The Art of Video Games Exhibit

Chip and I have been in a bit of a rut lately. There is some comfort in going to the same place after work and getting the same drinks. However, as exciting and somewhat nomadic young people, this sort of comfortable stagnation is only fulfilling for so long. Sooner or later there arises a need for something more. So in order to accommodate this craving (and create content for our poorly neglected blog) we decided to smoosh the two into one super exciting thing we call DATE NIGHT. 

[Chip] In early 2011, it was announced that a new traveling exhibition focusing on video games would be housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Before the exhibit would be ready, the organizers needed help from the gaming community to decide which games would be proudly and lovingly displayed.  After two months of voting, an initial list of 240 games was narrowed down to 80 titles across 20 gaming consoles, and the opening weekend was announced for the date of March 16, 2012.  So it was that after a year of waiting patiently (read: obsessively checking the Internet for details), Laura and I made our way into our Nation’s Capital to visit the Art of Video Games Exhibit.

[Laura] Now, this museum happens to hold a special place in my heart because one of my earliest pilgrimages to DC was to visit this museum back in January of 2008. A portrait of Steven Colbert (which had been hung unceremoniously above a water fountain between the men’s and women’s bathrooms) had gone on display earlier that week. Chip had recently moved to the area and I had recently begun stalking hanging out with him, so I suggested we go with our friend Tina. And so we did. It was quite an adventure. And so was this.

After the long metro ride in, we decided to grab a bite to eat. Really, there is nothing I want to do less than wander around a museum on an empty stomach.  We don’t visit DC very often, but we know that (food-wise) you can never go wrong with China Town. I don’t think I’ve been to a restaurant in China Town that I didn’t like. And it just so happens that the Gallery is nestled quite comfortable between half a dozen fantastic restaurants. Being the diligent adventurers that we are, we had investigated the restaurants in the area before embarking on our quest. We compiled a short list of places we wanted to go… then promptly abandoned that list for pizza. Pizza is an amazing date option. It’s cheap and it’s delicious and everybody likes it. Lucky for us, there were a couple different places to choose from in China Town, so we picked one at random that was just across the street from the museum. This is how we discovered District of Pi.

The décor of this place is so cool. The service is awesome. The selection is amazing. With a tremendous number of beers on tap, it’s hard not to waste the day sitting at the bar, sampling all of them (Over twenty beers on tap, and not a single one ends with the word Lite!). We started with Pi Common(because it was the cheapest option on the menu and neither of us had tried it before) and Chip had Golden Monkey Ale after that (quite tasty).  The pizza we selected was called the Central West End. At $17 for a pizza, it’s not exactly cheap, but it was quite easily split between two people and the list of ingredients was unique: Prosciutto, goat cheese, arugula and the most deliciously sweet caramelized onions I’ve ever tasted. All this on top of a thin, crispy crust gleaming with olive oil. The two of us demolished the pizza to give us strength for a museum trip.

After thoroughly enjoying our meal at District of Pi, Laura and I took the short walk (less than a block) to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  As we made our way inside, I expected to be immediately greeted by the blinking lights and immersive worlds of our hobby.  Instead, I was surprised to find the first bit of the museum to be rather, well, like a museum: quiet, somber, and lots of patrons of the arts milling about.  Come to find out that the exhibit is on the upper floor of the museum, which one could deduce by watching the individuals wearing gaming-related shirts making their way upwards.  Laura and I made our way up some grand staircases, then down a hallway featuring some modern art, then we followed a sign down a path marked by strange sculptures, and finally we laid eyes on familiar and inviting screens in the far corner of the museum.  Hmm, putting the nerdy exhibit at the back of the class, not off to a great start.

The Art of Video Games Exhibit consists of three areas, the first of which being a sort of introduction room.  Within this room, there were several video screens playing looped videos of interviews with industry greats like Ken Levine and Tim Schaffer, along with a wall of concept art from a handful of titles (some highlights being Fallout 3 and Sonic the Hedgehog).  Against the wall opposite from the concept art was a set of four monitors which were displaying a changing series of  faces and expressions.  After watching these mysterious screens for a bit, I realized that I was looking at footage of people playing video games.  It was so interesting to see individuals from all races, ages, and cultures reacting so similarly to the joy of playing a video game: lots of surprised and joyful faces, juxtaposed with the furrowed brows of concentration.

The next room was much larger, and housed five stations at which anyone could walk up and play a featured title.  The video games chosen spanned very different graphics and gameplay systems; from the simplicity of Pac-Man, making a jump (HA) to Super Mario Brothers, to the humor and cartoon style of Monkey Island, delving into the curiousity of Myst, and culminating with the beauty and calm of Flower.  While only a limited number of genres are represented here, the simple controls and approachable gameplay of these titles offers everyone a chance to play (and a timer on each station ensures this chance).

The final area of the Art of Video Games could be consider the “meat and potatoes” of the exhibit.  Starting from the left of the entrance, and traveling along the wall around the room (in chronological order!) were very impressive cabinets that housed each of the twenty consoles on display.  Each cabinet had screenshots of four games, representing the categories of Action, Target, Adventure, and Strategy, along with videos of each game and a summary of the console’s contribution to history.  It was so interesting to be able to walk the edge of the room and see the progress that video game technology has made in roughly 30 years.  It was fascinating watching the simple yellow circle of Pac-Man chomp along only a door frame away from the damn near life-like character interactions in Heavy Rain.

No sooner had Laura and I begun to revel in the history of video games, than we were at the end of the exhibit, and back to the world of paintings, sketches, and sculptures.  Overall, I was very pleased with the very existence of the Art of Video Games Exhibit.  I would definitely like to see more public recognition of the massive amounts of concept art and design that go into the creation of video games, and even larger exhibits about gaming in general.  Maybe a Smithsonian Museum of Interactive Technology?  But the founder of the feast, Chris Melissinos, did an fantastic job making a gallery that not only expresses the joy that gaming can create, but showcases the GIGANTIC leaps in technology and design that video games have made in such a short time.  A visit to the Art of Video Games Exhibit (and District of Pi) makes for a excellent date, and a fun and interactive way to share your hobby with a significant other.

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