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But what is it that uplifts and inspires the greatest number of people in the most visceral ways? If you ask the average person on the street, most of them haven't seen Citizen Kane, they haven't read War and Peace, and they'll stare blankly at you if you mention Jackson Pollock. For many, it's shows like friends or Seinfeld, it's movies like The Wizard of Oz, or it's games like Myst or Monkey Island. These are the stories we latch on to. And we are no less inspired or intelligent for it.
There's an argument that we should force people to enjoy high art, and cast pop culture into the pits, but The Art of Videogames instead asks the question: How can we use this medium to create art?
For me, the thing that drove home the power of this place was the demo room, stocked with five games: PacMan, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. Since I'd played all but Monkey Island and Flower, and the line for Monkey Island was a bit long, I got in line for the latter. Behind me were a mother and her son.
"I thought all these games were like your Call of Duty or whatever," she said, "But I mean, what is this called?"
The son didn't answer, so I chimed in. "It's called Flower."
"I mean ... well, what's even going on here?"
I gestured to the screen. "Well, you're making the flowers bloom," I said. "Trying to bring a little color and life back into the world. So you just fly around, and make the flowers bloom, and eventually you can make them bloom in a city, make it green again and full of life."
My session ended, and I handed over the controller to her. "Look, try this level," I said. "With the rainbows."
She hesitated, then looked at me, then took up the game and started to play. By the end she was laughing, tilting the controller trying to get that last flower, gasping as the landscape and music changed around her. I left before she finished, walking out into the rest of the museum. The other exhibits were nearly empty, and much more subdued. There were no conversations, just people quietly looking at pieces on the walls, then moving on. I'd been to dozens of art museums across three continents in my lifetime, and I'd never seen an exhibit that drew that kind of fierce joy, nor such lively discussion. The conversation wasn't quite as arch as, say, the discussion I heard in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art over the value of Jackson Pollock, but it was far more engaged and enthusiastic.
There's an argument that we should force people to enjoy high art, and cast pop culture into the pits, but The Art of Videogames instead asks the question: How can we use this medium to create art? Other art exhibitions place the paintings on the walls, sometimes with a short explanation of artistic intent. The Art of Videogames takes a different approach. Each of the historical stations in the timeline room doesn't just declare that the games on display are art, but presents the games as examples of what the medium is capable of, and how they evolved. The station for the Atari 2600, for example, explained that Pitfall!, while itself primitive, was one of the earliest examples of a human protagonist and a game that was more than just a game, but an attempt at creating an adventure. The narrative was simple, sure, but it was still a narrative. It's true that The Art of Videogames does avoid the controversies around the medium, you don't find any discussion, for instance, of sexism in games, or of glorification of violence, but that's not what the exhibit is for-the idea is to develop a dialogue between the curators and the audience, to be accessible to gamers and skeptics alike.
This isn't the first time there's been a pop culture exhibit in a major museum, and it won't be the last. But The Art of Videogames is an evolution of how pop culture is displayed and discussed in museums. Games aren't displayed as history or technology, but displayed to encourage questions of how they can be used to connect with people, to engage people emotionally and intellectually---as truly great art should. The Art of Videogames doesn't just sit as a proud addition to the Smithsonian's legacy of respecting the power of pop culture, but expands upon it. It asks, instead, how we can illuminate our future.
Jensen Toperzer is graduate student living in Boston, and does not get enough sleep. You can see more ramblings about popular culture on Jensen's twitter, @conventioneerin