The Shifting Sands of Art in the Digital Age: The Art of Video Games Unleashed



Curator Chris Melissinos at the entrance to the Art of Video Games
Curator Chris Melissinos at the entrance to the Art of Video Games
On March 16th, 2012, the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened the Art of Video Games exhibition on its third floor. The location should not be ignored. On one side of the entrance stands the permanent exhibit "Watch This! New Directions in the Art of the Moving Image." A room of television screens broadcasts single-channel video tapes and digital files, side-by-side. A panel declares that "the goal of this exhibition is to recognize the importance of the moving image in the history of twentieth century art."[1] (Exhibition label, 2012). The other side leads to Megatron Matrix, an installation by Nam June Paik. The enormous series of screens depicts images from the Seoul Olympics in juxtaposition with traditional Korean folk and modern dance, with unrelated sound bites playing over the cacophony of visuals. Pixellated text and drawings make up a significant part of the imagery. The panel here describes a "world without borders in the electronic age" where the viewer is "assaulted by too much information"[2] (Exhibition label, 2006).

One could easily mistake the Art of Video Games as a part of either exhibit. It is as if the museum challenges the viewer to separate established digital art with games like Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, and the Legend of Zelda. Curator Chris Melissinos greets the visitor with another text panel across from the entrance to Megatron Matrix. There, Melissinos explains that when considering video games "the common thread, regardless of intent, is that they are an amalgam of disciplines -- storytelling, animation, music and cinematography -- whose sum is greater than its parts. This defines a new art medium that is beyond traditional definitions used in the fine art world...using the cultural lens of an art museum,, viewers can demonstrate whether the games on display are indeed worthy of the title art...they may even be art"[3] (Melissinos, 2012).

The Art of Video Games exhibition stands out for several reasons. One, its focus on commercial video games, from their earliest forms in the ColecoVision and Nintendo Entertainment System to recent blockbuster productions like Bioshock, Heavy Rain and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The second headline-generating feature is its inclusion of the popular vote in choosing some of the pieces which feature in the exhibition. Eighty of the video games featured were selected via Internet poll on the Smithsonian American Art Museum website. Inclusion therefore was not based solely on artistic merit but a certain element of popularity. The exhibit argues that video games, long considered the stuff of children and maladjusted adults, is an art form just as worthy of being in a museum as Picasso or Monet. And like Picasso or Monet, the brilliance of these artistic works needs time and the art community to appreciate games for their merits. The fundamental themes of the exhibit can be summed up in this quote:

The advantage that books, movies, and television have over video games is with time only. Like all other forms of media, hindsight will tease inspired works from the digital past, and these will serve as the cornerstones of great works yet to be created.[4] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 9)

But can one art exhibit change the view of video games from children's toys to an art object capable of incredible expression and thought? And what happens to our definition of what art is -- what art belongs in museums -- once we accept video games as pieces worth preserving and showing? This essay will use traditional media theory to tackle questions of how an exhibition like the Art of Video Games changes how the art community views new forms of visual culture and how new inclusions can change the definition of art and museums.

Theories of the Art Object and Cultural Capital



To establish an idea of the definition of art and how institutions like museums designate art and not-art, it is important to establish a media theory backbone. For this reason I turn to Walter Benjaminand Pierre Bourdieu. Benjamin dealt with an evolving definition of art in the early days of photography and film in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", while Bourdieu confronted the various types of capital, including those kinds bestowing via institutional approval.I will use Benjamin to prove that video games can be art and Bourdieu to explain why, even with the qualities of art, video games face an uphill battle in gaining recognition and prestige.

The "Aura" of the Video Game



Author Walter Benjamin
Author Walter Benjamin
Benjamin wrote during a time when photography and film were both feared and perplexing to the art world, but his argument is just as prescient over seventy years later when applied to newer technologies like video games. Similar to early film and photography, video games have long been categorized as common entertainment incapable of rising to the rich history of paintings and traditional art, the art that only the proletariat can afford to keep and enjoy. Benjamin rejects this idea that class appeal determines artistic merit: "theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production"[5] (Benjamin, 1936). To Benjamin, the evolution of technology has greater impact on the evolution of art than what the elites in a society determine.

