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Still from Toru Iwatani Pac-Man, 1981
Still from Toru Iwatani’s Pac-Man, 1981


Jan. 18, 2012

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Early in 2011, curator and video-game collector Chris Melissinos invited the public -- a passionate 119,000 gamers from 175 countries -- to nominate their favorite video games in history from a list of 240 examples. Melissinos and a group of tech writers, game developers and graphic designers then chose the resulting 80 games -- ranging from Atari VCS to Playstation 3 -- to comprise the exhibition “The Art of Video Games,” Mar. 16-Sept. 30, 2012, at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

The show explores 40 years of visual effects, design and storytelling in gaming history -- but not necessarily in that order. “Some of the greatest video games in history have not relied on the most beautiful graphics, and some of the visually spectacular graphics have not been found in the greatest games,” Melissinos said in an interview on the Smithsonian website, pointing to Tetris as a prime example of the former.

The exhibition begins with the dawn of video games in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a focus on Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Microsurgeon. The next decade saw an influx of eight-bit games á la Super Mario Brothers for early systems like the Commodore, Nintendo and Sega. The final three sections of the exhibition include “Bit Wars!,” a showcase of games made between 1989 and 1994, “Transition,” which introduces DOS/Windows games, and the “Next Generation,” a survey of the contemporary gaming scene from 2003 to the present.

If you can beat out the teenagers for a spot, five games from each era are available to play at the museum -- Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst and Flower.

After the exhibition closes at the Smithsonian it travels to the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the EMP Museum in Seattle, the Hudson River Museum, the Flint Institute of Arts and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

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