“Awesome!” exclaims Jacob Smith, 6, as he enters the newest exhibit at the National Museum of American Art. It’s not the kind of response most art exhibitions elicit from children his age.
But “The Art of Video Games” is unlike any other exhibit. One gallery features five games which visitors can play for free, all projected on large screens.
Jacob was happy to find one of his favorites, "Super Mario Brothers." “I was really excited. I thought you could buy games here.”
You can't, but he was happy to play anyway. “Our son is obsessed with video games,” says his mom, Brittany Smith. “He plays every day.”
That obsession is something Chris Melissinos, the exhibit's guest curator, understands. “Video games have been present in my life for as long as I can remember.”
All 80 games represented here, as well as the consoles used to play them, are from Mellisinos' private collection. But they were selected with help from the public.
“I think that many of us who grew up with these always knew them to be something more than what they seemed to be on the surface,” Melissinos says. “Whether or not we considered them to be art may have just been from a lack of maturity. "
A video game's creation usually begins with pencil sketches, and there are some of those on display.
In addition to the five interactive game stations, there's a gallery tracing the 40-year history of the art, through still images and video screens.
Today’s sophisticated animations are testimony to how far graphics have improved since the simple, yellow, pie-shaped Pac Man was chased through a maze by ghosts.
But visuals are only part of the medium. “We see interactive storytelling that lets you guide the story along to make sure you are included in that narrative,” Melissinos says.
"Myst," included among the five playable games, was one of the first to present the story from the gamer’s point of view.
The exhibit made Brad Pittack, 32, nostalgic. “It brings back memories from growing up to see some of the games.”
He also enjoyed playing a new game, called "Flower," which creates the feeling of being a petal drifting on the wind.
“It was a different approach, a more calming, relaxing video game," Pittack says. "I could see using it to unwind.”
Nathan Pierce Jr., 27, who says he plays 10-to-12 hours a day when he is off from work, gives the show a thumbs-up. “This is a great exhibit. I didn't have high expectations for it. But I'm very pleased by it."
As for curator Melissinos, he hopes everyone who comes “leaves with the understanding that video games were more than they believed them to be when they first came in.”
That they are art as well as fun.