Hopper, Hockney, Lichtenstein. Among these great artists featured in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., you'll now find Lara Croft and Earthworm Jim.
The Art of Video Games is a trip through time and pixelated space. It's been 40 years that we've been blasting, jumping and scoring with just a twitch of our thumbs. Along the way, we've left a wake of lushly designed worlds teeming with colorful characters and obsessively detailed scenes.
Weekend Edition Sunday guest host David Greene tours the exhibit with curator Chris Melissinos, and asks just what makes video games art?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC)
GREENE: Super Mario Bros., Space Invaders, Call of Duty - they're just some of the massively popular video games to have been made since the evolution of those games began 40 years ago. Gone are the days, though, of those crudely pixelated images, black and white dots darting across the screen. Playing video games now is something close to a cinematic experience with blasting sound effects.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)
GREENE: Then there's the exceptional animation and those dramatic soundtracks.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: A new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here in Washington, D.C. is celebrating the 40-year history of this artistic medium. It's called The Art of Video Games. I headed down to the show when it first opened up in March and I spoke with the curator, Chris Melissinos. He told me an interesting fact about the demographics of video gamers.
CHRIS MELISSINOS: The average age of a person who plays video games in the United States is 37 years old.
GREENE: But the place was jammed with people of all ages.
MICHAEL MARIS: I'm, like, studying to be a game designer, so. I mean, obviously, this is a great experience for me, not just as gamer but as a game designer, you know, to appreciate the history of video games.
GREENE: That is 20-year-old Michael Maris of Fair Haven, New Jersey. Now, I'll admit that I'm not the most avid gamer. I did, however, get slightly nostalgic.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
GREENE: I see over there two of my favorites. I'm kind of having an emotional experience here. It's Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man.
GREENE: This, I would assume, is a very popular room.
MELISSINOS: Yes. This room is a very popular room. And it's because these games represented something in the evolution of technology that allowed us to move forward with storytelling, with art, with design, with narrative.
GREENE: You know what's amazing? I always wondered that as a kid - and I can't believe I'm standing with somebody who could actually answer this question for me - Mario, why a short Italian plumber as the main character?
MELISSINOS: It's interesting. If you look at the game, the reason Mario has a mustache was because there was such limited complexity that you could use to create the character that by removing a single dot under the nose, it left a hole. And because the background was black, he now has a black mustache.
GREENE: So, literally, it was the technology that caused him to be an Italian-looking plumber. I mean, take one dot off his face, it's a black mustache and there you have Mario.
MELISSINOS: That's exactly right. It was a technological limitation. The overalls were put in place because they could use the difference between color to denote motion.
GREENE: Can we go play Pac-Man?
MELISSINOS: What is this game Pac-Man you speak of? I don't think I've played that one.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAC-MAN)
GREENE: All right, Chris, tell me your Pac-Man strategy.
MELISSINOS: My Pac-Man strategy is to try to avoid these ghosts. So, you know, there are times where I try to go in and save the power pellets.
GREENE: You have a ghost on your tail. You don't look very worried about this.
MELISSINOS: Let's see if we can get this going here.
GREENE: Now you're going to eat the ghost. That's one, that's two, that's three. Oh, oh, oh, he's got - how did you do that? How did you get away with that?
MELISSINOS: Magic fingers.
(SOUNDBITE OF PACMAN)
MELISSINOS: One of the reasons I believe Pac-Man was so influential and drove this craze is in the era in which the original Pac-Man arcade machine was released to this country, most video games were about what? Missiles and aliens from space and defending the Earth from these, you know, encroaching aliens. Then all of the sudden, here's comes this cartoon-esque, candy-colored experience that was no longer targeted at just a male demographic. It was a game-playing framework that invited both genders.
GREENE: You're saying Pac-Man was more inviting to women...
GREENE: ...compared to some of the earlier games.
MELISSINOS: Compared to Space Invaders, most definitely.
GREENE: And was that one of the goals when they were creating Pac-Man? Let's find something that's not about shooting or tanks and let's find something both men and women would like?
MELISSINOS: It's hard to tease out truth from lore. But as the story goes, Toru Iwatani wanted to make a game that would appeal to Japanese girls and women as much as men. And he was trying to figure out through observation, well, what is it they like to do? Well, when I'm out at lunch, I see a lot of them talking and eating and so maybe we'll do a game about this. And as the legend goes, they were eating pizza and he pulled out his slice and there before him was the form of Pac-Man.
GREENE: I'm never going to be able to look at Pac-Man the same now. It's like a little yellow pizza running around with a slice out of it.
MELISSINOS: That's exactly right.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAC-MAN)
GREENE: If we can work through the crowd here, this is Flower, and it's almost like a movie. I mean, the graphics are so brilliant. What are we looking at?
MELISSINOS: So, what we're observing here is somebody who's controlling a stream of wind. And that is the - not character - but that is the action that you have in the game. And what you're doing is guiding this stream of wind through these beautiful fields to flowers that need to bloom. And when the wind touches a flower, the flower blooms, it adds notation to the musical score.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MELISSINOS: It gives up petals to the stream. And so you are opening up these petals, you are opening up these flowers and breathing life back into a barren world.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Let me play devil's advocate. We're standing in a place that has had these brilliant portraits. We're in the Smithsonian, which has had all sorts of incredible art from, you know, different centuries. You could say this feels like a Best Buy. I mean, you know, it's people looking at TV screens everywhere. I mean, defend this as art.
MELISSINOS: It is easy to dismiss games on the face of them just by walking by. It requires a deeper understanding of what it is you're actually experiencing, which means it is an investment of time. Within these games, you will find political messages. You will find societal questions. You will find games that press our morality. It asks questions that we can't ask in any other form of media because in order for those messages to emerge, it requires the game to be played. That is when the art emerges. It is in the playing of the game.
And so, yes, you can say that, well, they're looking at television screens, because that is the delivery mechanism. Video happens to be the canvas of video games. And so this is what video games have the opportunity to do. They have the opportunity for us to understand the author's intent but imbue the game play experience with our own life experience, with our own moral choices, our own code. And from that, it's art for the individual.
GREENE: Chris Melissinos. He's the curator of The Art of Video Games. That exhibition is showing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until September 30th, then the show will hit the road for a national tour. And if you'd like to see some images from Chris's book and from the exhibition, you can go to our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.