The only differences between these new arts and the traditional ones are the presence of authenticity or aura. The new arts, on one side, have the quality of reproducibility. This quality does not merely mean that perfect reproduction is possible; reproducible art can also be easily manipulated, which opens the artwork to "certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion," which "can capture images which escape natural vision" that are still realistic and built from the natural world[6] (Benjamin, 1936). On the other side, and quite unlike film and photography, traditional artwork contains an aura that cannot be replicated. Benjamin describes aura in this way:

If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura.[7] (Benjamin, 1936)

With this description, I argue that video games, unlike photography and film, even unlike paintings and other traditional forms of art, has both reproducibility and aura. Video games have the capacity, at this point, to create visuals close to photo realistic or reminiscent of traditional artwork. Games can create the mountain range and the branch which casts a shadow, in incredibly rich and beautiful ways. Players can interact with the branch and change their view of the mountain range through a proxy character; the experience is lessened by the presence of the video screen, but with increasingly intuitive game design and controlling devices like the Wii's gesture control and the Kinect's natural user interface, the separations between what happens on the screen and what happens to the person playing the game is increasingly blurring and transforming.
Bioshock Box Art (2007)
Bioshock Box Art (2007)



These visuals are not only striking, but like each individual experiencing the branch and the mountain range individually, each person who plays a video game experiences and plays it differently. Certain scenes provoke a unique emotional resonance which each player experiences on their own, similarly to how one feels sympathy with the protagonist of a well-written novel; furthermore, they experience a deeper connection with this character, because they guided and directed the character to this action or path. //Bioshock//(2007) is an excellent illustration of this phenomenon. Grant Tavinor argues three years before the Art of Video Games exhibition that Bioshock should be considered art because of its powerful ability to elicit emotional response and force players to confront powerful moral quandaries, and in a way only uniquely available to the video game medium.The objective of the game is to collect Little Sisters, small children who have been genetically altered to contain ADAM, an oil-like limited resource which can be used to strengthen your character and give him unique skills. However, the only way to obtain the maximum amount of ADAM is to kill the children. As a player, it is to your advantage to kill the children in order to become more powerful (and decades of video game consumption have led players to the understanding that power is essential to completing objectives as quickly and easily as possible). On the other hand, the children are rendered to be cute and to make the player feel protective and nurturing. This despite the fact that, no matter how cute and cuddly the Little Sisters appear to be, they are not "human." This is part of Bioshock's artfulness: "in the fictional world of Rapture, the Little Sisters have been genetically designed to manipulate our emotions. But in the real world, they are fictive artifacts--digital representations--designed to elicit our emotions of sympathy and care to provide a game play obstacle"[8] (Tavinor, 2009, pp. 98).


The themes of morality versus self-improvement are further highlighted in the Atlas Shrugged-style Objectivist setting, where the character of Andrew Ryan has created an art deco city beneath the sea devoted to the ideals of the perfect man, unhindered by "petty morality." Ryan's presence throughout the game encourages the player to fend exclusively for themselves, in order to reach the heights of their potential. Defying Ryan's ideals or accepting them is up to the player alone.


The game forces the player to confront questions of morality and humanity's natural drives by playing out the game like an Objectivist or following more sympathetic motives. The game's ending changes based on how you choose to play the game, something a traditional novel or painting can not imitate. In Tavinor's words "saving the Little Sisters does not have the optimal pay-off in the game-world-- it is, properly speaking, an act of altruism. The interactive fiction of Bioshock thus engages its players' potential for altruism to explore a philosophical idea"[9] (Tavinor, 2009, pp. 105). Through the medium of the game the makers of BioShock, Take Two Interactive, created an individualized experience for each player, letting them decide themselves how far they were willing to go and how much they must sacrifice to complete the game. Since the player must make these choices themselves, their experience is deeply personal and unique-- just as their experience would be following the shadow of the branch and the mountain range on the horizon. Thus games offer a unique meshing of the singularity of traditional art and the easy access of the reproducible arts of film and photography. In the words of game designer Jenova Chen, who is featured as an expert commentator in the Art of Video Games exhibition, "You feel like you can go anywhere - you can't do that in a painting, but in a game you can physically do that."[10] Games may have an aura beyond what a painting can offer. Paintings can only offer so many ways to view them.

Can the Institution Rise to the Challenge?


If we accept that games like Bioshock are art, as I argue they are, then that begs the question of why it took until 2012 for video games to appear in a museum in the first place. In fact the Art of Video Games is far from the first time video games have appeared in a museum. For example, there are artists like Corey Arcangel, who modifies and remixes games to create pieces of visual digital art. His modifications fall under the term "countergaming," which removes aspects like narrative and game play to force viewers to question the medium of video games and its true power. His most famous "mod art," titled Super Mario Clouds(2002), is emblematic of his work: the game mod strips the 1985 video game Super Mario Brothers of its protagonist, its levels, its cut-scenes -- everything except the digitized clouds which float across the screen in predictable patterns.

