Q&A: Chris Melissinos on curating Smithsonian's 'The Art of Video Games'

Game designer, collector and former Sun exec behind exhibition opening March 16

A longtime game designer and collector of gaming systems, Chris Melissinos talks with Network World about why the art of video games is different from other artistic media, the 'separation anxiety' he's feeling after loaning his vintage gaming systems to the travelling exhibition, and why now is the opportune time for an exhibition like this.

A longtime game designer and collector of gaming systems, Chris Melissinos is the guest curator of the "The Art of Video Games" exhibition, which opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. on March 16.

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Melissinos, who is former chief evangelist and chief gaming officer for Sun and founder of PastPixels, talked with Network World associate news editor Ann Bednarz about why the art of video games is different from other artistic media, the "separation anxiety" he's feeling after loaning many of his vintage gaming systems to the travelling exhibition, and why now is the opportune time for an exhibition like this.

Have you always been a lover of video games? How did that lead to your involvement in this exhibition?

Yes, I've always been a lover of video games. I was born in 1970, and it's an era that I refer to quite often as the "bit baby" era. We were the first kids who grew up appropriating computer technology into our lives, into our homes. I started programming when I was 9  years old, I wrote my first full game by the time I was 12, and I never stopped.

I eventually made my way into the high-tech world and started working at Sun Microsystems. I was there from 1994 until their eventual acquisition by Oracle. For the bulk of my career, I spent it as the chief gaming officer for Sun.

What I understood was that there was an intersection between the need for technology and the desire to create that could be filled by the technologies we were building at Sun, and so I approached Scott McNealy and basically convinced him to allow me to pursue this on behalf of the company. So I've always been involved, in some way, shape or form, either personally or professionally, with the video games industry. Not to mention, I'm a collector of machines. I have 42 systems. Most of the materials that are in the exhibition are from my personal collection. All the images you see in the exhibition, I captured at home. All of the video footage, I captured myself playing. What you're getting to experience in the exhibition is really an outpouring of my love, my respect, and my admiration for games since I was a child.

Was it difficult to part with your systems for the exhibition?

Well, I didn't expect to have this separation anxiety that I'm going through. They won't come back to me for another two-and-a-half to three years. They'll travel to 10 more museums through the end of 2015 -- which also speaks to the desire of the public and the museums to shed more light and illumination on the art of video games. I'm happy to have contributed to it.

What's unique about the art of video games?

There are three voices of video games. The first voice in a video game is that of the designer, or the author, who has something to say through this world that is crafted, some message to impart. The second voice in a video game is that of the game itself, the mechanics of the game, how it explains itself to the player with which it is engaging. The third voice is the player. This is why video games stand apart from other forms of expressed media art. Because it becomes art once it is played.

I'll give you an example. If you and I sit down together to watch a movie, we'll follow this narrative arc that is laid before us, and we'll walk out of the theater and say, "Do you remember this part? Yes, I remember that. Do you remember when that happened? Yes, I remember." You and I will have pretty much the same experience. In a video game, you and I can play the same game, we'll start at the same point the author intended, we'll end at the same point the author intended, and along the way, you and I may explore the game very differently, follow different paths and experience different things. While we retain the authority of authorship, we claim an individual experience that is personal to everyone who plays the video game. That's why it's so amazing.

Was it a challenge to shift from the tech world to your role as curator in the art world?

Not really. The reason is that I, along with many of my generation, always knew that there was more to video games than most people first granted them. We knew that these were the platforms and the technologies that allowed us to experience things that could never be possible in the real world. Looking at video games when I was a kid, and writing my own games, I knew that there was this endless, expansive universe behind this glass, and I could see it, but I could never touch it, but I felt it. It was just a wonderful opportunity to explore culture, excitement, and have those things appear out of the code that I poured myself into. I always knew that eventually we would arrive at this point. The reality is that we could not have had this exhibition at any other point in history than right now. What I'm hoping to do with this exhibition is bring forward more of the humanity, the inspiration, the artistry and the art of video games.

Why is now the right time?

Quite simply, those of us who grew up with computers in the home, and brought these mysterious machines of wonder in our lives, are now at the age when we're raising our own children. For the very first time in the history of the games industry, we have people who grew up playing video games raising kids who are growing up playing video games. Gamers raising gamers. We've never experienced this before. It's an audience that already says, "Yes, I understand that this is part of culture and part of society. Now I'm interested in learning about the why." Now is the time.

The public was able to vote on the games that are included in the exhibition. Why was that important? Any surprises during the process?

