The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian

Posted in News by on Mar 9th, 2011 12:16 PM

In sharp contrast to Roger Ebert's insistence that video games are not art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum of Washington. D.C., will host an exhibit entitled "The Art of Video Games" — and its curators want your input.

To decide which games are sufficiently artistic, the museum has created an online voting site where gamers of all ages are invited to vote for the software whose visual imagery warrants a place in history. The games are broken down into multiple eras and consoles:

Gamers may vote for one of three games in each of four genre categories per console: action, adventure, target, and combat/strategy. Since there are 80 categories (four genres for each of 20 consoles), the system allots 80 votes to choose your favorite games from 240.

I put off casting my own vote due to the requirement to register for the voting system — an understandable precaution to prevent ballot stuffing. Fortunately, "registration" means only inputting one's email address. Should one wish to return later to finish casting one's votes, a four-digit PIN is provided as a password.

Once registered, I found the experience seamless, though the choices challenging. The exhibit is called "The Art of Video Games". Does that simply mean "the best graphics"? The Super Nintendo's adventure candidates were Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and EarthBound. Since EarthBound (ie, Mother 2) was originally an 8-bit game, it can't compete with the other two in terms of graphics. But is it equally artistic? I cast an inalterable vote for Chrono Trigger before asking myself that question (though of the three, Zelda 3 is my favorite).

I was heartened to see indie games like Limbo and Minecraft included in the nominees but disappointed to note the absence of entire platforms, such as the Nintendo Game Boy or the Apple II (though one can vote for ports of games from these systems). The museum's FAQ addresses these issues:

Your genres seem odd. Where are the RPG, Fighting, Racing, MMOG, etc. genres?

There are so many different types of games that we knew our show could not feature them all. We looked for four broad categories that would allow us to offer a wide selection.

How could you leave out my favorite games?

It was really difficult to narrow the tens of thousands of game choices down to just 240 titles and we appreciate that there will always be games that people feel should have made the cut but didn’t. The games that are being considered for the exhibition represent certain points in time for each of the 20 systems that also contribute to the overall narrative of the exhibition.

Where are the arcade games, handhelds, and system XYZ? How could you not include these?

We considered the size of the museum’s galleries that will house the exhibition, as well as the time that visitors will need to experience the content. The 20 selected systems represent significant points in time for the eras described. Hopefully this will be the first exhibition of many that explore the medium of video games.

That may all be understandable, but breaking from the traditional generations of consoles nonetheless seems a strange division.

When I was done voting, there was no way to indicate I didn't wish to use my remaining 40 votes, or to output a scoresheet marking off my choices. Rather than share my selections here or compare them with friends, I will have to wait for the winners to be included in the final exhibit:

The exhibition will feature 80 games through still images and video footage. Five games will be available for visitors to play for a few minutes, to gain some feel for the interactivity—Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and World of Warcraft. In addition, the galleries will include video interviews with developers and artists, large prints of in-game screen shots, and historic game consoles.

Gamers have more than a year before seeing these games on display: the exhibit is scheduled to run March 16 to September 30, 2012

(Hat tip to Gabriel Perna)

UPDATE: The winners have been announced! The Web site doesn't have much information, but the 12-page PDF offers a more comprehensive breakdown of the winners and genres.

Programming Challenges for Sid Meier

Posted in News by on May 8th, 2010 12:40 PM

A college student joins his campus's game development group. They decide to have a 48-hour programming competition. The kid's father, an alumnus of the school, asks if he can enter the contest, just for fun.

Who wants their dad tagging along for the weekend? Pretty embarrassing, right? Maybe not when your dad is Sid Meier, founder of Firaxis Games and creator of such legendary franchises as Civilization and Pirates! That's what happened to Ryan Meier and Wolverine Soft, the video game development student group at the University of Michigan.

Such limited-time programming contests are nothing new — Pangea Software got their start with a series of 24-hour games on the Apple IIGS, and I myself have entered the HackFest competition under similar constraints. Neither Ryan nor Sid were eligible for Wolverine Soft's competition, though, as both were serving as judges. Sid entered just for the fun of it, apparently having never performed on such a tight deadline.

The experience was encapsulated in a 24-minute video that alternates between the history of Meier's gaming career as well as his and the students' progress in the 48-hour programming marathon. The difference in output quality between the amateur and the professional programmers is astounding, which lends some credence to one observer commenting that programming comes so effortlessly to Sid, "He must have a function: 'build game'".

Elsewhere, Sid Meier recently spoke about game psychology, morality decisions, and social networking. The latter is something in which he has a personal investment as Firaxis explores ways to bring the Civilization franchise to Web 2.0:

When you're in the world with your friends, you want a different kind of gameplay experience potentially than if you're playing against people you don't know or if you're playing by yourself. To allow all these different things in the world of Civilization — competitive play, cooperative play, individual play, or synchronous and asynchronous play, where you're playing at the same time as somebody else, playing at a different time as somebody else — those are fascinating problems to me as a designer. That was the challenge of Civilization Network, to take this brand new technology, this new way of playing games, and take what's cool about Civilization and marry the best of those together and come up with something unique.

Civilization Network, a Facebook version of the game, will launch in 2010.

(Hat tip to Slashdot)

Nintendo World Championships 20th Anniversary

Posted in News by on Apr 22nd, 2010 9:30 AM

April 22 is a date that is forever etched into my memory. Two decades ago today, I stood on the stage in the Worcester Centrum, competing to advance to the next round of the Nintendo World Championships.

The year 1990 was a great one for video gamers. The Wizard, Super Mario Bros. 3, Game Boy, and Tetris had just come out and had whipped the country's nerds into a frenzy. I was in fifth grade and had had my NES for two years; though it had been preceded by various Apple and Atari systems, the NES quickly earned a prime spot in my gaming lineup. Among my classmates, I was unparalleled in my obsession, which at the time seemed a good thing. When Nintendo announced they were going on tour to find the ultimate gamer, I knew I had to compete.

The Nintendo World Championship came to the arena 20 miles south of my hometown on Friday, April 20. It was a dazzling digital display, with rows upon rows of consoles and handhelds for anyone to play. It was like an early version of PAX where Nintendo had reserved every booth for themselves. I got to play games, watch demos, and even meet the famed Nintendo Game Counselors.
Event program
But the main attraction was the competition. On Friday and Saturday, anyone could get in line to enter a six-minute contest. Scoring at least 200,000 points would get you a pass to return to that location's semifinals on Sunday. There was no minimum of how many contestants could be eligible for that honor; that's the elimination Sunday was for.

Unlike PAX's Omegathon, the NWC's games were announced in advance. Contestants would have to earn 50 coins in the original Super Mario Bros., complete one lap in Rad Racer, then use the remaining time to play Tetris. Each game was worth more points than the last, so the goal was to rush through them as quickly as possible and then max out your score in Tetris. I already had the first and third games, and I was offered to borrow the second by a classmate, Ryan Smith ("Smittie"). I practiced for weeks beforehand and kept a log charting my progress, though even in my fervor, the frequency of these trials trailed off as the date approached. Still, I think my familiarity with the routine set me apart from the hundreds of kids who went at it cold. Though I could (and did) enter the contest multiple times, I crossed the threshold on my first try.

Semifinal confirmationOn Sunday, I returned to enter the semifinals. The games and goal were the same, except this time, only the top seven scores from each age group would advance. Again, I made it into that bracket, as did a former classmate of mine, Nate Marini. I don't think he recognized me, as four years later, when he dialed into my BBS and we got to talking about the NWC, he was astonished that I knew he was one of the Magnificent Seven. To read the local paper's coverage of the event, it's a wonder my own ego permitted me to notice anything about my surroundings: "A lanky, bespectacled blond, Kenneth was dressed in a Nintendo T-shirt, Nintendo sweatpants and Nintendo hat. 'Are we good or what?' the 10-year-old asked rhetorically, as he waved his arms and bounced on his toes in a manner not unlike Rocky Balboa's."

We seven kids were raised from the pits and onto the "Throne" stage, where everyone could watch us turn against each other for the right to sit in the throne; that highest of scorers would be flown to Florida for the national finals. For the third time, we spent six minutes running through three classic Nintendo titles. I and a kid dressed in his Boy Scout uniform, who had spent his time backstage staring at the ceiling in prayer, watched as five defeated players were ushered off the stage.

Now the two of us competed. I played well, but unlike the unauthorized Tengen Tetris, in which two players are issued the same blocks, our consoles were random. Perhaps I used my tetrads unwisely; maybe I wasn't given the pieces I needed when I needed them; maybe the Tetris god was angry at me for my hubris. I hoped my 1.4 million points would be enough. Again, the Telegram & Gazette tells the story: "When the competition ended, Kenneth and David rushed to examine each other's score. Their reactions told the story — Kenneth shook his head and frowned, while David grinned broadly and raised his hands over his head." The emcee asked me if I would try again at the NWC's next destination. I mumbled "yes" and left the stage, though I knew I wouldn't be back.

I didn't go away empty-handed: among other prizes, the top six losers were all given Super Mario Bros. 3 and Cybernoid. I had spent weeks stalking the local mom & pop rental store waiting for the former and was ecstatic to finally have my own copy. Cybernoid was one of the games I'd rented in lieu of SMB3 and knew it to be a stinker, so I brought it to Child World (a now-defunct Toys "R" Us-like store) and exchanged it for Dragon Warrior, an RPG I'd rented for three consecutive weeks and still hadn't beaten. To have two games of such astounding depth and duration was an excellent prize indeed.

The only game that would've been a better prize was the modified game cartridge that decided I was not the best prepubescent gamer in Massachusetts. The cart containing Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer, and Tetris was given as prizes to the finalists, with gold cartridges (like the original Zelda) to the champions of each age bracket. These artifacts exist in the wild, with the rarest model having been sold on eBay just last summer for $17,500. I would give a great deal for a chance to hone my skills at that game and know that, twenty years later, I finally beat that Boy Scout … but not $17K.

Certificate of authenticitySome gamers have never heard of the NWC, which was eventually renamed the PowerFest, but its impact on gaming culture continues to this day. At the inaugural PAX East, Boston hosted the Omegathon, which featured these same three games, plus Konami's Contra. Just twenty years and forty miles away, it was the NWC all over again.

I am happy and proud to have participated in this part of gaming history. Back when video games were kids' toys and were something that set us apart rather than brought us together, the Nintendo World Championships made us feel like stars. It gave us a place to belong, albeit briefly. I just wish I'd gotten a score that could've let that moment last a little bit longer.