Decoding Design

Clues to the future of gaming from "The Art of Video Games" curator

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A new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum looks at the history of video games in a cultural context. Its curator has ideas of where gaming may be headed, too.

"The Art of Video Games," a much-anticipated exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., establishes entertainment products such as Pac-Man as historically and culturally significant. Although the show, on view through September 30, seems to focus mainly on what game designs have been successful in the past, could there be clues to gaming's future?

The answer is yes.

A gallery shot of "The Art of Video Games" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Granted, reviews of the exhibition, which opened on March 16 and will travel to 10 cities over the next four years--have been mixed, even within the same review. Last week, Seth Schiesel wrote in the New York Times that the show is "a sanitized, uncontroversial and rigorously unprovocative introduction to the basic concepts of video games — which was, quite clearly, the point." Ouch--sort of. Schiesel goes on to explain that it is "a basic survey for people who don’t play games (and their children), which is all that one could reasonably expect of an exhibition in this particular time and place." He concludes, positively, that "this is ultimately a 'just happy to be here' exhibition, and an excellent one at that."

Yes, the Times review suggests that the show might be a little simplistic and geared to very general audiences rather than companies interested in innovation. But I just read a newly published (on ArtInfo.com) Q & A with curator Chris Melissinos, a former Sun Microsystems video game "evangelist," from which I could find insights into gaming's future. Here are some of them:

  • Pay attention to designers and consumers in the "Bit Data Generation," as Melissinos calls people now in their 30s and 40s. This is the first generation to grow up with video games--Generation X. They are now raising children, and "for the very first time, you have the broadest segment of society who are gamers, raising gamers," as he said to ArtInfo's Benjamin Sutton. This means they are re-defining family interactions via games. Researchers and designers might want to look into this demographic closely to see gaming's role in the home for new product and service ideas.
  • Mainstream games will become more about self-expression and DIY creation. Melissinos suggests that a notable wave in game design places the players in innovator/designer mode themselves. "We're in an age now where the optimization of technology and the accessibility of games are going to come together to create amazing new experiences," he stated, citing the game Minecraft as an example of what's to come. On view at "The Art of Video Games," it is essentially about players making whatever they want with blocks. Minecraft "has captured the imagination of the world, not so much in that there's any kind of rigorous gaming structure about it, but in that it allows players to express themselves and create," Melissonos observed. (Indeed, its creator Tweeted in February that 5 million copies of Minecraft have been sold since its late 2011 release.)
  • Technology may be the number one factor in driving new developments in game design and innovation--perhaps even more so than imagination. "There were fundamental technological leaps that propelled the entire video game story. You had marginal yet important technological advances in those early systems that led to the development of 2-bit systems, which allows you to create a much more important experience," Melissinos stated. "And then you jump to the 8-bit systems and all of a sudden you're bringing in musical scores, you're bringing in a much bigger palette." What this suggests is that although courting star designers is key to developing inventive games, experimenting with new technologies is, too.

Given that gamification was a hot trend at the recent South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, TX--The Wall Street Journal reported that there were at least eight panels on the topic--observing how video game design and technologies affect culture and human habits could be quite timely. That's because successful video game design is likely to affect user interfaces in a variety of industries as more companies adopt gamification as a strategy.

Photos: from top, Blake Patterson/Flickr; Smithsonian American Art Museum

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure