Chris Melissinos: The Art of Video Games

Chris Melissinos is the Guest Curator at the Art of Videogames Exhibition, now showing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Recently we caught up with him and asked him what videogames are worthy of being hanged next to the Mona Lisa.

Electric Playground: Give us the deal: what’s The Art of Video Games Exhibition all about?

Chris Melissinos

Chris Melissinos: The Art of Videogames exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is basically a 40-year look at the evolution of videogames as an art form.

A very important distinction here is that we’re not talking about just the art within videogames. It’s important to look at videogames as an art form. This exhibition attempts to understand videogames [themselves] as an art form. We believe by and large we’ve been able to achieve that.

EP: And what’s your involvement?

I am the Guest Curator for the exhibition. I created the narrative, the framework, as well as drove the selection process for all of the games in the exhibition. All of the video gameplay footage that you see is actually me playing those games. The screenshots that you see are screenshots that I captured [while] playing. I wrote all of the dialogue that the expert team at the museum helped me pair down to make sure was consumable and didn’t run too long.

It was a vision I had for doing this that the museum supported, and I worked with a tremendously talented team at the museum to achieve the exhibition.

EP: How do you convey art appreciation for an interactive medium like games? Do the visitors actually play the games?

The Art of Videogames really revolves around the fact that there are three voices present that make up videogames as art.

Ron Gilbert, whose game The Secret of Monkey Island is part of the exhibition.

In the first area you’ll hear from designers, artists and game creators in their own words about what inspires them. Why they choose videogames as a medium to tell their stories. We have concept art, box art and materials, digital prints… The first section is all about the humanity and the people behind the games.

Myst, one of the playable games at the exhibition.

In the second area, we have five playable games, one game from each era that we describe in this exhibition. Those five games were chosen by me and each game represents something in their era that changed not only the way the public viewed videogames, but changed the way designers looked at the videogames that they wanted to create. Those five games are the original Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst and Flower. And those games are playable. You can go in, get hands-on for a few minutes and taste and sample what made these games special.

In the final room we have the progression of videogames as an art form over a 40-year trajectory, represented by 20 consoles and platforms. We start at the Atari VCS, we end at the PlayStation 3, and you’re able to experience 80 games across all of those platforms that allow you to see the progression of the art form over time.

EP: Why is this your passion? Why do you feel the need to show this to an audience?

I grew up in the 1970s. My generation was the first generation of kids who grew up with computers in the home. By and large, the first computers in most American homes were videogames. They were Pong and the Fairchild Channel F, the Odyssey and these sorts of things. We grew up with the assumption that computers and videogames would be a fixture in our lives. I started programming when I was 9 years old. I wrote my first fully formed videogame called Space Debris when I was 12. I did it on my Commodore Vic-20, which was a 5K machine. Five kilobytes! Videogames have been part of my entire life and ultimately they shaped and formed the trajectory for my career.

As I got older, I eventually became the Chief Gaming Officer at Sun Microsystems. I worked on videogame platforms and technologies for 12 years and have been collecting and playing videogames the entire time. And as a parent, I am now raising gamers of my own.

I felt it was important that we have the opportunity to not only look at the preservation and understanding of games, but to understand their meaning in society. So many of the games that we play come from a place of inspiration and personal observation by the designer. That may not be apparent to the player at first. I thought this was an opportunity to say, “Videogames are worthy to be held up as a form of art, just as any other medium.” The opportunity to do this at the Smithsonian American Art Museum presented itself, and here we are.

EP: I’m sure the gamers appreciate the exhibit, but do you have a lot of non-gamers coming out?

Absolutely! One of the most rewarding things is to hear from people who have never played videogames or for some reason, stopped playing. And they say, “I never stopped to really think about what I was actually seeing!”

It’s very easy to dismiss a videogame on the surface. “Oh, that’s nothing more than a spaceship shooting stuff.” It is in the investment of time, the emotional investment in the narrative and characters that it becomes something more. It becomes something deeper. And this is what most people have discovered.

I did an interview recently where somebody asked me about training the docents–the people who are at the museum to help guide people through the exhibition. At the Smithsonian American Art Museum I found that most of the docents assigned to this were women well over the age of 50. Many of them had never played a videogame before. By the time that I got done explaining to them why videogames are art to me and to millions that grew up projecting our hopes and aspirations, thoughts and fantasy into them, by and large they came back and said, “I will never look at videogames the same way again. In fact, I now understand that they are as much an art form as anything else in the museum.” And that’s been awesome. That’s just been tremendous.