Arcangel's work has appeared in many museums over the past decade, including an exhibition of his work last summer at the Whitney Museum of American Art. There he showed Various Self-Playing Bowling Games(2011), a large-scale installation piece showing several virtual bowling alleys and several virtual players only capable of bowling virtual gutter balls. Arcangel's success with the art world is commendable but does not demonstrate the embrace of video games as art. His remixes are parodies, mockeries of the time spent playing video games by deliberately removing the entertainment value and the interaction. Author Alexander R. Galloway refers to this style of game modding as "the play of signification" where "the game engine persists (albeit often stripped down and directed to near death), but is repurposed to to serve the same sort of modernist formal experiments that the avant-garde has pursued for decades"[11] (Galloway, 2006, pp. 118). The signifier is not the game Super Mario Brothers or any of the virtual bowling alleys, but what is not in the game, and what happens to a game when one strips out its greatest attraction, its interactivity. Thus what Corey Arcangel does is art but it is not the art of video games.

Similarly, artist Mary Flanagan has created her own installation art with video games, although her creations have very different themes in comparison to Corey Arcangel. For instance, her work [giantJoystick ](2006) explores themes of play and cooperation with an enormous ten foot joystick for the Atari 2600. Using the joystick visitors to the museum can play classic games like Breakout and Asteroids, but because the joystick is larger than any one person can navigate, viewers must cooperate and take individual roles (moving the joystick, pressing the buttons) in order to play the game.


Although this display spares the interactivity of game play, it is still more a remix of video games for personal artistic expression. The work instead raises questions about the experience of play and how people play together. Pitfall isn't the art -- the art is in how one plays Pitfall. The piece's catalog essay describes how "the exaggerated scale of the installation emphasizes the physicality (and absurdity) of interfaces in their relationship to the human body and human interaction. Rather than treating the joystick as mere access point to the “other” of the virtual world on a screen, the project highlights the joystick’s role in and connection to the physical world and the social"[12] (Paul, 2006) . Video games, again, are an absurdity, fit to be manipulated to create art but, prior to 2012, inadmissible into the art world on their own terms. The question is why games have had this stigma since their inception five decades ago.

The answers can be found in Bourdieu's theories of cultural capital. To Bourdieu, capitalism is not merely about the steady, continuous raising of economic capital for maximum profitability. Cultural capital is one of these alternatives. Of the three states of cultural capital, two concern the video game: objectified and institutional.

Portrait of Pierre Bourdieu
Portrait of Pierre Bourdieu

The objectified state refers to the kinds of objects who receive the signifier "art--" the writings, the sculptures, the paintings and the other traditional forms of art that appear in places like museums, those that have been accepted by the greater community. The economic value of these pieces is firmly established, but does not represent the full value of objectified cultural capital: "what is transmissible is legal ownership and not (or not necessarily) what constitutes the precondition for specific appropriation, namely, the possession of the means of "consuming" a painting or using a machine, which, being nothing other than embodied capital, are subject to the same laws of transmission"[13] (Bourdieu, 1983). However, this value must be agreed upon by parties outside of its owner and its creator; "it exists as symbolically and materially active, effective capital only insofar as it is appropriated by agents and implemented and invested as a weapon and a stake in the struggles which go on in the fields of cultural production (the artistic field, the scientific field, etc.) and, beyond them, in the field of the social classes"[14] (Bourdieu, 1983). Video games, until recently, have not had agents willing to put a stake into the value of games as an artwork. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, in acting as stakeholder, has helped boost games inside the exclusive art world, just as they have previously supported controversial and unique artists like Nam June Paik. The effect will only be enhanced when the exhibit goes on tour in October, and museums across the country invest in video games' potential as artistic works.

This is where the institutionalized state of cultural capital steps in.This state is essential to the understanding of how agents determine the objectified state. Once approved and accepted by the institutions which control cultural capital, "with the academic qualification, a certificate of cultural competence which confers on its holder a conventional, constant, legally guaranteed value with respect to culture, social alchemy produces a form of cultural capital which has a relative autonomy vis-à-vis its bearer and even vis-à-vis the cultural capital he effectively possesses at a given moment in time"[15] (Bourdieu, 1983). Bourdieu characterizes this transformation as a kind of magic, "the power of instituting, the power to show forth and secure belief or, in a word, to impose recognition"[16] (Bourdieu, 1983). These conversions, in turn, allow one to define all types of cultural capital into economic capital. Here the American Art Museum represents this "certificate of cultural competence --" now that the games on exhibit have been conferred the title of "art" it is impossible to take away. Unfortunately, the choice of popular vote to choose these games caused some critics to attempt to deny the video games the title art, because the "authority" has been watered down with the presence of the common man.

