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Smithsonian features 'The Art of Video Games'

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Shenmue, 2000, Yu Suzuki, director and producer; Yoichi Takahashi, designer; Eiji Ogawa, writer, SEGA Dreamcast

“The Art of Video Games,” one of the first major exhibits to explore the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, will open March 16 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. 

On display until Sept. 30, the exhibit features 80 video games, selected with the help of the public, which was asked by the Smithsonian early last year to choose their favorites from a pool of 240; games were selected for their graphic excellence, artistic intent and innovative design. Presented in the exhibit through still images and video footage, the 80 selected games demonstrate the evolution of the video game medium.

There will also be five featured games, one from each gaming era, that will be available in exhibition galleries for visitors to play; these are "Pac-Man," "Super Mario Brothers," "The Secret of Monkey Island," "Myst" and "Flower." They were chosen, the museum said, because they demonstrate how players interact with virtual worlds; they also display what were innovative, new techniques when they were developed, setting the standard for later games.

Also featured are 12-foot-high projections of excerpts from games, accompanied by a chipmusic soundtrack recorded by 8 Bit Weapon specifically for the exhibit; videos that depict the range of emotional responses players have while interacting with games; and excerpts from interviews with 20 influential figures in the gaming world.

Sony Computer Entertainment America LLC

Shadow of the Colossus, 2005, Fumito Ueda, director and game design, Sony Playstation 2.

Chris Melissinos, former chief gaming officer for Sun Microsystems and guest curator of the exhibit, said it “illuminates the importance of games in our society, for those of us who grew up with them. For the first time in our history, we have gamers raising gamers. This is storytelling and an artistic medium for the 21st century.”

Of the games in the exhibit, Melissinos said one of his favorites is "Shadow of the Colossus," while he said his “all-time favorite” is "Robotron:  2084," which is not in the exhibit, and which he called “perhaps one of the greatest arcade games ever made. It provides a real moral conflict for the player.”

Curvin J. Huber, an assistant professor of game design at Becker College in Worcester, Mass., said he hoped the exhibit would make the “general public aware that video games are an art form the same as a painting on the wall, or experimental film.”

Sony Computer Entertainment America LLC

Flower TM, 2009, Jenova Chen, creative director; John Edwards, lead engineer. Developed by thatgamecompany, LLC, Playstation 3.

Tracy Fullerton, an associate professor in the interactive media division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts — whose graduates created two of the 80 games in the exhibit, "flOw" and "Flower" — said that although no one exhibit “could cover everyone’s favorite games, they did a great job of covering the spectrum.           

“One of the wonderful qualities of the Smithsonian is that it celebrates American art and artifacts in all variations. It’s great to see video games included in that,” she added.

The exhibit will open Friday with a three-day “GameFest.” This will include panel discussions on the past and future of video game design; a keynote address by Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari; screenings of “TRON” and the documentary,“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”; and live-action games with costumed characters. There will also be a symposium May 4 that will examine the changing roles of video games in fields ranging from health care and education to journalism and national defense.

The exhibit will travel to 10 other U.S. cities from October 2012 through January 2016; confirmed venues can be found on the exhibit’s Web site.     

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