Five Questions with Chris Melissinos, Curator for The Art of Video Games
March 29, 2011
Chris Melissinos is the curator for the 2012 exhibition The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Georgina Goodlander, project manager for the exhibition and interpretive programs manager for the museum’s Luce Foundation Center, asked him where the concept for the exhibition began and what surprised him about the public voting, currently underway. This is the first in a series of posts about The Art of Video Games. In the months leading up to the show we will be blogging more about the people behind the video games.
Georgina Goodlander: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get interested in video games?
Chris Melissinos: Wow, how much space do you have!?! Seriously, my entry into video games is a lot like many other kids of my generation. Growing up in the 1970s, we were the first generation to have video games and computers in the home. As the same time, computers were starting to emerge in elementary schools. My exposure to a TRS-80 (an early desktop computer), some gibberish on a page (BASIC code), and an executable that made a blocky version of the Lunar Lander magically appear on the screen, cemented what would be my lifetime love for video games and the science and art behind them.
My first home computer was a Commodore VIC-20, which I had learned to program by the time I was twelve. The ability to bend this machine to my will--to have experiences leap from my imagination to the screen--was an extraordinarily powerful form of expression. The beauty of code and the fact that you could weave stories through it made it clear to me that video games were more than simple distractions. Over the years, I consumed as many games as my paper route would allow. This obsession followed me into my adult life where it was common to find a video game magazine in the midst of my college textbooks or, eventually, in the corporate files in my briefcase. Fortunately, I was able to merge my love of computer science, video games and storytelling into my career. I was the Chief Gaming Officer at Sun Microsystems for more than 12 years, all the while collecting and preserving the video games that now make up my 42-system personal collection.
As a father, husband, and executive, video games have played an important role in shaping my life and have proven to be a source of escapism, beauty, and expression that stands above all others I have experienced. Today, I am a gamer, raising gamers of my own!
GG: Tell us about the concept of the exhibition. How did you and the museum connect on this idea?
CM: Back in January of 2009, I was invited to attend the Smithsonian 2.0 conference, along with 19 other technologists, to help the Institution understand how to leverage technology to connect to a public that is increasingly connected to the Internet. During this event, I met Georgina Goodlander and discovered that she had developed the first museum-based Alternate Reality Game (ARG) Ghosts of a Chance at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. After the event, I was asked by the Museum to come in to discuss possibilities for video games and interactivity within the museum. After a few discussions, we settled on an exhibition to illuminate the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making video games. We spent several months developing and refining the concept, presenting to various groups within the museum, and eventually had the green light to start the project in early 2010.
GG: What criteria did you use when selecting the 240 games for the voting website?
CM: The principal criteria for the game selection was that the games needed to fit the overall narrative of the exhibition. Basically, we plan to highlight games that reflect a specific period in time through social reflection, available technology, and artistic techniques, etc. The goal is to demonstrate to visitors that video games are more than what they seem to be at first glance. To select the games that would fit this narrative, I drew on my past experience as a game player for the past 35 years as well as my work in the video games industry, and then vetted the list with an advisory group comprised of video game designers, musicians, developers, and reporters. In addition, it was important to me and the museum to select games that would be familiar to a wide variety of players. I didn't want to focus on obscure or abstract games that have been referred to as "art games." Rather, I wanted to explore the art, narrative, and beauty demonstrated by the games that are known and loved by many.
GG: Were there any video games or systems that you wanted to include but couldn’t? Why didn’t they make the cut?
CM: Due to space constraints, we had to limit the number of game systems on display to just twenty. This actually highlights a huge issue faced by curators when selecting materials for any exhibition--in many cases, what we have to leave out is more painful for us than it is for a visitor who might not see their favorite piece in an exhibition. Early on in the planning for this exhibition, I had to cut the list down from 25 systems to just 20 by removing the Apple II, TurboGrafx-16, 3DO, Atari Jaguar, and the Amiga 500. The most painful omission, personally, was the TG-16. I absolutely loved this system when it was released, it introduced the CD-ROM to game consoles, and it had many beautiful games. However, when selecting 20 systems to represent 5 eras, we were unable to include it over more widely identifiable systems of the same period. Again, the goal is to make this exhibition broadly accessible in order to include as many people as possible in the discussion of video games as an artistic medium.
GG: Have you been surprised by any of the comments on the voting website?
CM: Actually, not really! I find them to be affirming my observations as a gamer, collector, and as someone who has worked in the video games industry for quite a while. Gamers are a passionate lot and are eager to champion their cause when a game that has personal meaning is seemingly omitted for reasons they may not understand. I am actually very pleased with almost all of the comments. People have, for the most part, been very respectful when voicing their objections or asking for clarification. When possible, we have worked to address peoples' questions and explain that there is much more to the exhibition than just the voting component.
GG: Do you have anything else to add?
CM: If I can leave one parting thought with your readers, it would be this: As a gamer and someone who grew up with video games as a huge part of his life, I can assure you that this exhibition is being approached with the care and respect that the medium deserves. I believe that there will be something in this exhibition for everyone and my hope is that this serves the first significant step into a broader understanding of video games as an art form.
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