Curator Chris Melissinos argues in his book and in person that the public's control over the exhibit was heavily controlled and guided by the museum. The seeds for the exhibition were planted during the Smithsonian 2.0 conference, according to exhibition coordinator Georgina Goodlander (Goodlander, 2012). Melissinos was one of 30 "creative leaders from the Web, digital and new media worlds--" stakeholders in the rise of new media and digital art (Smithsonian2.0, 2009)[17] . 240 games were initially chosen "together with the museum and an advisory group of game developers, designers, pioneers, and journalists," all the type of experts which could offer Bourdieu's "certificate of cultural competence"[18] (Melissinos, 2012, pp.9). The criteria for consideration included "visual effects, creative use of new technologies, and how world events or popular culture influenced the game design," the characteristics that provide "legally guaranteed value"[19] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 9). Then the public voted on these 240 finalists; through this vote "almost 4 million votes across 175 countries narrowed the list to the eighty games" featured in the exhibit[20] (Melissinos, 2012, pp.9). He compares the methodology to a scaled-down version of American Idol: "we picked the singers -- you pick the three songs"[21] (Melissinos, 2012). The five playable exhibits: Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower were all chosen by Melissinos independent of any vote. Melissinos then played through each of the eighty games, taking screen caps, recording video and writing voice overs for the exhibit that explain why each of the games deserves recognition of the audience and the art world. The book further illustrates the game's importance with individual profiles and composite images by Patrick O'Rourke, similar to how any other exhibition catalog explains the significance of each of its pieces. His description of Bioshock, for example, explicates on the "complexity that can be captured in video game narratives," and how this particular game is "engaged with contemporary ethical issues and questions" such as "stem-cell research, boundless scientific exploration, and political oppression" bound in an "dark and disturbing...beautiful art-deco inspired" aesthetic[22] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 162). This description evokes characteristics noted by Grant Tavinor, characteristics that fuel the video game's particular and unique aura.

The Exhibit, the Catalog, and the Case for Video Games as Art


Photograph from the "Art of Video Games" exhibition
Photograph from the "Art of Video Games" exhibition
The exhibit and exhibition catalog spend an enormous time justifying the significance of the exhibit and the pieces featured within its walls. The panels describe video games first as artistic collaboration between the designers responsible for the game and the players utilizing the game to its fullest, saying that "this conversation among the game, the artist, and the player is critical to understanding video games as art"[23] (Melissinos, 2012). Videos scattered throughout the exhibit reinforce the importance both of player and artist. The experts' voices fill the room as they passionately describe both their experiences playing and creating: . The experts represent designers, scholars and artists who all offer their own deeply personal examples. Most of these experts reiterate these points in the book.

Many of the arguments chronicled in the exhibit and the art book are built around themes of intertextuality, how video games have enfolded the good qualities of other works and in so doing creating a unique remix combining traditional art with interactivity and accessibility. Robin Hunicke compares her work in video games to the poetry of William Blake because "what can be better than not having to choose between painting and writing to communicate feeling?"[24] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 194). She compares this to her own passions for computer science and personal expression. Earthworm Jim is an example where the developers blended Tex Avery inspired art; as a result "the artists managed to create a new expression of art and animation that blended the aesthetic of the past with the interactivity of the present"[25] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 85). One game, Fallout, used "pop art, politics, and science fiction in one fully realized and engaging fictional experience"[26] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 101). Another game, Rez, further added elements from William Gibson and films like Blade Runner for a certain "cyberpunk aesthetic" to create " a world inside a computer network"[27] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 125). Aesthetic elements included "points of light, manifestations of elegant mathematical formulas, digital representations of ethereal forms, and an environment that becomes increasingly detailed as the player progressed"[28] (Melissions, 2012, pp. 125). All three of these games incorporated texts from other media, placing the game in conversation with established art and transforming it, in the spirit of Kristeva's vertical axis connecting the Text with other Texts and Eco's cultural encyclopedia. Kevin Bachus, a filmmaker who has transferred his skills to game design, notes that this propensity and easy use of intertextual elements is one of the video game medium's greatest strengths: "one of the really great things about video games is that they take advantage of every piece of every other media"[29] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 66).

