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Q&A: Chris Melissinos -- Curator Of The Smithsonian's Art of Video Games Exhibition

JGaskill
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Posted January 14, 2010 - By Jake Gaskill

Chris MelissinosBack in December, the Smithsonian American Art Museum announced that it would be opening a brand new exhibition devoted entirely to the evolution and appreciation of video games. Sadly, the exhibition won’t open until the middle of 2012, but thankfully, its curator, Chris Melissinos, chief evangelist and chief gaming officer at Sun Microsystems and founder of PastPixels.com (oh, and huge, huge, huge gamer) was generous enough to speak with me about the project’s origins and what he hopes to achieve with this ambitious, daunting and groundbreaking project.

G4: For those readers who might not be familiar with your work, tell us a little about your background, and why you’re particularly suited to curate this exhibition.

Chris Melissinos: I’ve been around the games industry for well over a decade. Most people, when they look at Sun Microsystems, which is where my principal job is,  don’t necessarily put Sun and video games together, even though most people are carrying around Java-enabled telephones, use Java on the desktop, Java in the browser and all of the games that are played there…So I’ve been around for a long time, but more importantly I’ve been a gamer my whole life. I started programming at nine, wrote a game at 12; I collected systems. I’ve got 43 at home now, some of which are going to be on loan to the museum for this exhibition.


G4: How did your involvement with the exhibition come about?

CM: Back in January [2009], I was invited to come into the museum along with 19 other technologists to talk in general about next-generation museum patrons, and my big concern was: how are we reaching our kids in a way that’s meaningful when they live in a world of immediate gratification from an entertainment perspective? Being able to reach out from a myriad of devices to the network, to each other to play, how do we infuse museums and that environment with stuff that would be interesting to kids. And, quite honestly, not just kids. The first kids who grew up with computers in the home are now in their mid-30‘s; gamers raising gamers.

During the planning session...I was like the one voice of dissention, sitting next to guys from Facebook [and] MySpace, going, "Blogs and Twitter accounts are not the answer to reaching a new audience. What you need to do is find out how interactivity plays into this, how gameplay plays into this. How do you make the museum going experience more engaging and fun? Because it’s through fun that we have a better propensity to learn.”

So [the museum] invited me to come back in, and I started brainstorming with them on a few ideas, and we kind of went down this road of, "What is it about video games that we as gamers feel is redeeming in terms of the medium?” I mean, obviously people like Roger Ebert go, “Games aren’t art. They’ll never be art like movies.” Well, sorry that’s not the case. People said the same thing about movies when they started. So it was really about saying, "When we get down to the root of what are in these games, even some games that seem so benign from a perspective or a message, can really have a much deeper meaning.

Missile Command

The one I bring up all the time is David Theurer, the developer who created Missile Command. And one of the pieces that I brought up in front of the museum management was: here’s a guy who was asked to make this target shooting game, however, he had some very clear moral delineations for how the game was to proceed. So for example, in Missile Command, we never fire missiles at Russia. It’s a totally defensive game. It’s about defending our country.

And [Theurer] goes onto say, “When you think about nuclear annihilation, it’s really the most horrific, frightening thing to think about.” And during the course of creating the game, he actually experience night terror. Like waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweating because he was dreaming about these nuclear bombs falling on his town. And he said these dreams persisted for years after the creation of the game.

There is a message behind this thing, and it’s when you frame it this way, and you start to look at the underpinnings of games. Is it high art? Is it avant-garde art? Is it what we call fine art? That’s not for me to decide. That is what the exhibition will examine.

G4: What were some of your points of focus in terms of fully examining the scope of video games and the gaming industry?

Metal Gear SolidCM: I started on this pitch of: let’s examine how popular culture, socioeconomic issues and technology advancement impacted game design, generation to generation, but also let’s examine the artistic breadth of artistic range of expression that was enabled as a result of technology progression and social progression. So when you look at things like Metal Gear Solid 4, anyone who plays it will say, "Oh, it’s a great stealth game, military game, shooting game,” but the intended message of the game is anti-war. And it’s those sorts of things that we miss when we look at the game on the face of it.

I saw this as a real opportunity to: number one, highlight the very deep messages that some of the games have, and the very lighthearted nature that some have, in an exhibition like this; and number two, and probably more importantly for me personally, I see this as a way of helping the industry have another very present form of legitimization. Having the Smithsonian American Art Museum recognize this as a legitimate form of artistic expression by saying, “Look. This is no longer relegated to the bedroom or some trivial pastime. This is worthy of examination as an art form.” is extraordinary.  I see this as the very first stepping-stone to a much greater appreciation, and adoption of this medium in the museum culture.

