Video Games As Art? With an Upcoming Smithsonian Exhibit, Pong Equals Picasso

If there is any doubt as to whether Chris Melissinos is qualified to curate the “Art of Video Games” exhibit, scheduled to open next year at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it vanishes after entering his Northern Virginia home.

The walls of his office are adorned with game platforms–he owns 42 different systems, by his last count–dating back nearly four decades.

Melissinos proudly shows off a circuit board from an original Pong unit, and Game Boy game boxes line his windowsills. In the basement, past the arcade cabinet he custom-built himself is a room that can only be described as a gaming cave, complete with drawers upon drawers of titles for various systems, rows of comfortable chairs and an enormous screen on which he and his family play Playstation 3.

“Games have always been a part of my life, since I was a kid,” he said. “I developed my first game at 12.”

With a background in programming, he began a career with Sun Microsystems 17 years ago, and in 2000 convinced then-CEO Scott McNealy that the company should begin to have a presence in the world of gaming.

Melissinos was appointed Chief Gaming Officer at Sun Microsystems, a position he held for nearly a decade. His high profile in the gaming community led to his being asked by the Smithsonian to curate the upcoming exhibit.

Melissinos considers himself part of the “bit-baby” generation–that is, the first to grow up with computers in the home. He now has children of his own, who are top-notch gamers themselves.

The fact that the bit-babies now have children old enough to appreciate video games, Melissinos said, is part of what makes now the right time for an exhibit like this one to be displayed at the Smithsonian, which is known for, among other things, chronicling culturally significant trends and milestones in American history.

Now, several decades after the industry’s inception, the evolution of the medium of video games is also being examined as a story itself.

But he also contends that the video game as an art form has always been worth putting on display. Even though most art exhibits focus on visual works, Melissinos insists that viewing a game in the context of art involves not only its visual and musical components, but also the storyline, dialogue and mechanics.

“To really understand the medium, it has to be about more than just the visuals,” he said.

Melissinos also outlined the notion of the “three voices” in video games, something he feels makes the genre even more significant in the art world.

The voice of the artist is present in any artistic work, and those of the characters exist in any artistic work with an actual or implied story. However, the added component of the player or players, who give meaning to the characters and story and make decisions affecting their fates is the third, unique voice.

Melissinos insisted that this third voice is critical to games as an artistic medium. “When you’re 12, you have no control over anything in your life, except perhaps for the choices you make in a game,” he noted.

Something else that sets this exhibit apart from others in art galleries, or even within museums in general, is the way that it is being put together in an interactive, Web 2.0 way.

Melissinos selected 240 different games on 20 different platforms, organized into five different eras of gaming since the 1970’s and four different genres.

Users can vote for the games on the list that they think best represent the medium at through April 17, and the top 80 vote getters will be featured in the exhibit.

Although Melissinos has given up control of the final game selection to the Web-going public, he said that in picking the initial 240 options, he exerted all the power he needed to as curator.

“So far the public is doing its job,” he said. “And I’ll be able to tell the story I need to no matter what games win.”

Here is an interview I did with Melissinos about the upcoming exhibit, with lots and lots of oldies but goodies:

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