There is some interest in the materiality of games. The first room contains a small sampling of game boxes, instruction manuals and special extras that came with the games to flesh out narration in their early years. Concept art hangs above these glass-encased artifacts. None of these items qualifies as the game, though they do provide context - the packaging around the art is a part of how it is received, after all. The final room also contains game systems encased in glass, accompanied by the still shots above and the screen to the side. Most of these consoles are from Melissinos' personal collection. This is in defiance of scholars like Ernest Adams, who argues in his own article on video games as art that their materiality is outside of their artistic merit:"the CD-ROM is not the game; it is the software and and artwork recorded there which are the game, and only when they are executed by a computer"[30] (Adams, 2006, pp. 68). Melissinos, unlike Adams, believes that the package and form of delivery is an essential part of the game's bibliographic code, the same way William Blake's poetry cannot be separated from its unique form of production. Shigeru Miyamoto described The Legend of Zelda as "a miniature garden that [players] can put inside their drawer--" its physical form is an essential part of its art, even if its generic shape and color leads the video game cartridge to lack the incredible aura of the programming it contains[31] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 59).

Visitors playing Super Mario Brothers (CBS News)
Visitors playing Super Mario Brothers (CBS News)
The heart of the exhibition is with the playable games. This room, in comparison to the other two, is sparsely decorated with quotes like "video games open worlds (John-Paul Dyson)" printed on the walls. Semi-circular walls shelter the five wide-screens, assuring that the other four will be at least partially obscured. The lighting also provides a different ambiance from the rest of the exhibit, with circuitry-shaped blue lights criss-crossing the floors. With these five examples the viewer can experience the essential component of video games' unique aura, its interactivity. Adams argues that the interactive nature of video games is actually an additional hurdle for recognition: "art is a form of communication between from the artist to viewer, and if the viewer starts to interfere, the message is lost"[32] (Adams, 2006, pp. 69). To the contrary, as I have argued previously, interactivity is its greatest asset. Ron Gilbert describes how in comparison to other narrative media "games have a unique ability not only to give us stories, start playing around and pull things out that are personal to us;" this ability, to Gilbert, will lead to a time when video games "will dwarf movies and the way people experience stories today"[33] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 57). Warren Spector, another video game developer asserts that "in essence, whether you're playing Deus Ex, Disney Epic Mickey, or any other game -- all you're doing is moving a green pixel over a brown pixel, then pressing a button at the right millisecond that causes a red pixel to appear...but when the first pixel is a bullet, the second pixel is a a bad guy threatening your brother, and the red pixel is blood, all of the sudden it's significant. That's what story can do"[34] (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 106-107). The interactive element, combined with a narrative built of pieces from Eco's cultural encyclopedia, allows for this unique transformation of pixel to meaningful element, and the aura that turns a distant viewer into an engaged participant is part of how video games function and express their ideas. That a video game can appear in a museum, unadulterated or remixed, played in the same way one would play Pac-Man in their home decades ago, gives these games, and all the time spent over decades playing them, the cultural capital they have deserved for almost half a century.

The Future


Screengrab from Flower(2009)
Screengrab from Flower(2009)
The advent of video games in museums gives games some cultural capital, but the work is not yet complete. Games still lack certain institutional "certificates," work that will continue on into the future. For example Jane Pinckard, an experimental game designer, thinks that games need the type of scholarship around them that film has built over decades: "One day I hope that there will be a literary review: a Cahiers du video game, is what we called it in our pretentious way, modeled after Cahiers du cinema, which had been part of the new wave film movement...there are many people interested in doing that, but there aren't many places for them to have conversations...I would like to see the conversation come together around movements"[35] (Melissinos, 2012, pp.127). Ernest Adams suggests that social capital might be necessary, the "cult of personality" that Bourdieu theorized would "cause the signifier to take the place of the signified," and through this representation "may be, and create, the whole reality of groups which receive effective social existence only in and through representation"[36] (Bourdieu, 1983). Simply put, "Sid Meier must be as well-known as Francis Ford Coppola or Gabriel Garcia Marquez"[37] (Adams, 2006, pp. 76). Both of these problems are in the process of being solved, with new journals rising out of university game scholarship and powerful developers like Miyamoto and Will Wright, but the cultural capital gleaned from these advances is still minimal at best. If the Art of Video Games proves to be a success at the American Art Museum-- and with the huge crowds and the endlessly scrolling list of enthusiastic "micro"-donators listed at the beginning and end of the exhibit, it should be-- this economic capital will invite other museums to take the risk and host their own exhibitions, maybe even invite a permanent installation somewhere down the line. According to exhibition coordinator Georgina Goodlander, the initial response to the exhibition has been extremely positive, both from those in the museum and video game industries; in fact, the only complaint is that experts want more (Goodlander, 2012).[38] She writes that "This is the first exhibition of its type, so we aimed to include a broad range of materials, which meant that we couldn't go too deep into any one aspect. I think the next exhibition will be able to dig deeper into the artistic processes and social impact of video game development" (Goodlander, 2012).[39] She has also noted other museums embracing the video game medium, if not within their museums, then as a means of enhancing the museum experience - "The Louvre just launched a Nintendo 3DS tour! The Getty has online games and a presence in Whyville...The Minnesota Zoo worked with other Zoos and the National Park Service to create WolfQuest, a video game that teaches kids about wolf behavior. The Spy Museum has a real-world-spy street game that you play on a PDA...We’re about to start work on third Alternate Reality Game. Games are becoming part of everything that we do. They are changing how we learn, communicate, and socialize, and we have just seen the beginning" (Goodlander, 2012)[40] . Even with all of this progress, however, work still remains to be done. When we see a game like Bioshock find a permanent home in an accredited museum, one which chooses to illustrate and invite visitors to enjoy its unique aura, then games will have reached the pinnacle of cultural capital.

