The art and history of violent video games

An upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian called “The art of video games” will include the M-rated 2009 game Brütal Legend.

On March 16, 2012, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will kick off an exhibit called “The art of video games,” paying tribute to games that have stood out since Pac-Man first hit home console screens. One of the things that makes this exhibit unique is the fact that voters picked which games would be included in the show, which runs through September 30, 2012.

The games will run the gamut from the petal-strewn Flower to the, er, alligator-strewn Pitfall. What’s interesting is, “M” rated games, including some pioneers in the violent/first-person shooter genres, will rub shoulders with other famous art pieces in the Smithsonian. Clearly, the art world — including that portion supported by the U.S. Government — feels that there is value to these games.

Here are the “M” rated games to be included:
Doom II
Diablo II
Metal Gear Solid
Halo 2
Mass Effect 2
Fallout 3
Metal Gear Solid 2
Heavy Rain
Brütal Legend

That’s quite a list, one that includes games some say caused teens to kill fellow classmates (Doom II) or toy with the occult (Diablo II). I can imagine that some people — parents included — might say such games shouldn’t qualify as “art.” Before we go down that road, consider historical works of art and fiction that might have been suspected of holding similar sway over viewers and readers. Would you keep your kids from seeing them today? Although the Smithsonian is known for pushing cultural buttons, it’s also one of the most widely respected art museums in the world.

Which is to say: there’s more to video games, particularly violent and “M” rated games, than blood and guns. There’s breathtaking art and storytelling, emotional stories, moments of tragedy and heroism. Just like in other forms of art that, though controversial in their day, have come to hold a place of respect in world culture. So why not let kids enjoy these works of art in their contemporary setting — the setting in which they were created, and in many cases the setting they are commenting on? There’s much to be said for these games.

Readers: What controversial works of art can you think of that were reviled or banned in their day that are widely respected now? Do you think video games compare?


6 responses to “The art and history of violent video games

  1. r.mutt/marcel duchamp’s fountain is the first one i can think of.

  2. “Controversial” in what sense? Comic books went through an entire moral panic of controversy, which only died last month when Archie Comics, the very last subscriber of all, finally ceased paying the Comics Code Authority for the right to put the CCA stamp on its magazines.

    Duschamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was controversial because it was too complicated– a Cubist/Futurist vision that broke the traditional depiction of a nude– for most people to understand. These days we think it’s such an archetypically brilliant idea that it’s been parodied in cartoons like Animaniacs.

    Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic material is still hard to display professionally in some districts, and yet still widely regarded by artists as some of the best photography of its era, both artistic and journalistic. It’s “controversial” even when it shows Teh Gays being ordinary.

    On the other hand, it was a common trope of artists in the 1890s that children were seething, Freudian cauldrons of dangerous desires, and artists of that time such as William Bouguereau, Susanne Daynes-Grassot, and Carl Larsson, painted blatantly erotic (but at the time critically celebrated) depictions of young boys and girls. Any museum today putting on a show of their works would probably get burned to the ground. The notion that one decade’s moral panic is the next’s artistic breakthrough does not run through time in one direction only.

  3. Thanks for this! I would love to check that exhibit out!

  4. What an intriguing question. I think, anything that challenges our thinking, draws in our eyes and attention can be considered art. The most important thing for me (who doesn’t have a child in the house old enough to do this maturely) contemplation of the art. MMF

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