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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

By , Network World
March 15, 2012 05:11 PM ET

Network World - 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.

IN PICTURES: Smithsonian exhibit celebrates 40 years of video games

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.

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