No one ever wins or loses an argument about whether a given medium qualifies as art. No, what happens is that the medium in question eventually becomes so omnipresent, so culturally important by any reasonable measure, that the whole Art or Not argument begins to look like what, in fact, it always was: a waste of time. Some people will fret over whether games are art, but meanwhile, others will be talking about why games are important, which is a better discussion anyway.
So when the Smithsonian American Art Museum began working on their new exhibition, The Art of Video Games, they wisely approached the artistic status of video games as a foregone conclusion. It’s not worth asking whether video games display “striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies.” Of course they do. The question is simply which video games best exemplify these qualities. And for that question, the Smithsonian wants to hear from you, or at least from someone with the same amount of Internet access as you.
From now through April 7, 2011, anyone with a valid email address can vote on which games will be included in the exhibition. The nominees are divided into five eras, somewhat haphazardly covering every platform from the Atari VCS to the Playstation 3, and then subdividing the list into genres. The exhibition does have a curator–Past Pixels founder Chris Melissinos, along with a panel of advisers from within the games industry–but in keeping with the built-in populism of digital media, the input of Internet passers-by will play a large role in shaping the show.
Some of the match-ups are a conspicuously arbitrary. In the Xbox 360 Adventure Game category, for example, Mass Effect 2 (a 30+ hour guns and conversation epic with a branching, dialogue-heavy narrative) is up against Limbo (a three-hour trial and death platformer with a dialogue-free, absolutely linear narrative). Space-apples and purgatory-oranges, right?
But these kinds of impossible decisions make much more sense when viewed through the lens of the Smithsonian’s refreshingly specific criteria. They’re not asking whether Mass Effect 2 is better than Limbo, or which should be Game of the Year, or what have you. They’re asking whether Mass Effect 2 is a better example of “striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies” than Limbo is. It’s still a difficult question, but it’s a fair one, and one on which you probably have an opinion.
So go vote! Given that the only registration requirement is an email address, the process is ripe for exploitation–and the more legitimate voters we can steer in the direction of the Smithsonian’s website, the better the chances that the Art of Video Games exhibition will live up to its name.