The Smithsonian celebrates The Art of Video Games

The Smithsonian American Art Museum's newest exhibition is The Art of Video Games, offering attendees a hands-on experience with the evolution of the gaming medium.

Game mechanics


The Smithsonian's just-opened The Art of Video Games exhibition showcases the artistry and technology behind forty years of video game history. The show was kicked off with GameFest, a three-day festival featuring video game pioneers as well as today's creators. The Art of Video Games runs through Sept. 30 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

At left, the exhibition looks at the evolution of the video game medium across five generations: Start! (1970s-early 1980s); 8-Bit (1983-1989); Bit Wars! (1989-1994); Transition (1995-2002); and Next Generation (2003-current).


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A museumgoer plays Pac-Man, one of the exhibition's five playable games, each representing a different generation of video games. Upon its release in 1980, Pac-Man saw much more success in North America than in developer Namco's native Japan. Competitors flooded the market with "maze chase games," trying to capitalize on Pac-Man's success.

Generations of consoles

Home consoles

Twenty different home game systems were selected for inclusion in the exhibition, with each showcasing a game in four genres: action, adventure, target and combat/strategy.

Ultima IV

Map art from Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

In the 1980s, GameFest speaker Don Daglow of AOL's Neverwinter Nights tried to recruit Richard Garriott to abandon the role-playing game series he was developing. Garriott refused and went on to build Ultima into one most storied RPG franchises ever.

Nintendo Entertainment System

Nintendo Entertainment System

With the NES, Nintendo revived the home console market market after Atari's business practices led to the North American video game crash of 1983.  The Legend of Zelda, released in 1986, was the brainchild of Shigeru Miyamoto, who also created Mario. The latest game in the franchise, Skyward Sword, was released for the Nintendo Wii in 2011 and became the fastest-selling Zelda game of all time.

Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros.

A crowd gathers around Super Mario Bros., which took the carpenter from Donkey Kong, formerly named Jumpman, and refashioned him as heroic plumber Mario. In an age of single-screen action games (think Space Invaders), Super Mario Bros. was one of the first to feature scrolling levels, opening up digital worlds to explore.

Sega Genesis

The complete Sega Genesis

Music and gaming festival MAGFest provided many home game consoles for GameFest attendees to play. A Sega Genesis, released in North America in 1989, is seen here with both the Sega CD and 32X upgrades. Sega's simultaneous support of multiple platforms and upgrades in the 1990s eroded consumer faith and eventually led to Sega's departure from the hardware market.

Metal Gear Solid

Tactical espionage action

Hideo Kojima, who gave an interview at GameFest, was not a name known to most gamers until 1998, when he took the aging Metal Gear video game and updated it for the Sony PlayStation. The resulting franchise, including Metal Gear Solid 2 (seen here), has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.

Video trailer

Exhibition trailer

The Art of Video Games exhibition was guest curated for the Smithsonian American Art Museum by Chris Melissinos, former chief gaming officer at Sun, with contributions from the likes of Nolan Bushnell (Atari), Henry Jenkins (MIT), Jenova Chen (thatgamecompany), and music group 8 Bit Weapon.

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