Though relatively new as a medium, the brief history of video games already includes several generations of both games and gamers. The rapid evolution of technology and the enormous cultural reach of video games have set the stage for a new genre in media art. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has identified two games to begin its collection: Flower (2009) by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany and Halo 2600 (2010) by Ed Fries.
"Introducing these two games to the permanent collection simultaneously is notable," said Michael Mansfield, the museum's curator of film and media arts. "Whereas they may have dramatically different visual approaches—the lush and emotional landscape of Flower versus the elemental figures and mechanics of Halo 2600—these works taken together stake out the rich creative and conceptual potential in video games."
In 2012, the museum organized The Art of Video Games, an exhibition that identifies video games as a new mode of creative expression. Following on that research, the museum's media arts initiative is exploring ways to fully represent interactive and code-based video games in its permanent collection of film and media artworks. Video games articulate a compelling avant-garde performance space, activated by artists and players alike. These media art practices are distinct from film, video, and theater and mark a critical development in the history of art. They are crucial to our understanding of the American story.
Flower represents an important moment in the development of interactivity and art. This innovative game puts the player in an unusual role—the wind—and uses minimal controls to create an emotional, immersive experience of the landscape which changes in response to the player's actions. Conceived as an "interactive poem" in response to tensions between urban and rural space, Chen and Santiago imagine an unexplored land for the player to discover. Flower presents an entirely new kind of physical and virtual choreography unfolding in real time, one that invites participants to weave aural, visual and tactile sensations into an emotional arc rather than a narrative one. While visually beautiful, Flower also demonstrates the importance of the interactive component. The work cannot be fully appreciated through still images or video clips; the art happens when the game is played.
Halo, a series of popular science fiction games begun in 2001, has become a phenomenon with millions of players worldwide captivated by the multifaceted narrative and sophisticated graphics. In Halo 2600, Fries recreated Halo for the 1977 Atari VCS (more commonly known as the Atari 2600), distilling the essence of the action game to its elemental parts while also paying homage to the classic elegance of early game design. The resulting experience compresses the complex, contemporary game into just 4K of RAM, creatively reversing the dramatic evolution that video games have experienced during the past four decades. Commonly referred to as a "de-make," Halo 2600 deconstructs the gamers' visual and virtual experience and returns game play to its most basic mechanics. Through Halo 2600, Fries illustrates the ever-changing relationship between technology and creativity.
The museum will continue to acquire works that explore and articulate the unique boundaries of video games as an art form, working with artists, developers and programmers to represent this new creative practice.