Annotated Bibliography


  • Adams, Ernest W. "Will Computer Games Ever be a Legitimate Art Form?" Journal of Media Practice. 7.1 (2006). pp. 67-77. Web.
In this article Ernest Adams discusses the art of creating video games and whether or not video games can or will eventually be considered a kind of art. He decides to break down the definition into various types and compare video games to each different definition, seeing where there are parallels and where there are divergences. He decides to put the game within the realm of literary arts because, like books and films, games usually contain narrative and use its materiality as a kind of delivery method or medium rather than part of the game itself: "the CD-ROM is not the game; it is the software and and artwork recorded there which are the game, and only when they are executed by a computer" (Adams, 2006, pp. 68). I disagree with Adams on that point - the material of the book is essential to its understanding, otherwise there would be no point to manipulating how words look on a page or combining illustrations meaningfully with certain pages. Paralleling the film industry, game industries can produce art but must face an uphill battle against perceptions of meaninglessness. The form can be art, but works will not always meet the standard. Adams argues that the interactive nature of video games is an additional hurdle for recognition. "art is a form of communication between from the artist to viewer, and if the viewer starts to interfere, the message is lost" (Adams, 2006, pp. 69). Adams concludes that for games to rightfully take their place as art, they must mesh with the definition he has worked with as completely as possible, and match user and consumer expectations of what art must accomplish. I used this paper as a certain counterpoint to the Art of Video Games exhibit, as his views on materiality, interactivity and the cult of personality play against the exhibition in interesting ways.

In this famous essay, author Walter Benjamin confronts the question of artistic merit in an age where traditional art such as paintings are being superseded by easily reproduced visuals such as photographs and film. Benjamin comes neither to bury the photograph or to praise it; instead he takes the standpoint of art as a constantly developing or evolving medium, that "theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production" (Benjamin, 1936) To differentiate the experience of traditional art and the feelings created by this highly reproducible art, Benjamin uses the term "authenticity" or "aura". Authenticity can be defined as the works' "presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be;" traditional arts like painting like plenty of aura, while reproduced works do not (Benjamin, 1936). Benjamin's theories on art are still very current when compared with new technologies like video games.

In this essay, Pierre Bourdieu defines and describes the various types of capital accumulated over time; although in a capitalist society we are more familiar with economic capital, there are multiple types of capital highly desired in a capitalist society. Capital -- all forms of capital -- provides power to those that can accumulate as much as possible. The three forms are economic, which is self-explanatory, cultural capital, and social capital. Cultural capital is further divided into three types: embodied, objectified, and institutionalized states. The objectified state is the physical representation of cultural capital - the writings, artistic works, monuments, and other objects that embody symbolic and cultural meaning in spite of their materiality. In fact, this materiality makes it even easier to transmit and represent through economic capital. This easy transmission, however, is not all-consuming; "what is transmissible is legal ownership and not (or not necessarily) what constitutes the precondition for specific appropriation, namely, the possession of the means of "consuming" a painting or using a machine, which, being nothing other than embodied capital, are subject to the same laws of transmission" (Bourdieu, 1983). The final type of cultural capital is the institutionalized state. This state is essential to the understanding of how agents determine the objectified state. Once approved and accepted by the institutions which control cultural capital, "with the academic qualification, a certificate of cultural competence which confers on its holder a conventional, constant, legally guaranteed value with respect to culture, social alchemy produces a form of cultural capital which has a relative autonomy vis-à-vis its bearer and even vis-à-vis the cultural capital he effectively possesses at a given moment in time" (Bourdieu, 1983). Bourdieu characterizes this transformation as a kind of magic "the power of instituting, the power to show forth and secure belief or, in a word, to impose recognition" (Bourdieu, 1983). These conversions, in turn, allow one to define all types of cultural capital into economic capital. Other than cultural capital and economic capital, there is social capital. All forms of capital can be transformed into economic capital. I used Bourdieu's arguments as an explanation of why video games art has taken so long to appear in museums, houses of institutional capital.

  • Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays On Algorithmic Culture. 1st ed. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.
This article discussed countergaming, or artistic mods which use games as a base for remixed art. Artists like Corey Arcangel as questions about the culture of gaming by removing interactivity, game play, and even some aspects of aesthetic to create their own works of art.This article fleshes out an understanding of avant-garde artists like Corey Arcangel who use video games as a basis for personal expression and artwork.

  • Goodlander, Georgina. Personal Interview.13 May. 2012.
I spoke via e-mail with Georgina Goodlander, the coordinator for the exhibition. We discussed some of the finer details of the exhibition's inception, development, and response.

  • Megatron/Matrix. Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006.
The text which accompanies the Megatron/Matrix exhibit explains its purposes and the intents of its creator, Nam June Paik.

  • Melissinos, Chris. Panels. Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 17 March. 2012.
The text panels and labels that complement the art of Video Games exhibition helps to understand the intents of the curator Chris Melissinos and the artworks the exhibition features.

  • Melissinos, Chris. Personal interview. 4 May. 2012.
I spoke with Chris Melissinos at the Art of Video Games exhibition on May 4th, after a panel on serious gaming. He discussed, among other things, the role of the popular vote in the development of the exhibition, digital scarcity and other relevant topics.

  • Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect is he companion book to the Art of Video Game exhibit at the American Art Museum. The book, first and foremost, is a chronicle of the 80 games chosen by popular vote for the exhibit. Divided into 5 "ages," as in the exhibit, the book describes each game system and game, their importance, and why they were chosen as an art piece for exhibition. Each of the games are divided by the technology that delivered the game and the genre that it falls under (Target, Adventure, Action, and Tactics). Target involves shooting, Adventure focuses on narrative and storytelling, Action tests skills and speed in some way, and Tactics simulates "the art of war" to create combat (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 12). The "Start!" chapter covers the 1970s and early 80s, where the earliest consoles started to enter American homes. The second age is the 8-Bit age, which arose out of the 1983 video game industry collapse. After the 8-Bit era comes the Bit Wars era, where continuously evolving technology made way for greater tools for designers. The fourth age is characterized by Transition, and the main descriptor is simple - 2 dimensions is no longer the limit; games could now enter the third dimension. The fifth and final age is the Next Generation. By this point, "the video game industry has amassed a vernacular that provides a foundation for creative expression in the medium. This foundation, which sits at the intersection of art and technology, provides a jumping off point for developing new works of art, narrative, and social reflection" (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 147).

  • Melissinos, Chris. Preface: the Resonance of Games as Art. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. By Melissinos and Patrick O'Rourke. 2012. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books. pp. 8-9. Print.
In the preface to his book on The Art of Video Games exhibit, Chris Melissinos tries to describe the importance of video games as an art form in a deeply personal manner. He's intrigued by the connotations of art, how the first image that comes to mind is "the stark, marble-encrusted halls of old museums," the art world the Art of Video Games is trying to invade (Melissinos, 2012, pp.8). He intends to redefine how we view art: "when a viewer is able to understand the artist's intent in a work and finds something in it that resonates with him or her on a personal level, art is achieved. If it elicits an emotion--from disdain to delight-- it can be viewed as art (Melissinos,2012, pp. 8). Games, he argues,easily fall under this definition. Then he explains the importance of the art museum as a medium of delivery. He concludes with the hope that "people will leave the exhibition-- and finish this book-- with an understanding that video games are so much more than what they first thought. They may even be art" (Melissinos, 2012, pp. 9).

  • Paul, Christiane. “[giantJoystick] by Mary Flanagan (2006) |.” Game/Play. 28 June 2006. Web. 14 May 2012.
This essay explicates on Mary Flanagan's art piece, the [giantJoystick]. It explains the way the enormous joystick confronts questions of play and collaboration in the digital age. I used this essay to flesh out my arguments about Mary Flanagan's work and its importance in the history of video games as art.

The Smithsonian 2.0 conference is one of the atarting points for the inception of the Art of Video Games exhibition.

There are five videos on display at the exhibition, showing a variety of experts, scholars, designers and other enthusiasts. This particular video, "Inspiration," plays second at the very beginning of the exhibition and therefore provides an extra welcome to the first room. I used a quote from Jenova Chen, a video game designer, to supplement my points about aura and capital.

