Smithsonian's Crowdsourced "The Art Of Video Games" Exhibition Comes Under Fire

<p>The gaming community is none too pleased with the voter selected list of games to be included in the exhibition.</p>

Yesterday, the Smithsonian American Art Museum announced the list of 80 games to be included in its upcoming “The Art of Video Games” exhibition, scheduled to open in March of 2012. The final list was the result of a crowdsourced effort where the museum called upon the gaming community to narrow down its list of 240 games over the course of a two month voting period. The exhibition received an enthusiastic response—more that 3.7 million votes were submitted from 119,000 unique voters and 175 countries—but their crowdsourced approach garnered some criticism from both gaming and arts journalists alike.

This was to be a momentous exhibition for video games. A major show at a major US arts institution dedicated to exploring “the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium” is unprecedented, and many felt that the populist voting approach was a bit of a cop out on the curator’s part and reflected, for lack of a better term, a lack of conviction. How would a random assemblage of games selected by a voting public tell the story of gaming’s history, much less make a compelling case for its artistic relevance, some wondered? The show’s curator, Chris Melissinos, and exhibition coordinator, Georgina Goodlander, took to Ustream last night to address some of these concerns and introduce the winning games in the video below.

We reached out to a few of our gaming world friends to get their thoughts on the topic. Of all the responses we received, the one from Zach Gage, an indie game developer, artist, and recent curator of a gaming exhibition at DIY gaming arcade Babycastles, seemed to articulate some of the shared skepticisms and reservations in a clear and concise way. We decided not to mess with Zach’s words and printed his full response below.

Zach Gage writes:

First off, I really appreciate that Chris Melissinos and the Smithsonian have attempted this exhibition. We’re still in the very early stages of determining why exactly video games are important and have artistic merit, so going out and creating a show in a large cultural institution like the Smithsonian is going to be a controversial move no matter what your perspective on the whole thing is.

My initial concerns about the current show were its sort of lack of perspective. The strength of a curated show comes from the choice and arrangement of the works, and I worried that with a crowdsourced show like this, it would be hard to form a central thesis. What makes each of these games influential and how will those qualities come together to paint a moving picture of games as an art medium? I wasn’t sure this list particularly answered those questions.

Having now watched the video that the exhibition had put together to introduce the list on artofvideogames.org, my concerns have been somewhat assuaged by the obvious love and understanding that Chris Melissinos has for these games, and his ability to explain what was so important about each of them. To some extent, I think what Chris and the Smithsonian have done is very smart. They’ve avoided directly addressing the question of why are video games art, and instead danced around it, showing a number of wonderful games and explaining why each great. Despite this success though, I feel that the show was still damaged by the crowdsourced curation approach. While I agree that the player is a major component of games (as Abe Stein recently posted to his blog, “A game not played is no game at all”), the argument that because games are played by the public they should be publicly curated doesn’t necessarily follow for me, especially when the resultant list is so muddled.

So of course, here are my nitpicks. Why does the list forget entire genres like beat ’em ups, music games, movement games, text adventures, sports games, fighting games, mod-able games and flight simulators? Why are all the Panzer Dragoon games on there? Certainly they were visually stunning, but enough to showcase each one separately? How is this list missing classics like Tetris and Asteroids? What about genre-defining games like Alone in the Dark, Zork, Everquest, GTA3, XCOM, Prince of Persia, Another World, or Oregon Trail? Why is Doom 2 mentioned over Doom, and where is Quake, the game that basically invented online first person shooters? And how could you leave out Wing Commander 3 or Street Fighter II? And how did no Sonic game get on that list except Sonic Adventure, a game that primarily taught the industry how not to convert a 2D franchise to 3D. And what happened to Duck Hunt, and contemporary classics like Bejeweled, The Sims, and Wii Sports? And the list barely manages to mention roguelikes, thankfully including Minecraft.

Despite Chris’ apparent love for the games, the show doesn’t feel as strongly curated as it could have been, overly heavy in some places, and completely missing in others, and I think that is a result of the crowdsourcing. Although I’m sure Chris has a fantastic perspective that will tie this all together beautifully and the resulting show will be enjoyable and successful, I wish that he had just selected a strong list of games on his own and been confident with his picks.

And perhaps it would have been nice to not side-step the question of why are these games, as a whole, important as art. Considering this is the first major American art institution to put on a video game show, I would have liked to see a more powerful statement about the medium.

You can find the full list of games selected here. How successful do you think the crowdsourcing was? Obviously, we have yet to see how the exhibition develops over the course of the remaining 10-11 months, so it’s early to speculate about its potential successes or failures. To the credit of Chris and Georgina, however, their willingness to engage in a conversation with their audience about their curatorial efforts and their criticisms is certainly admirable, no matter which side of the debate you may fall on.