The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit, The Art of Video Games, is the latest sign that official Washington has finally learned to love Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, and their digital spawn. A mere two decades ago, members of the nascent gaming industry were hauled before Congress and publicly scolded for promoting violence, sexism, racism, and even crimes against humanity. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) stated in his opening remarks at a 1993 hearing, “Instead of enriching a child’s mind, these games teach a child to enjoy inflicting torture.”
But then a funny thing happened: As video games became ever more popular, brutal, and artistic, violent crime in America was declining precipitously. As parental and legislative panic over violence—both real and imagined—subsided, the gaming industry blossomed into the multibillion dollar business it is today.
The video game hysteria of the 1990s followed a predictable cycle, explains University of Southern California sociologist Karen Sternheimer: “Ever since the first nickelodeon [movie theater] opened there are people who were afraid of the impact of popular culture and tried to regulate them right away.”
And just like film, rock music, and comic books before them, video games are no longer merely tolerated, but embraced by Washington, from the formation of a new congressional caucus to the placement of campaign ads on XBox games to the entombing of a Commodore 64 behind plexiglass at the Smithsonian.
“This exhibition could not have happened at any other point in history than right now,” declares Smithsonian curator Chris Melissinos. “For the first time we have gamers raising gamers. I believe, from this point forward, you are going to see a greater more rapid appropriation and acceptance of video games as anything from art to a worthwhile pursuit.”