Video Games Get Respect at the Smithsonian

Video game pros like to remind us that their "interactive entertainment" business grosses more billions worldwide than the film industry, yet earns just a small fraction of the latter's respect.  Maybe that will change some with a new exhibit and companion "coffee table" style book  premiering tomorrow.

Both titled "The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect," the exhibit is  being staged by the prestigeous Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.,  and runs through Sept. 30. In her forward to the companion book, museum director Elizabeth Broun hails video games as "a unique and powerful form of expression, in the same way that photography, film and many other types of art did before them." But as it marks its 40th anniversary, the interactive gaming medium is still in its relative infancy compared with those art forms,  she adds, thus has  potential for much more, exciting growth.

  Designed for us short attention span readers, the well-paced, large format, $40 hardback  from Welcome Books  features big image screen grabs and short blocks of history and insight on 80 noteworthy games, arranged historically and by console format eras.  The tech and graphics evolution takes us  from early landmarks of pixelized programming like "Space-Invaders, "Pitfall!" and "Pac-Man" which are kinda hard to argue as great art, to recent beauts like "Shadow of the Colossus," "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" "Bio-Shock" and the Philly inner-city image grabbing "Heavy Rain" which offer rich, innovative visuals, plus deeply immersive story lines that require gamers to make a moral commitment to save the planet and  its good folks. 

 Yeah, the plot line is  often the same, though the characters and settings and dilemmas certainly vary. "Bio-Shock" for one, raises ethical issues about stem-cell research and political oppression. And it's telling that the last game cited in the book and exhibit, the PS3 target-style game "Flower" is truly a breed apart. The wind serves as the protaganist and it's your mission to "breathe life" into the world. This eco-themed game also  boasts gorgeous impressionist imagery in a style that would do a Monet or Van Gogh proud.

Also rallying for  the cause  are short essays in the book from industry innovators like "father of Atari" Nolan Bushnell - who "knows for a fact" that gaming  doesn't just  keeps you sharp, but  "delays the onset of  Alzheimer's."

So go do something artful and important - buy  the book, visit the exhibit and go play a video game!