Still from Star Fox (SNES, 1993) (image via sydlexia.com)

After a two-month-long public vote, the Smithsonian has released the results of its poll to determine the most important video games in history, in preparation for their upcoming The Art of Video Games exhibition. Divided by system and category, the selection attempts to provide a comprehensive canon of video games. But there are a few things wrong here.

Looking through the results, which are available in PDF format here, there’s a clearly recognizable narrative. It’s a greatest-hits history of games made up of names everyone already knows, tracked through video game systems that sat in living rooms rather than labs or universities.

Take a look at the first section, “Era 1: Start!”, made up of the earliest games. Yet what’s included here is Pac-Man and Space Invaders (an E.T. game didn’t quite make the cut), ignoring an entire early heritage of simulators and basic games: 1972’s Pong doesn’t even get a nomination. Is Pac-Man really the earliest thing that can be canonized as a video game? Or are the curators just failing to notice things that fall outside of their home-console definition of a game? Art:21‘s manager of digital media and strategy, Jonathan Munar, noticed the same thing in an email to me:

I think it’s interesting that, of the 80 games included, only one of them — Pac Man (arcade) — happens to be an arcade cabinet. Even then, it’s one of the five games that the public did not vote for. Granted, many of the included games are home console ports of arcade games, but for an exhibition that celebrates “striking visual effects,” choosing a port over an arcade cabinet is the equivalent to choosing an 11-inch dot-matrix printout of a 20-foot wide Pollock canvas over the original … Arcade games are as integral to the history of video games as the Atart 2600 was. Pong, originally an arcade game, is largely recognized as one of the first commercially successful video games and arguably created the video games industry.

As we progress in years, we see that some classics have made the list. The 1986 Legend of Zelda and 1991’s Super Mario World are innovative games the made history, but they’re also obvious choices, the top dogs of the early Nintendo era, as Final Fantasy Tactics and Metal Gear Solid are for Sony. But the issue is that the list is completely limited to home-gaming systems and games mass-published by large companies. Where are the home computer games before 2000? Are indie developers important at all?

Video game consoles through history, arranged on a shelf (image via digitpress.com)

The list resulting from this are akin to art history told only through the collections of only the largest museums, or works listed by the frequency they’re photographed by tourists. The crowd-sourced results say something, but they don’t tell the whole aesthetic story, as massive polls often don’t (see my problems with crowd-sourced shows here). Julia Kaganskiy, global editor of The Creators Project, which examines the intersection of art and technology, wrote to me about the Smithsonian’s list results:

… What I’m hearing from my hardcore gamer friends is that it feels like a somewhat dumbed down approach to the topic. There are perhaps games that were groundbreaking and innovative, which were pre-cursors for games that may have ultimately made the list, but because they weren’t blockbuster titles, because they’re not household names, are likely to get overlooked in a crowdsourced approach like this … Things like crowdsourced curation should be balanced out with curatorial authority to create a new, hybrid model.

The intention to develop a formal history of video games is a laudable and important goal, but after seeing this list, I’m not expecting much from the exhibition. Sure, seeing all your favorite games at once in a museum is great, but will we actually learn anything, or see any new insights? There are some good signs, particularly the inclusion of indie computer games Minecraft and flOw in the results. But we’ll have to wait until March 2012 when the show opens to find out what the curators’ greater vision for the history of video games is.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

7 replies on “What’s Wrong With the Smithsonian’s Crowd-Sourced Video Game History?”

  1. You make some really important points, and on the whole I agree, but having worked with the exhibition coordinator of the Art of Video Games in the past (and seeing her posts about the project on my facebook feed), I think maybe the problem here is one of framing. Perhaps the American Art museum should’ve made a stronger case for the crowd-sourcing as a way to reflect on the popular impact or social history of video games as opposed to a survey of the form itself, which seems to be the MO for the Smithsonian Institution in general (kinda). I don’t really have a great deal of information about their research methodologies for the actual exhibition (why may still surprise us), so I guess it may come out in the wash.

  2. Thanks for the article, I appreciate your perspective on this. However, it is important to note, that this is not an historical exhibition. This is an art evolution exhibition, viewed through the lens of 20 systems, across four genres. Please check out the FAQ for more clarification to many of the issues you suggest in the article: http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/taovg_faq.pdf

    Thanks!

    Chris Melissinos

    1. I have to agree with Mab above, if this is an “art evolution exhibition”, why is it only viewed through systems when some of the most innovative (r)evolutionary games have come out of the blue, without a console or direct platform behind them?

      And separating games into genres? How does that even allow for evolution between genres, and how do you construct a genre in the first place?

  3. But Chris, leaving out Pong in the evolution of video game art is like leaving out the Venus of Willendorf in the evolution of female representation in art….. evolution must begin somewhere with a touchstone, however humble in scale…..

  4. How can you crowdsource i you dont invite the crowd? I am only now hearing about this? Maybe they just wanted to start a discussion. A better way to curate would be around genres (I don;t know because I;m not really looking) – castle defense, god games, side scrollers, First person shooters. Then go for artwork within these – Metal Slug, Star Castle, Battle Zone, Defender, Mario brothers, Duke Nukem….what is apparent to me is the same sort of thing that fgoes on in the “industry” – people go with their tribe.

  5. Well, given the nature of what is trying to be judged here and the knowledge that most people have of video games pretty much guarantees that you will only get major system games, and given the time difference in playing at an arcade and playing at home… you will still be getting mostly home console games. Yeah, a game released on a console hardly anyone had may have been great… but hardly anyone owned that console, meaning hardly anyone played it.

  6. There are always great ideas on how something could have been “better” after it has been done and no good deed EVER goes unpunished somehow. For all of its shortcomings, the Smithsonian effort has succeeded in keeping discussion lively and ensuring it will continue! Good job Hyper on being an important part of the forum and poking into corners.

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