Chris Melissinos is tempted to say his first dalliance with video games was Pong, that table-tennis look-alike for the original Atari 2600. He’s tempted, but he’ll go with the time he designed his own virtual world at age 12, dubbed Space Debris, featuring a pilot who collected medical supplies while barreling through an asteroid field en route to a space station.
Melissinos never stopped programming, leveraging himself a position as Chief Gaming Officer for Java developer Sun Microsystems, until a chance meeting with a Smithsonian curator set off a new project: carving out an exhibition wrapped around video games, from Atari’s Missile Command to the 8-bit playground of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. and the futuristic Xbox 360 shooter Mass Effect 2. The premise: that the 40-year history of pixelated graphics — that a barrel-chucking Donkey Kong and a dot-gobbling Ms. Pac-Man — should be considered, well, art.
“If you ask me, video games are definitely an art form,” says the 42-year-old Virginia programmer, whose exhibit, “The Art of Video Games,” will open Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “I’ve spent time with famous works from Jackson Pollock, and it doesn’t connect with me. There are video games that make me cry. The advantage video games have over other expressive media is the ability to interact, to make the stories personal. We don’t see that so much with music and books.”
The touring display, which debuted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in March, features 80 video games (Melissinos says they were handpicked from a field of 240 by the online gaming community) and spread across three rooms. The first contains concept artwork for games such as Missile Command and the Sega Genesis’ Earthworm Jim, video interviews with Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and other gaming luminaries, and the 45-minute documentary titled “Gamers.”
The second room has five playable games — these handpicked by Melissinos — including the arcade version of Pac-Man; PC games The Secret of Monkey Island and Myst; Super Mario Bros. for the NES; and Flower for PlayStation 3.
“I chose them because each of the games from their respective eras did something that changed the way we perceive video games,” Melissinos says. “You can see the evolution of game engines right there, writ small. You begin as a character in Pac-Man. In Flower, you play as the wind, breathing life into a barren world.”
The third room, he says, walks visitors through a chronology of games appearing on 20 different consoles, each annotated with videos of Melissinos' game play. “You literally walk through time, and see how Atari’s Pitfall influenced, say, the jungle game Uncharted 2 or how Super Mario informed Super Mario Galaxy 2,” he says. “And the best part is we’re not bound by technological limitations, anymore, so we can create more abstract games. We’re in for some amazing stuff.”
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The Art of Video Games
When: Opens Wednesday, Oct. 24, and runs through Jan. 13; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Where: Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real
Contact: 561-392-2500 or BocaMuseum.org