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The Smithsonian Decides Video Games Are Art

In April 2010, the late, great movie critic Roger Ebert made a mistake. In a ranting piece for his Chicago Sun-Times column, he decreed that “video games cannot be art,” and furthermore, “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” Now, internationally famous art museums are proving just how wrong Ebert was by acquiring video games for their collections. Super Mario is taking his rightful place right beside Picasso in the cultural hall-of-fame.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum just announced that it bought two video games, Flower (2009) by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago, an ethereal, beautiful game about the environmental impact of pollution in which the player controls a wind-blown collection of flower petals, and Halo 2600 (2010) by Ed Fries, a retro remix of the popular first-person-shooter game series Halo. “The best video games are a great expression of art and culture,” said Elizabeth Broun, the Smithsonian art museum’s director, directly refuting Ebert’s argument.

The acquisition follows up on the Museum of Modern Art’s purchase of 14 video games for its design collection in November of 2012. MoMA, which owns masterpieces like Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Vincent van Gogh’s famed “Starry Night,” and Salvador Dali’s composition of melting clocks, “The Persistence of Memory,” also chose some iconic video games for its collection, including Pac-Man, Tetris, and The Sims.

MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, who led the acquisition of the games, argued that video games require many kinds of creativity. They “have been part of our life for decades and they are important examples of a synthesis of design, architecture, and applied art,” she said. The museum had been “thinking of them for the collection for some time, it was just a matter of approach, research, and preparation.”

Smithsonian gathers information on video games for exhibitLikewise, the Smithsonian had been exploring video games for several years before incorporating them into its collection. In 2012, it organized The Art of Video Games, a popular exhibition documenting the medium’s history that is now on a 10-city tour. “The museum has begun to fully represent the medium of video games alongside film, video other time-based artworks,” explained Smithsonian curator Michael Mansfield, the driving force behind the museum’s recent purchase. “This is only the beginning.”

Rather than asking if video games are art, the more pressing question is, which games are worthy of entering into an art museum? The Smithsonian’s new collection, though small, represents a wide range of video-game making. “I felt it was important for the first video game acquisitions to represent the enormous potential in this creative field,” Mansfield said. The curator’s choices represented “the creative uses of technology, the conceptual processes at work, and the diverse formal elements of game making.”

Mansfield describes Flower as “an interactive poem composed by the player in real-time.” The game’s elegant visuals are ever shifting; as the player’s breeze-strewn flower petals flow across barren industrial landscapes, plant life starts to emerge. Like the early 20th-century Impressionists, painters who looked at the world around them and saw colors no one noticed before, the game finds joy in being immersed in nature.

Halo 2600 is a different kind of game, a kind of haiku-like virtual essay on the reach of video game culture,” Mansfield described. The original Halo (YEAR) was one of the first blockbuster video games, a global hit that had teenagers everywhere picking up futuristic weapons to fight aliens. It had expensive production values, with immaculate, high-polygon-count graphics. Halo 2600, on the other hand, is a lo-fi replica, presented in the large, blocky pixels of an early Nintendo game—it’s a video game that presents a commentary on video games.

One of the inherent qualities of art is that it must be critical of itself, responding to its own history. “A painting can be art, but it can also be just paint,” Mansfield argued. “Urinals and soup cans have changed the course of art history.” (The curator is referencing Andy Warhol’s screen-printed Campbell’s cans and Marcel Duchamp urinal-turned-sculpture.) “I think it is easy to see how video games, too, are doing just that.

Yet collecting video games presents some problems that painting and sculpture do not. The consoles and machines that games run on age and fall into disrepair, and the companies that support them can go out of business. Putting games in museums is one way to solve that problem: Both MoMA and the Smithsonian are working on ways to keep the games accessible by preserving and exhibiting them.

Conservation of video games is “an evolving practice,” according to Mansfield. MoMA is attempting to ensure that they have the source code for each video game the museum collects so it can replicate them at will. With teams of specialists used to keeping paintings immaculate for centuries and resources like the Time-Based Media Art Conservation Initiative, a collaborative project between museums, the Smithsonian “will ensure that these works—software and hardware—are available for future generations,” the curator said.

Just because video games are entering into art museums doesn’t mean that all video games are art, or that every time you pick up Angry Birds you’re having a meaningful cultural experience. But perhaps we just need to expand our definition of what art can be. Roger Ebert eventually regretted his choice of words, admitting that he was unfamiliar with video games and that “some opinions are best kept to yourself.”

“Artworks come in all shapes, sizes and materials,” Mansfield said. “Video games are altering fixed perceptions, conceptualizing new ideas, and making real the imaginary.” What more could we ask from a work of art?