Monday 2 April 2012

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The Art of Video Games

If you've been reading along for a while, you might remember our visit to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. If you don't remember it (or don't know how to click links) the gist of the story was that my kids decided that they would rather play Angry Birds than look at art by some of the world's greatest artists. This didn't bode well for our visit to Washington, D.C., home of the Smithsonian Museum and a number of the world's most famous art galleries. There was no way we were going to pass up the chance to at least explore a little bit of the Smithsonian's collection, so in the ultimate spirit of "If you can't beat them, join them", we decided that if our kids wanted to play video games while we looked at art, we'd make it easier for them, and we started our Smithsonian visit at the American Art Museum for the Art of Video Games exhibit.

Once we found it anyways. I guess museums don't want to detract from whatever aesthetic they're trying to create by having a bunch of signs around, but we had a bit of a hard time finding the exhibit. It's on the third floor of the American Art Museum, not in the National Portrait Gallery where we started looking. Somehow, with all the advertising outside of the museum, I kind of thought that there would be a yellow brick path straight up to the exhibit, or at least a trail of yellow Pac-dots that you could follow. Instead, you wander through the Modern and Contemporary Art section (and one of the creepiest statue/mannequin things I've ever seen) to get to the start of the display. You won't miss it once you get close. Just keep looking for the flashing lights of a few hundred TV's.

You've got to go past her.....
To get here.
The display itself is divided into three sections. Out front are some introductory pieces. There's a few things of interest, but my favorite thing was a three monitor display that showed video of people's faces while they were playing video games. Strangely enough, despite the fact that we watched for a fair amount of time, nobody ever looked happy. In fact, most of them looked downright bored. I've never thought about my facial expressions while I'm playing a video game, but I sure hope I'm having more fun than these people seem to be.


Then we got into the games themselves. The first room consists of five stations where you can play video games from different eras on giant projection screens. The games range from the classic (Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers) to the mundane (The Secret of Monkey Island) and includes some critical favorites (Myst, Flower) but all games are suitable for all ages play. Each person's turn is capped at four minutes, and the high score resets to zero after each player, so it's not a matter of trying to embarrass other people with your skills (which apparently fade away some time after hitting 40). If you're interested in playing Monkey Island, Myst, or Flower, you'll probably only have to wait a few seconds. If you're after Pac-Man or Super Mario Bros., you may have to wait through a bit of a line to get a turn. Having been fully deflated by my attempts to defeat my son at Pac-Man in the past, I decided not to bother standing in line, but there's no way my son was letting a chance to play video games in a museum slip past.

If you can tear your kids away from the game play, the last room holds the nostalgia part of the exhibit. All of the major gaming consoles ever made are on display, along with the five most popular games from each platform as chosen by popular vote. This is where the men were separated from the boys. Literally. While anybody under the age of 20 went immediately to the far end of the room to check out the stations representing Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, the largest gathering was immediately inside the entrance where all the adults gathered around the Atari system and reminisced over games like Space Invaders and Tank Battle. There was even a strange little group gathered at the DOS/Windows 95 display, but I warned my kids to stay clear of that kind of crowd.

Try explaining to your child why there's only one button on the controller....
So was our museum outing a success? Well we spent a couple of hours at the exhibit, and not once did I hear "Is it time to go yet?" In my books, that's a win. We may not have enriched my children's sense of history (although to them the Atari system seemed like it was from the Stone Age) but it gave them an opportunity to enjoy art that they can relate to. Hopefully it was a positive first step towards our children being able to experience museums without having to resort to video games to keep themselves entertained. Oh...wait....