I could have made it very easy for myself. I have enough of an understanding, and the breadth of experience, that I could have just picked the 80 games that I think best represent the story that I want to tell. But that would not be staying true to the core of what I believe games to be, involving those three voices.

We wanted to allow the public, people who invested their lives and their hopes and their emotions into the same medium, to have their voice heard. For me, it was making sure that third voice, the voice of the players themselves, was expressed and demonstrated, in a way, in the exhibition.

What's interesting is that you might think we just left it open, to allow people to select whatever they want. But that's not true. We had three games that people could pick from each category that was presented to them. I could still tell the narrative I want to tell, regardless of which games were picked. So in many ways, it follows exactly the same lines we were talking about, where I have a beginning and an end, and I will take you, start to finish, along that route. But the public helps define the experience along the way. It was intentional.

Among the games that made it into the exhibition, are there common characteristics that make each game a standout in its category?

Sure. The types of games we selected are ones that allow for narrative, for a story to be told. For example, there are no fighting games in the exhibition because they're ones that don't deviate; they don't have a story to them other than the loosest ones to try to hold together the framework. We picked categories that allowed for narrative to emerge.

What I think is fascinating when you look through this -- I knew it would happen, but it happened organically, which in some cases surprised me -- is that it isn't so much what has changed over time, it's what has remained the same. For example, if you look at a game like Pitfall! on the original Atari VCS, and you see Pitfall Harry running through the jungle, jumping over a crocodile pit and grabbing a vine to swing across it, and then you look on the Playstation 3 and you see Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2 running through a jungle and swinging from a vine, you realize that the mechanics, the mechanical vocabulary of the games has persisted over time. It hasn't changed. What has changed is the size of the canvas in which the artists can now craft their stories, the palette of color and technique they have at their disposal to tell their story, and those sorts of things. So all technology has done is just allowed for a broader range of expression to occur. But the mechanics of those games, the underpinnings that make them the games that they are, always stay true.

While working on the exhibition, did you get to meet any game designers you were particularly excited to collaborate with?

It's funny, after being around the industry for so long, I think what was most exciting was being able to go back to people I've known for years and say that we have this project now, this opportunity to tell the story that we've always known to be true.

Of course there are some moments. I'll be sitting down with [video game designer] Hideo Kojima on Saturday, March 17, for a one hour conversation. I've never met Mr. Kojima, but I obviously know of his work and I know what he represents. So for me, yes, it's very exciting. Through this project I've had the opportunity to meet and get to know a bit better Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari. I met with Ralph Baer, the man who invented home video games, and I went to his home in Massachusetts where I actually played against him on his 1965 prototype, which was amazing.

The history of Atari

Some the best emails and the best messages I got were from people saying thank you for helping us to illuminate the work that we've done for the art that we know this to be. I'm very honored to have been able to have helped in some way to shine more light, illuminate the art that is video games. It's very personal to me, and it can be very emotional at times. I'm very appreciative of the opportunity.

When I was at Sun, during the last few years, I was the chief evangelist for the company. I remember standing on stage at JavaOne in 2009, knowing that it would probably be my last opportunity to say the things that I wanted to say. I made the point that technology is wonderful, and it gives us the opportunity to do many things, however none of it matters if we don't find the humanity in it.

I believe that if we cannot find the true purpose for technology, then we haven't done anything. It has to serve humanity's needs, it has to find a greater opportunity in the world than just technology itself. And this is what video games do. Video games allow us as human beings to explore our dreams, our fears, our thoughts, our morals, and engage with each other in a way that no other medium allows us to. I find that inspiring and beautiful, and I am so happy to be alive during this time. We are going to experience, I think, one of the greatest surges of artistic intent in human history, and I believe that the majority of it will come through video games.

Many parents -- myself included -- struggle to limit kids' screen time. It's nice to hear this perspective, to focus on the creative, expressive, story-telling potential of video games for a change.

That's not unexpected. It's a nascent medium. It's only 40 years old. There has never been another expressive form of media that has captured the global mindset of the human population as fast as video games have. I believe it is society's responsibility to protect and nurture this because it is so young, because it hasn't had the chance to build its full vocabulary or to display its full potential. Like with anything else in life, we have to make sure that we use it for the means that are best for our families, understand what it is that we bring into our homes and engage in. I encourage everyone who looks at video games and says, "oh, that may be a trivial pursuit," or "maybe that's a waste of time," to not dismiss it so readily, to understand that there's more to these games than they ever believed there to be.

Ann Bednarz covers IT careers, outsourcing and Internet culture for Network World. Follow Ann on Twitter at @annbednarz http://twitter.com/annbednarz and check out her blog, Occupational Hazards. Her e-mail address is abednarz@nww.com.

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