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Posted at 11:16 AM ET, 02/18/2011

A conversation with video game exhibition curator Chris Melissinos

By Hayley Tsukayama

Voting is open for the Smithsonian Museum of American Art exhibition "The Art of Video Games." The exhibition, which will open in March 2012, will feature 80 games from five eras that represent the evolution of the genre and showcase how the outside world is reflected through video games. Voting ends April 7.

The exhibition is not just for those who play games. "We want to make these games accessible to broader segment of society because they play games as well," exhibition curator Chris Melissinos said. "The responsibility of this exhibition is to enlighten and inform in terms of what games really are." He hopes that this will be an exhibition everyone -- from the hard-core on down -- will be able to rally around.

Melissinos, chatted with Faster Forward about the exhibition, his life as a gamer and some early feedback he's gotten from voters. Here are highlights from that conversation.

Q: How did this idea get started?

A: The idea for the exhibition came out of discussions Melissinos had with the Smithsonian over how it could embrace technology and social media. The idea of an exhibition about video games as art came out of these discussions. Working closely with the Smithsonian American Art museum project manager Georgina Goodlander -- who spearheaded the museum's efforts to get the world's first alternate reality game hosted by a museum -- Melissinos decided to undertake the arduous task of picking games for this exhibition.

"Whenever you're dealing with something as rich as video games, sometimes what happens is that you look at it from a historical platform. You start to try and include every platform and game of consequence," he said. "If that were the case, we would have pushed this into the American History Museum, not the art museum. Our goal is to show how technology advancements and social reflection are seen in games, to show the authoritative voice of the story and art."

Q: What are you trying to say with this exhibition?

A: Melissnos said the exhibition will try to tell a specific narrative, demonstrating games' evolution over time so people understand how the world is reflected in games. There's the technological impact, but games also reflect parts of society, sometimes unbeknown to their audiences.

"It's no coincidence that protagonists from '80s-era, Reagan-era games are these testosterone, muscle-bound rah-rah characters," he said. Or look at Missile Command, he added, which is based in California and President Ronald Reagan's proposed "Star Wars" plan. "Those are the stories we'll be looking at," he said. The games picked for consideration were selected to reflect a point in time, artifacts of what the world was like in a given era.

It will also give a brief history of video games using artistic themes. "You'll be seeing horizontal threads. You'll see in these early adventure games, Pitfall Harry (from Pitfall!) on the Atari VCS, then look at Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2 and see they're in the same jumping pose. It's this iterative process over the years that we will go ahead and tease out."

Melissinos said this is a particularly good time to being looking at video games this way. "It's the only mass form of expressive media that is widely adopted, where its originators are still with us. We don't have that in any other form where pioneers are gone. We have an extraordinary moment in time."

Q: How do you evaluate a game? Do you use the rubrics of art? Of film? Of literature?

A: That depends on type of game, Melissnos said. For example, there's a game in the ballot called Uplink -- a hacker game where players participate in corporate espionage and hacktivism. "What struck me about the game," Melissinos said, "is how it's thinking about the rise of the Internet, and the misunderstanding of what being connected really means. All those fears and discussions are distilled in this, but it puts you on the other side." For him, its sparse environment helped tap into fears and misconceptions. So while it's not the most visually stunning game, it holds up to other titles. "Games like that look at a point in time," he said. "We may look back as an artifact of what the world was like at the time."

Q: How do you even start to figure out which games belong in this exhibition?

A: Melissinos picked a lot of the games, and then offered his selections up for suggestion and comment to an all-star advisory board of industry leaders, developers and journalists. "We can't include everything. This group will hit the broader section of population as touchstones."

"This is one of the things that people were misunderstanding," Melissinos said, adding that the museum is taking steps to better highlight their intent. " It would have been easier for me as a curator to say these are the 80 games that I picked and be done with it," he said. "But I thought it'd be important to have representation of some of the people who are going to come and experience it."

He also loves hearing from people about games they say he's left out -- one he brought up specifically was Yoshi's Island. "That is exactly why this exhibition needs to happen, the collective passion from the public at large," he said. "The fact that people care enough about the games, that they love to voice their opinion and open a dialogue about the medium that speaks to them."

Q: Are there games you love that didn't make the cut?

A: Absolutely, he said. There are whole consoles. Two consoles that didn't make the cut were the Apple II and the Turbo Grafx 16. "They played an important role in my gaming past but for the betterment of the exhibition, I cut them," he said.

"I mean no disrespect to those consoles, but during the beginning of the era, which are people going to identify with?"

In terms of games, a painful omission for Melissinos was Robotron 2084, which he said is "one of the greatest games ever made of all time. It's the innovator of twin-stick mechanism. It's relentless. It has this great social discussion and it completely destroys you," he said. In fact, he owns a stand-up cabinet of the game and got to gush to its creator at E3 once. But when he had to decide he ultimately realized that it just wasn't appropriate for this discussion.

Another game that didn't make the cut? Farmville. Melissinos said that he wasn't even convinced Farmville was a game -- "It's all grind!" -- until he spoke with his wife about it.

"She said, 'I only choose to plant things in my farm that bloom beautifully,' pulling a meta-game out of a meta-game. The point of the game is that it makes me happy to see my farm grow," he said. "And really, that's not any different from any game. We're teasing out of narrative and imagination the pieces that are most relevant to us, that grasp us with meaning, that force us to go places -- sometimes places we don't want to go."

"It's the first time she's ever changed my mind about a game," he said, though it still didn't make the ballot.

Being curator of this exhibit may not be an enviable position, he said, but he's honored to do it. "I'm honored to contribute something to meaningful, however you may take it, back to the gaming community."

By Hayley Tsukayama  | February 18, 2011; 11:16 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture, Gaming  
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