'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."

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Alexis Sanchez, Alan Pardew and Graziano Pelle
footballAfter QPR draw, follow Villa vs Arsenal, Newcastle vs Hull and Swansea vs Southampton
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... with this review
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
New Articles
i100
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
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

    Graduate BI Consultant (Business Intelligence) - London

    £24000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Graduate BI Consultant (B...

    Service Delivery Manager (Product Manager, Test and Deployment)

    £40000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager (Product Ma...

    Technical Product Marketing Specialist - London - £70,000

    £50000 - £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Cloud Product and Solutions Marketin...

    Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

    £18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam