Video game exhibit generates enthusiasm, draws interest from visitors

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The Art of Video Games

Blake Howell and Blake Howell

The Art of Video Games, a three-year-long exhibition that aims to illuminate the artistry and beauty of over 40 years of video games, opened its doors of nostalgic buzzes, beeps and whistles to gamers and spectators of all ages in its first week at the Toledo Museum of Art.

Although the exhibition has made its first and only debut in Ohio, it originally began in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In 2012 the exhibition saw a six-month stretch at the Smithsonian. According to Chris Melissinos, the co-producer and curator of the exhibition, it was the most “technically complex exhibit in the history of the Smithsonian.”

Because the exhibit was attracting so many people, Melissinos said they began reaching out to other museums about possibly hosting the exhibition. Sure enough, museums across the country were jumping at the chance to host it, as was the Toledo Museum of Art.

“We jumped on it very quickly because we know it’s a cultural phenomenon,” Kelly Garrow, director of Communications at the Toledo Museum of Art, said.

According to Garrow, after releasing their brief but entertaining advertisement for the exhibition, word of the event blew up on social media. After three short days of advertising, Garrow said the video had over 700 shares from the Toledo Museum of Art’s home page.

In its first three days alone, the museum welcomed roughly 1,000 people to its home of numerous video games and consoles.

“It’s definitely met our expectations,” Garrow said.

Bill Carter of Holland, Ohio, an active gamer since 1989, was one of thousands to attend the exhibition’s opening celebration. Dressed from head to toe in the uniform of his favorite game and character, Mario, Carter said he loved what he saw and said the exhibition stood as “legitimacy for gamers everywhere.”

“They’re not just a fad, they’re a lifestyle,” he said.

Video games have been around for over 40 years and in that brief window of existence, they have seen their share of challenges in being deemed a legitimate medium of art.

“It’s like any other form of media that reaches a tipping point in culture, whether it’s comic books, television, radio, printed word, whatever, when it grabs a hold of society and people gravitate towards it, there may be a portion of people who don’t fully understand it,” Melissinos said.

Melissinos said rather than railing against something that they don’t understand, people should instead take it upon themselves to learn about what they don’t understand so they may better communicate and interact with their children, as Melissinos’s own parents did for him.

A child of the 1970s, Melissinos grew up in Flushing, N.Y., and was enthralled by video games from the start. He began programming at the age of nine after obtaining a “sears pong machine” and by age 12, he finished developing his first game on a Commodore VIC-20 (an 8-bit home computer with 5Kb of RAM). With the support of his family and drive to be a part of something he loved, Melissinos spent much of his life dedicating every moment to video games.

After years of developing for the likes of Sun Microsystems, where he was the company’s chief evangelist and chief gaming officer, as well as winning the Ambassador Award in 2013 (an award that honors those who have helped advance the game industry to a better place), Melissinos said it was time to help others.

“It was a labor of love and I’m glad to have done it, but it’s time to help and illuminate the work of others and I’m going to keep doing it for as long as I can,” he said.

Although much of his work now focuses on displaying the works of other developers and artists, Melissinos is still very much an activist for the exploration and continuation of video games.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us and society and those of us who are raising the next generation to make sure we understand them rather than dismiss them because guess what, video games didn’t destroy the world, they didn’t destroy our youth,” he said. “They’re now a global phenomenon that we’re using in education, in healthcare, in research and many other facets of life.”

An avid activist for the medium he loves, Melissinos and co-producer of the exhibition Georgina Goodlander spent years making sure the exhibition saw the light of day.

The exhibition holds 80 different games on 20 different consoles and is strategically laid out in five generations of gaming. Much of the footage shown at the exhibition includes interviews and gameplay footage conducted by Melissinos himself, and even the games and consoles are a personal collection from Melissinos and his friends and family in the industry.

Melissinos urges those who do not understand to not dismiss video games at face value, but rather to observe and analyze them in depth.

“Look at the artistry of the environment, look at what these characters are going through, look at how this one game is reflective of what’s happening in our world today,” he said. “The technology just allows artists to tell a bigger story, a more descriptive story.”

Melissinos also said there is something in video games for everyone and they serve as a “universal language of expression.” To demonstrate, Melissinos said he showed one of the games at the exhibition, “Flower” for the PlayStation 3, to an elderly couple.

By the time they were done exploring the intricate universe of the new-generation game, the two swore that they were going to buy both the game and console as soon as they could because it was something they could see themselves doing every day.

The exhibition will be at the Toledo Museum of Art until the end of September and will then move on to the next stop of its three-year tour. For all who attend in the next several months, Melissinos said they will bear witness to a great installation of the original exhibit and a condensed version of his 40-year-long experience with video games.

“When you see [the pieces in the exhibition], it is my experience with video games for over the past 40 years, told through the incredible work of thousands and thousands of story tellers and artists and musicians,” he said. “That’s really what it’s all about: the people that devoted their lives to this incredible medium, and to help illuminate that and bring recognition to these people has been an honor for me.”