G4: Given how time intensive video games are, it can take many hours to truly understand/grasp their artistic value. How do you get that value across to people who are just walking through an exhibit?

CM: So how do we create the “CliffsNotes” of emotion for video games? [Laughs] What we can do is express these stories that exist within some of the games. But I think more importantly than the stories of the game themselves are the stories of the people that create them. I want to know what the artists were feeling. I want to know what the designers were thinking. I really want to explore the process by which these games came to life. What was the influence behind this thing? Is there a deeper message? And in some cases, there might not be, and that’s perfectly fine too. So much of what we look at in the fine art world, you could sit there and go, “OK. There is no back-story or channel of information about this piece. It’s all about how you internalize.” And that’s what games can be as well.

Flower

When we look at games like Flower for example, we could very easily hold it up and say, “Wow. Look at how artistic. Look at the artistic slant or bent that took place in creating this game.” And I have no problem saying this. There was a part in Flower where I teared up, because, in a very general sense, parts of the game are about rebirth, pollution and destruction, about rejuvenation of the city and these sorts of things. But what tied it together for me was the personal relationship I had with the material, and the music, and how I internalized those messages. And that’s what we can demonstrate. We don’t need to have to have them sit down and play 12-hour games. What we can do is show them the artistic process for some of these games. What I’m keen to demonstrate is how the story and message and the artistic medium evolve over time but stay true to core game tenets.

G4: For example?

Space InvadersCM: If you look at the original Space Invaders, on the [Atari] VCS, the ground is green, and the invaders are against a solid, black mass…You’re establishing a very abstract notion of defending some place you live against things coming out of the blackness of space.  Take one step into the realm of Intellivision, and look at Demon Attack. Demon Attack has your canon placed on a bright white colored cratered environment, and, in the background, you can see the Earth. So you’re already starting to establish a more refined framework for the conflict, and a back-story for the things that have happened with that space.

So it’s through that technology progression that you’re able to start to connect and create a bigger framework that your body of work exists within. We can take the core mechanics of the VCS version of Space Invaders and demonstrate how those mechanics they match up with Super Stardust HD on the [PlayStation 3] – things out of space, increasing when they diminish in number, using shields as defensive measures, etc.

What I think is extraordinarily interesting is to see – and this is something we don’t get to see in most other mediums – how, even though those same gameplay tenets, you’re able to have a massive amount of flexibility in storytelling, and experience, and environment. I think that is really, really kick ass. And that is part of what I want to explore in this exhibition, to show, that while technology and story and art and everything else play into the evolution, you can hear the echoes of the original mechanics for those genres still today; and they echo back 30-40 years.

G4: What are some of the results you hope to achieve with the exhibition?

CM: With the average age of a gamer in the United States being 32 years old, which means we have a good mass of people that are going to be above that age; we can create a multi-generational exhibition.  Imagine having a grand-parent, their child and their grandchild all deriving the same kind of feeling out of one exhibition. That’s the goal.

Donkey Kong

You know what’s interesting, my peers, some of them grew up playing games, and then stopped for whatever reason. It’s great because they can watch their kids play, and then go, "I can download Donkey Kong on the [Wii] Virtual Console! Alright, now here’s where dad’s going to take you to school." Even if you stopped playing games, you remember at some point in your life where games and technology were present, and that is only going to continue to increase, because in most modern societies, you’re hard-pressed to find anyone, kid especially, who’s never touched a computer. And that for me, on a very personal level, is what’s so cool and important about this. We’re going to be able to create a commonality, a point of discussion within families that come to see this exhibition, because there’s something in there for everybody.

G4: Speaking to that point, how do you go about presenting the wide spectrum of content and subject matters found in games – a good chunk of which is specifically intended for adult sensibilities – to younger gamers who will be attending the exhibition?

CM: So basically, how do I shield 6-year-old from more adult material in Grand Theft Auto?

G4: Exactly.

CM: That has completely been taken into consideration. The idea is not to go ahead and have on display for consumption 24 hours a day all of the material within these things. There’s many reasons why I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to go. The cacophony of having all of these systems going on at the same time in a museum setting doesn’t lend itself well to that kind of environment. That doesn’t mean we can’t showcase this stuff, and we can’t have the developers’ impressions about these sorts of games in there.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

It doesn’t mean we have to be graphic or explicit about it, because you can still have the discussion about the Grand Theft Auto series without having to delved into the things that aren’t really intended for those immature audiences. There’s plenty about the Grand Theft Auto games that we can talk about. “Well, my influence for [Grand Theft Auto: Vice City] clearly came out of the 80s, out of the decade of decadence and excess, Miami Vice sort of thing, but underpinning that is a real message about drug use and trade in lower income slums.” Now, the people that play the game are going to be able to say, “Yes. There is all of that, and I can jack cars and the soundtrack’s awesome.” Again, it’s making sure that we present the materials in a way that is appropriate for the widest breadth of an audience. That does not mean excluding pieces that are important just because they may be rated Mature. It’s how we present them in a manner that examines their artistic merit that will be important.