Earthworm Jim, one of the games on display

EP: I’ll bet you’re particularly proud of that achievement.

Yeah! For me it’s all about light bulb moments. In hectic lives so filled technology, information overload, it becomes difficult to see the deeper meaning in things. So it’s important to always frame these things in the context of the people trying to deliver the message. For me, they are very personal. Videogames have been central to my life and have charted the course of my life from a young child, to an adult raising children. And I knew I wasn’t alone, right?

I think the big thing about videogames as art is that for many of us who grew up playing these games we always understood that videogames were more than described. There was an immaturely in our vocabulary that didn’t allow us to describe accurately what it was we were feeling and experiencing. And here we are, 40 years later. We now have the maturity and hindsight to understand that what we are engaging with is as much art as any other form of art that has come before it.

EP: Are you seeing a lot of good response from visitors?

CM: Oh yeah. That bit of it has been absolutely overwhelming. There are guest books and some of the comments we’ve received make you well up a little bit, because some people have such an emotional attachment to it. One of the things I was hoping the exhibition would do is bring multiple generations together. Have parents and grandparents who have dismissed games or forgotten why games are important find new connections with their children. It’s wonderful to sit there and watch some kid explaining the stuff that they were doing, and the parents going back and explaining to the kids, “When I was your age, this is what I used to do. Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize that these are connected!”

Metal Gear Solid, another piece of art

We’ve posted some comments on Facebook. “This is the most awesome place in the world! I saw you guys on Sunday morning and I asked my parents to come!” How about this one: “This place makes me feel at home. I feel like finally someone understands the true art and it makes me feel like I matter in the world.”

These are the expressions that people have been pouring into exhibition. I have to say it has achieved everything that I hoped the exhibition would achieve. Not only for those of us who have been in the games industry or created games over the years, but for those that experienced it with just as much love and admiration as we do.

EP: Of all the games in the exhibition, which one is your favourite and why?

CM: You’re asking me that one, huh? This is like when we put the games up for public vote. I get so many emails from people saying, “You jerk! How dare you make me choose between The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, EarthBound and Chrono Trigger! I refuse to answer!”

I’ll give you two that hold a special place in my heart. The first one is Rez on the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2. It was one of the very first times an art game made me feel as if I was in the computer, in the system, in the network. The fact that the music is composed interactively as you were defeating viruses in the games was just stunning. It’s a game that captures your imagination.

Panzer Dragoon Zwei

The second one I’d say is Panzer Dragoon Zwei. What I love about the Panzer Dragoon games and the era that they came out on the Sega Saturn–which is an era I call the Transition Era, because you can almost see the struggle that the artists had in bringing the game to life. We were transitioning from 2D gameplay to 3D gameplay. Imagine going to someone who has only ever painted on canvas with oil and saying, “This is beautiful! For your next piece of work take a hammer and chisel and go sculpt something out of marble!”

What you had in that era was artists and designers trying to figure out how to transfer their visions to a new form, which was 3D, but the games couldn’t do 3D too well. So what you’re left with is a game that straddles two worlds: 2D and 3D. And within all of that you have a beautifully crafted game.

EP: Is there any chance of this exhibition becoming a permanent part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum?

CM: That’s an interesting one. I think to date we’ve had somewhere north of 230,000 people visit the exhibition since its opening a month and a half ago. The Saturday it opened was the forth most trafficked day in the history of the museum. I would hope that we’d be able to further some discussions about how videogames have a permanent place within an art museum like the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Chris Melissinos co-authored a book on the exhibition.

EP: Since this is a multi-city tour, any chance it might come to Canada or Europe?

CM: Once it leaves the Smithsonian American Art Museum in September it will travel to 10 more museums in the United States. If there are any museums that want to carry this, I would urge them to get a hold of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s basically filled up to the beginning of 2016. If there’s any interest in museums or anybody who could possible pick this up, I’m sure we’d love to hear from you.

For more information about the Art of Videogames Exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, visit their webpage. For Chris Melissinos’ discussion on videogames as art, click here.

-Interview by Jason MacIsaac