art [sic]. There’s no difference between the traditional and the digital.”
Like comic books, video games tend to be defended by the nerdy and the awkward, bolstering their cult-like qualities and hindering their advance into the artistic canon. And as EMP curator Brooks Peck noted in a pre-opening tour, the ephemeral quality of video games doesn’t work in their favor.
The Art of Video Games makes an academic argument for taking gaming more seriously. It doesn’t, however, delve into the economic argument: Since the late ’90s, video games have outsold DVDs and CDs dollar for dollar in the United States and Europe.
Nor is it a fun time down at the arcade. Only home gaming consoles are featured, and only five stations allow game play—for only a few minutes at a time. Instead, visitors listen to sober analysis of the games via telephone handset while watching videos of them on-screen. The technology feels clumsy—Why can’t I play the game being described? Where’d they dig up these handsets?—for an institution (the EMP) and industry (video games) founded on mind-expanding technology. If only they had Mario Kart available full-time on the screen in the Sky Church.
The exhibit establishes a lineage between the medium’s clumsy beginnings and its current sophistication, making strides only dreamed of by its earliest fans. In doing so it suggests the span between Lascaux and the Louvre, condensed from millennia to decades.