G4: Clearly, you’ve been thinking about this exhibition for a long time. How, and when, did you decide it was finally time to make it happen?

PongCM: I first started getting concerned about the curation of this industry about three and a half years ago, when I first visited a friend’s home, Mike Mika from Other Ocean [Interactive]. He has about 6,000 games in his house. When I walked in, I was speechless. That’s when he presented me with a 1971 Pong system board that says Syzygy on it, which was the name of Atari before it was legally Atari. It was incredible. And he gave to me. He was like, "You’re obviously a guy who appreciates this stuff, so here. I’d like you to have this."

So the first thing I said to him after picking my jaw off the floor was, “How much insurance do you have in this house?” And the real answer was, “There isn’t enough insurance to cover what would be lost if indeed we lost this.” And that’s the real truth of the matter. I interviewed him for a show I used to have on the web and you can check out his game room interview here (LevelUp).

We are a young industry, and the advantage we have right now is that most of the people that created the industry are still alive, and we don’t have that in any other medium. So for me, it was important that we try to do something to start the legitimization and capture of this data before it’s lost. And I think this is the very real first step in having a highly respected global institution, stamping onto the medium that, yes, this is an important thing to discuss and to discover and to examine. And that was really my focus for doing it, just out of pure desire to make sure that we start to capture an industry that means so much to me personally..

G4: So we should expect an entire video game wing of the Smithsonian in the near future?


CM: If I had my way, absolutely. And depending on the success of this, it could be the very first step. And more than just the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I see a real opportunity to create an advisory body or consortium that drives a global standard for curation, information gathering and collection. Adhering to this, we could still have the private collections, and at the same time, able to cross-reference each other, so we can get a holistic view, globally, of the entire industry.

So wouldn’t it be great to say, "I need to see Ion Storm documents from ’96 through ’98 that only pertain to this line of work," and then be able to go ahead and hit all the known repositories of data, and be able to get a complete view of what’s out there? I think that is really the next big step; how do we springboard out of this into something even bigger and better for the industry. But judging from the response we’ve gotten already, this thing is just going to be massive, and I’m going to put my heart into it to make sure it’s as good as it can be.

Q&A: Chris Melissinos -- Curator Of The Smithsonian's Art of Video Games Exhibition

G4: I know you can’t really talk about this just yet, but how heavy will the exhibition be in terms of memorabilia? Because Sterling McGarvey would love to donate his Fumito Ueda-signed copy of Shadow of the Colossus to it if that’s possible.

CM: Let’s just say that you’ll be able to sample from the gameplay experience to the interaction with the artists to just being able to absorb and appreciate the games for what they are. Again, it’s not like you’re going to be able to go in and pick up any controller and play any of those games all day long at the museum. There will be some of that, but the goal is for patrons to examine the art of video games and how that is expressed over time.

And I’ve already been getting outreach from artists, sculptures, people saying, “We have supplemental pieces that might help round out the exhibition.” Suffice to say, I’d like to cram as much as we can into this exhibition as long as it doesn’t detract from the rest of the museum.  The important thing is that the exhibition really gives you a sense of the gravity and incredible expanse of work that this industry represents.

As for Sterling’s copy of Shadow of the Colossus, I am happy to put it in MY personal archive!  In all seriousness, the outpouring of people looking to donate materials to the exhibition is amazing, and we will definitely be leaning on them to make sure we have the best possible exhibition to represent the medium.

G4: Can you share anything about how gamers will be able to contribute to the exhibit itself?

CM: That part I really can’t give away, but here’s my intent. This is not “Chris’ Favorite Picks of the Past 30 Years,” although that may make for a great VH1 series, eh? My goal is to make sure that the voice of gamers who want to see works preserved and displayed have some say in the materials presented.  That’s all I can tell you right now, but, to be clear, that is one of the critical pieces that I’ve had in this plan since it’s inception.

It is important, because we are a community that is global, a community that spans multiple generations, multiple likes, and I think this should be something that the public feels a part of. When we talk about playing games, we see ourselves reflected in them. We put ourselves in RPGs because we can decide to be the hero, or the villain. We put ourselves into race cars because we’re drivers, because that’s what the medium provides. Why should this be any different? I want people to be able to come in and say, “You know what? I voted for that thing. I see part of what I love in this display because I was a part of helping get it here.”

Q&A: Chris Melissinos -- Curator Of The Smithsonian's Art of Video Games Exhibition
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