2011 was a banner year for video games, at least in terms of aesthetic and institutional recognition. Not only did the National Endowment for the Humanities revise its charter to include games as a fundable art form, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum also opened online nominations for a groundbreaking exhibit entitled The Art of Video Games, which opened this year on March 16 and closes on September 30. With the help of a Berkeley Center for New Media summer research fellowship, I was able to visit the exhibit in June and meet with exhibition coordinator Georgina Goodlander, exhibition designer David Gleeson, media specialist Michael Mansfield, and curator Chris Melissinos. What follows is a very brief glimpse into my behind-the-scenes experience at the museum.

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The Art of Video Games occupies a modest, three-room footprint on the third floor of the American Art museum. Though many visitors mistake the massive Nam June Paik video installation near the start of the exhibit as its opener, The Art of Video Games in fact begins with a projection wall featuring gameplay footage and a small, introductory area that testifies to the imaginative and artistic merit of games through displayed concept art, filmed interviews with leading game designers and scholars, and my personal favorite—a triptych video installation offering screen’s-eye-views of players’ faces as they game, wearing expressions running the entertaining gamut from disbelief and zombie-like engrossment to surprised elation. (The faces shown belong to actual Smithsonian personnel and their relatives, most of whom are not self-professed hard-core gamers.)

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At the heart of the exhibit is its large, softly lit central room, which highlights five games, one for each “era” of videogame history (the eras are labeled Start!, 8-bit, Bit wars!, Transition, and Next Generation, and together comprise the years between 1970 and 2010). The featured games, each playable in its own semicircular kiosk, are Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. Chances are at least one of those titles holds a fond place in your childhood memories, though for me it is the last and most recent game, Flower, that has proven integral to my research as one of my go-to examples of ecological gameplay.

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The exhibit’s final room provides a comprehensive look at the eighty games voted into the exhibit in 2011, drawn from a list of 240 first handpicked by curator Melissinos and advisory board members from the game industry, game journalism, and academia. Members of the public voted within the pre-established matrix of five eras, four genres (action, adventure, target, and combat/strategy), and historically significant game platforms, and in the end, some 119,000 people in 175 countries cast over 3.7 million votes.

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For exhibit curator Chris Melissinos, a longtime video game enthusiast and “chief evangelist” and “chief gaming officer” at Sun Microsystems, games are “a unifying, multi-generational medium.” For him, the exhibition examines “the 40‐year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers.”

Though the exhibition will soon end its run in Washington, D.C., The Art of Video Games begins a limited national tour of 10 cities in October. For more information, visit the extensive online archive.