The waka-waka chorus of Pac-Man munching and the upbeat du-du-du-du backdrop to Mario’s adventure drown out hushed voices and softly padding footsteps.
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No, it’s not an ‘80s-era arcade. This is the Phoenix Art Museum — the museum’s Art of Video Games exhibit, to be specific.
Gamers willing to put away their joysticks for an hour or two can catch the traveling Smithsonian American Art Museum display, which showcases 40 years of video game history, at the Phoenix Art Museum until Sept. 29.
On the Wednesday afternoon when I toured the exhibit, people of all ages and genders, from a toddler girl who had to be held up by her mom so she could play Pac-Man to a couple born years before the first home video game console hit shelves in 1972, milled around, listening, playing and watching clips from the games.
The universality of video games is the first thing that jumps out in the exhibit, and if its audience isn’t enough to demonstrate it, a series of three screens at the entrance featuring rotating video clips of gamers is. While they all share a look of rapt attention focused on the screen, the players look completely different.
The piece, which the Smithsonian’s Michael Mansfield created by filming players for long stretches, shows more than just the broad audience for these games, says Chris Melissinos, the exhibit’s curator. The interaction between player and designer is one of the defining characteristics of the art form that has kept him hooked for so long.
“What’s amazing about video games as opposed to other art forms is that they invite the player in while still keeping the artist’s framework,” he says. “In this piece, you’re seeing the physical interaction of people with video games.”
The exhibit is built around a premise of three voices: that of the game’s designer or author, the mechanical language of the game itself, and that of the player. All three work together to create the idea of video games as art.
Members of the public helped select the 80 games featured inside the exhibit from a list of 240 developed by Melissinos and his colleagues. Twenty gaming platforms, from the 1977 Atari VCS to the more current Playstation 3, circle the exhibit, giving visitors the opportunity to hear brief descriptions of the action, adventure, target or tactical games on each console and view clips of the games being played by Melissinos.
About two-thirds of the consoles came from his own collection, and each system was synonymous with video gaming in its era, he says.
The games are divided into five eras, described near the front of the exhibit. From the early stages in the ‘70s to early ‘80s, when games were marked by low-quality graphics, to the 8-bit graphics of the ‘80s when storylines developed further, to the Bit Wars of the early- to mid-90s when companies began to focus on higher-quality graphics, to the 3-D- heavy transition period of the mid-90s and early 2000s, to the next generation of lifelike games today.
Large screens allow museum patrons to play one of five games from each era: 1981’s home adaptation of the arcade favorite “Pac-Man,” 1985’s “Super Mario Bros.,” 1990’s “The Secret of Monkey Island,” 1993’s “Myst” or 2009’s “Flower.”
The playable games show the evolution of gaming technology, from the relatively simple design yet impossibly tough levels of “Pac-Man,” to the jump-heavy era of “Super Mario Bros.,” to the almost unnervingly realistic graphics of “Flower.”
For someone who had vaguely heard of, but had never played any but “Pac-Man,” the games were difficult to grasp at first, but still enthralling, and the graphic and storyline development was easy to see on the giant screens.
Despite my initial skepticism about just how an exhibit that fun could possibly be considered art, I couldn’t help but agree with Melissinos.
“How could video games be anything but art?”
DETAILS >> Now through Sept. 29; Phoenix Art Museum’s Steele Gallery, 1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix. Free for kids 5 and under; $6-$15 for others. phxart.org/exhibitions/videogames