  • Tavinor, Grant. "Bioshock and the Art of Rapture." Philosophy and Literature. 33 (2009). pp. 91-106.
This article focuses on the artistic merits of Bioshock, a 2007 action-adventure thriller video game distributed by Take Two Interactive. Two features included in Bioshock reveal it to be more than a mere game. The first, according to Tavinor, is he presence and role of the Little Sisters, little girls who exist in game as a resource that can only be utilized by murdering the girls. The game play rests on the player juggling the moral quandary of harming children to complete objectives or taking a more difficult course while letting the young girls live. The second artful feature is a twist halfway through the game which reveals that the player's main source of information and guide through the early levels is actually not as trustworthy as they seem. The literary trope of the unreliable narrator is further enhanced through the interactive nature of the game, complicating not only what a character has done but what the player themselves is responsible for: "Rather than an actor the player-character is a pawn in someone else's game" (Tavinor, 2009, pp. 92).

  • Watch This! New Directions in the Art of the Moving Image. Exhibition label, Smithsonian American Art Museum. 16 March. 2012.
The text which accompanies the Megatron/Matrix exhibit explains its purposes and the intents of the various artists who have been featured.

Photo and Video Credits


http://smithsonian20.si.edu/conference.html
  1. ^ Watch This! New Directions in the Art of the Moving Image. Exhibition label, Smithsonian American Art Museum. 16 March. 2012.
  2. ^ Megatron/Matrix. Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006.
  3. ^ Melissinos, Chris. Panels. Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 17 March. 2012.
  4. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  5. ^ Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Trans. Harry John. 1936. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/benjamin-work-of-art.html>.
  6. ^ Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Trans. Harry John. 1936. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/benjamin-work-of-art.html>.
  7. ^
    Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Trans. Harry John. 1936. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/benjamin-work-of-art.html>.
  8. ^
    Tavinor, Grant. "Bioshock and the Art of Rapture." Philosophy and Literature. 33 (2009). pp. 91-106.
  9. ^
    Tavinor, Grant. "Bioshock and the Art of Rapture." Philosophy and Literature. 33 (2009). pp. 91-106.
  10. ^ Smithsonian American Art Museum. "The Art of Video Games: "Inspiration" Exhibition Video." YouTube. YouTube, 09 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ib8QFeQJ00>.
  11. ^
    Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays On Algorithmic Culture. 1st ed. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.
  12. ^
    Paul, Christiane. “[giantJoystick] by Mary Flanagan (2006) |.” Game/Play. 28 June 2006. Web. 14 May 2012.
  13. ^
    Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Ed. Reinhard Kreckel. Trans. Richard Nice. 1983. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Bourdieu-Forms_of_Capital.html>.
  14. ^ Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Ed. Reinhard Kreckel. Trans. Richard Nice. 1983. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Bourdieu-Forms_of_Capital.html>.
  15. ^
    Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Ed. Reinhard Kreckel. Trans. Richard Nice. 1983. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Bourdieu-Forms_of_Capital.html>.
  16. ^ Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Ed. Reinhard Kreckel. Trans. Richard Nice. 1983. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Bourdieu-Forms_of_Capital.html>.
  17. ^
    "Smithsonian 2.0 | Conference." Smithsonian 2.0 | Conference. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://smithsonian20.si.edu/conference.html>.
  18. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  19. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  20. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  21. ^ Melissinos, Chris. Personal interview. 4 May. 2012.
  22. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  23. ^
    Melissinos, Chris. Panels. Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 17 March. 2012.
  24. ^
    Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  25. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  26. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  27. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  28. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  29. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  30. ^
    Adams, Ernest W. "Will Computer Games Ever be a Legitimate Art Form?" Journal of Media Practice. 7.1 (2006). pp. 67-77. Web.
  31. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
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    Adams, Ernest W. "Will Computer Games Ever be a Legitimate Art Form?" Journal of Media Practice. 7.1 (2006). pp. 67-77. Web.
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  34. ^ Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  35. ^
    Melissinos, Chris and Patrick O'Rourke. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. 1st edition. New York: Welcome Books, 2012. Print.
  36. ^ Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Ed. Reinhard Kreckel. Trans. Richard Nice. 1983. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Bourdieu-Forms_of_Capital.html>.
  37. ^ Adams, Ernest W. "Will Computer Games Ever be a Legitimate Art Form?" Journal of Media Practice. 7.1 (2006). pp. 67-77. Web.
  38. ^ Goodlander, Georgina. Personal Interview.13 May. 2012.
  39. ^ Goodlander, Georgina. Personal Interview.13 May. 2012.
  40. ^ Goodlander, Georgina. Personal Interview.13 May. 2012.