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NPR: The Smithsonian Messed Up Its Game Exhibit

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Posted March 28, 2012 - By Stephen Johnson

Smithsonian's Art of Video Games Exhibition Voting Begins

It's fun when "establishment" institutions fight over video games. The (very polite) spat that's amusing me this morning is a dust-up between National Public Radio and the Smithsonian Institute over how the Smithsonian's recently opened "video games as art" collection was curated. In the opinion of NPR writer Harold Goldberg (who has also written for G4), the crowd-sourcing model of picking the games featured in museum resulted in a collection that "feels horribly generic."

Unlike most museum collections, the games chosen for The Art of Video Games were first picked by a committee of industry insiders, and those choices were ultimately decided upon by the public through internet-voting. That's very democratic and all, but according to Goldberg, is not a recipe for a successful examination of Gaming. In fact, in Goldberg's words, "The Smithsonian and its freelance curator screwed it all up."

I think Goldberg makes a very strong point here. The works of art included in traditional art museums are generally curated by people who have spent their lives studying Art, people with a special understanding of particular forms of expression, connoisseurs who, frankly, have better taste than other people.

Works of Art (with the capitol "A") are generally agreed upon by these people to be worthwhile beyond an initial appeal. Art (with the capitol "A") is often challenging and serious, and rewards serious contemplation with insights about what it is to be Human. These are not the kinds of things that can generally be "crowd-sourced."

The idea of an elite group of aesthetic and intellectual professionals who "know better" than the common Joe feels distinctly un-American and elitist, but, in my opinion (and NPR's) it's preferable to the alternative. Call me an elitist if you like, but letting "The People" pick the art to be featured somewhere is the perfect recipe for creating a dull, uninspiring middle-of-the-road show.  Imagine a film festival programmed by the general public -- it would look a lot like the current offerings at movie theaters, or, worse yet, YouTube.

If you take everyone's opinions into account, you often end up with the most average outcome possible, a fate that Goldberg feels has befallen the Smithsonian.

"This videogame-oriented People's Choice Awards is all about the madness of too many cooks," Goldberg writes, "and it's why the exhibition, while groundbreaking because it's there at all, feels kind of horribly generic. With the exception of the inclusion of Irrational Games' BioShock, Bethesda Softworks' Fallout 3, Valve's Half-Life 2 and Clover Studio's Okami, The Art of Video Games is never boldly disruptive. It is therefore tragically disappointing – and often suspect - at its very core"

Please call me an elitist in our comment section, because I totally am.

All of the best people are following Stephen Johnson's twitter feed. Also, email me if you wanna.

Tags: Videogames
NPR: The Smithsonian Messed Up Its Game Exhibit
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