'But Mum, it's not a mindless game, it's art'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Computer games have gone up a level: they're the subject of a show at the prestigious Smithsonian museum. How did we get from simple blips to sophisticated artistry? Tim Walker finds out

Does the written word encourage forgetfulness? Will novels play havoc with the delicate emotions of impressionable young women? Do the movies make us all into mindless zombies? Are video games art? The last of these questions can now join the rest in the junkyard of cultural history, for the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC has just launched its newest exhibition: "The Art of Video Games."

Curated by games developer Chris Melissinos, the show will guide its visitors from Pac Man to Portal 2, via sci-fi classics such as Space Invaders, platform games such as Super Mario Bros, puzzles like Monkey Island, first-person shooters, social games, tablet games, Flower, Farmville, Angry Birds, Gears of War.

The games world enjoys many annual consumer showcases, but rarely a gallery exhibition – let alone one in such a prestigious institution. Yet in spite of its youth, it's already too large a medium to be distilled into a single exhibition: gaming contains as many or more genres and innovations in its half-century history as the movies managed in double that time, and is already the entertainment industry's most profitable sector. In recent years, games writing and graphics have both improved exponentially, and the acting of some performance-captured characters is better than that of certain Hollywood stars. Nowadays, games can move as well as entertain.

The Arvon Writing Foundation recently held its first video games writing course, heavily oversubscribed and part-taught by the novelist Naomi Alderman. Games writer and director Justin Villiers, whose work includes Dead Space: Extraction and Fable 2, says he recently worked on a game with an Oscar-winning animator. "There are film composers working in games, and the actors in my latest game are all film and television faces. There are people coming from everywhere in the arts to work in games now. That means games are richer; they contain influences from graphic novels and serious drama – not just sci-fi movies."

Last week, the "first-person, puzzle platform" game Portal 2 won Game of the Year at the Video Games Baftas, which have taken place annually since 2003. Tom Chatfield, author of Fun Inc: Why Games are the 21st Century's Most Serious Business, says: "Portal 2 has a wonderful, witty script, and I love that in this medium the most commercially successful game of the year is also the most critically acclaimed... In games, excellence is popular: the Mario games sold hundreds of millions of copies, and are also exquisitely crafted works of artistry.

"There comes a moment at which the label of art is applied to something by others," Chatfield goes on, "but art and artistry, as well as craft, have always been involved in making games. Even the very first game, Spacewar! [conceived in 1961], involved a lot of art in the realisation that a machine used for sophisticated calculation could also be used for entertainment."

Video games were once associated almost exclusively with fighting and first-person shooters, but the advent of new technologies – the Nintendo Wii, the iPhone, the internet – has changed all that. Equally, says Villiers, the more traditional areas of the market have changed creatively, too. "We're moving away from post-apocalyptic greyness and genetically-enhanced soldiers. BioShock was a first-person shooter set in a sort of Terry Gilliam, retro-futuristic world." Games even have an avant-garde. Last year, for example, Benedict Cumberbatch lent his voice to The Nightjar, an iPhone/iPad game played using sound alone. Provided you're wearing decent headphones, you can play it with your eyes closed.

Despite its inevitable limitations, Chatfield believes beginners and hardcore gamers will both appreciate the Smithsonian exhibition. "Because the medium is young and not formally categorised, it's really accessible. People will have fun without worrying too deeply about, say, 'post-impressionistic' gaming. When I get to an age where I find myself curating gallery retrospectives of 'early-social' games and 'pre-social' games, and 'pre-tablet' and 'post-tablet' games, something will have been lost as well as gained."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Hardware Engineer - SW London - £35,000 plus benefits and c

    £28000 - £35000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Hardware Engineer...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executives

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of Europe's leading prov...

    Ashdown Group: Software Development Project Manager

    £60000 - £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Experienced Software Development Pro...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Web Developer

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web design and digital age...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor