Pop cultural acceptance of Pac-Man may have been instantaneous in the U.S., but it would be decades before video games garnered a stamp of approval from art institutions. It’s only been in the last five years that significant steps have been taken to examine some of these works in the context of a museum—a decision that has also sparked controversy.
Melissinos has been at the forefront of this debate since 2009, when he convinced the staff of the Smithsonian that video games were an art form worthy of an exhibition. “Video games, because of their nature as an interactive medium, demand more of us as the participants in understanding what it is they’re trying to say,” he argues. “Unlike a book, which can be read in a couple of days, or a movie, which can be consumed in an hour and a half, there are video games that may take 60, 80, 100 hours, or even years to complete. Within video games you find all forms of traditional art: painting, sculpture, narrative, orchestration, artistic intent. But together they transcend any one art form to become something greater.”
His argument took six months, but in the end the museum commissioned a show that would become “The Art of Video Games.” That exhibition opened at the Smithsonian in 2012, the same year that MoMA announced its acquisition of 14 video games for its design collection—Pac-Man among them. MoMA’s decision prompted outrage from some art critics (The Guardian
’s Jonathan Jones was particularly blunt: “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art
Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA, welcomed these criticisms. “Even in the 1930s, my colleagues that were trying to put together an abstract art show had all of these works stopped by the customs officers that decided they were not art,” she noted in a TED Talk
. “So it’s happened before, and it will happen in the future, but right now I can tell you that I am so, so proud to be able to call Pac-Man part of the MoMA collection.”