Arizona ArtBeat: Video Game Art

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“The Art of Video Games” is a Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit currently on display at the Phoenix Art Museum. The exhibit displays the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium. Chris Melissinos, the curator of the exhibition, and Jim Ballinger, chief curator for the Phoenix Art Museum, will discuss the display.

Ted Simons: The art of video games is a Smithsonian American art museum exhibit on display at the Phoenix art museum. It includes years of video games as an artistic medium. Good to have you both here.

Jim Ballinger: Ted, grade great to be here.

Ted Simons: I never thought I would be talking about fine art and video games.

Chris Melissinos: Well, we're talking about the fact that video games if you break them down into their individual components they are an amalgam of all things we consider to be traditional art. You have illustration and composition and narrative and sculpture. Together they form this amalgam that becomes greater than their individual parts.

Ted Simons: Why should we consider video games art?

Jim Ballinger: Well, Chris is right, a little history lesson, if you thinks about it technology brought those things together, made it available. years ago we had an explosion of color photography magazines which gave us all the great illustrators we think of today. Frederick Remington a great western example, Norman Rockwell the high point absolutely. We have no problem thinking about him. I would co-tend in when we start looking back we'll look at it in similar terms. You have all these unbelievably talented artists put to work within this industry.

Ted Simons: Yet I can see some people trying to figure out is this art? Is this design? Is this commerce? Is it technology? What is it?

Chris Melissinos: It's all of those things. But any one of those doesn't negate the value of the work as an artistic expression. Embedded in so many games we play if we casually observe them on the surface we do them a disservice. Many cases much deeper messages about our world in those video games.

Ted Simons: Give us an example.

Chris Melissinos: We were talking earlier about a video game called missile command made in the early 1980s, where you were defending six cities at the bottom of the screen and missiles descend on you and you have to blow them out of the skies and save the cities. The gentleman who created the game he said I will do so but I have certain conditions. The first of which is I will not create a game where we are firing nuclear missiles at the USSR. Consider the language and the time in which this game was created. He was speaking about the cold war. The six cities were meant to represent the six major cities in California where he lived. He suffered from nightmares and waking up in a cold sweat for almost three years after the creation of the game. So you have a moral stance, you have reflection of what's going on in the world and someone suffering for the art. How is that any different?

Ted Simons: Let's talk about how you exhibit this particular form of art. Are the games being played, can I go play the game?

Jim Ballinger: Absolutely. Covers the full gamut of years of the gaming design world. Of each of the five eras there is one major game that's playable by anyone any time in the galleries. The others are shown in a very animated way. So that's very important. The other thing we have done we add add few extra pieces that are paintings by artists that came out of video game in their brain that are not game designs per se but shows the influence of game design on the art world today. Even down to a Navajo weaver who did angry birds.

Ted Simons: Oh, my goodness. We do have a bunch of images from the game. Supermario. This is art!

Chris Melissinos: Yes. This is if you take a look at what Mario represented at the time that it was introduced to American audiences this is the first time where we saw opened up to the player this world to explore. It had hidden secrets. If you were to give yourself up to the game and try to understand the mechanics it would allow you to finds certain things in the game that didn't appear on the screen. People found self-expression and a way to connect to the material.

Ted Simons: Our next one is pac man. How deep are you going to get on that? He's eating a bunch of stuff.

Chris Melissinos: This is from the Atari BCS version. At the time the original game was released into arcades this is the first time we have seen a game that actually brought both men and women into play. Most games that existed at the time were about military -- they had military themes, about invaders from space. Along comes this candy colored game that changed the entire social dynamic of the arcade.

Jim Ballinger: The design came right out of Pete Mondrian, a minimal abstract artist of the 30s, 40s and 50s. It's clear.

Ted Simons: Wow. Tomb Raider, which became a very famous movie based on a video game, you mentioned men and women. There you go.

Chris Melissinos: Here we have tomb Raider. This is Laura Croft, her first outing on a home console. This is the first time we saw a female protagonist take the stage in this broad swashbuckling type of adventure. It just changed again the dynamic.

Ted Simons: As we look at these particular images without commenting on each one, this is high-tech stuff. Can you be over-academic on something like this as opposed to just enjoying and playing?

Jim Ballinger: I am a believer art museums in general are a place to have fun but yes you learn about other cultures and therefore the answer is yes to looking at video game designs. Interestingly museum of modern art just bought 14 games for their collection.

Ted Simons: This is your field here. How do you -- can you get too academic with a show like this?

Chris Melissinos: I think absolutely you can. I think the important thing here for anybody that comes to see the exhibition is to pay the games the respect they deserve, not to rush past them, this is a simple game. Listen to what the games are trying to say. Experience those games because you will find not only much deeper messages but you may find a deeper connection with yourself to the material than you first thought.

Ted Simons: Interesting. New kind of audience? What about the old audience?

Jim Ballinger: It's been interesting. We have had some raised eyebrows. That was part of the reason we did some of the additions I talked about. I think we expected we would see dads particularly bringing kids, a little bit nostalgically that I played this game. Now you play this game. A lot of grandparents particularly here bringing grandchildren down. It's a very family friendly game. It was structured such and there's a concern about violent images in the audience probably. There isn't any of that here. It was carefully crafted to make sure everyone could enjoy it.

Ted Simons: How long does it run?

Jim Ballinger: September 29th. It's the coolest place in town.

Chris Melissinos:"The Art of Video Games," curator;Jim Ballinger:Phoenix Art Museum, chief curator;

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