Game On! Smithsonian Museum Becomes Arcade This Weekend

One game is based on "Walden." In another, you build musical terrariums

If you asked 20 Smithsonian American Art Museum (SSAM) employees if video games are works of art, the museum's director said she's not sure even half would say yes.

But director Stephanie Stebich says video games are right at home in the downtown D.C. museum. 

“It’s not really a question of if video games could be considered art and in an art museum setting,” Stebich told News4. “It was really a question of when.”

Visitors to the museum will have the chance to play video games on Sunday, right in the SAAM's Kogod Courtyard. 

With the help of game developers and gaming organizations, the museum is set to bring in vintage consoles, virtual reality technology and arcade machines.

The games in the SAAM Arcade this time, in the event's fourth year, use space creatively in the game’s development, transform real-world space or inspire strong community spaces. Game-makers entered a contest to participate. 

“We wanted to have some more focus that really showcased the artistic aspects of game development,” museum spokeswoman Sara Snyder said. 


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The selected games range from physical games to games featuring virtual reality technology.

"Line Wobbler," one of the museum director's favorite games there, is a one-dimensional dungeon crawler game made of several meters of LED strips and a joystick made from door stopper springs. Players use a joystick to navigate obstacles illuminated by the LED strip and attack enemies.

Ever-changing virtual reality (VR) technology also will have a presence in some games at the Arcade.

"Walden” is a VR game where players can experience some of what philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote about. Players survive in the woods of Walden Pond, in Massachusetts.

The puzzle VR game "Luna" follows the journey of a bird finding its way back home while solving a puzzle of a fragmented moon. Players solve puzzles to build musical terrariums by hand. The pop-art style of the game was inspired by the northern California coast, game developer Robin Hunicke said.

Hunicke said she created "Luna" after studying the effects of childhood trauma and as part of her own recovery as a victim of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“I wanted to create a fairy tale that lets go," she said. 

In addition to being a showcase for creative games, the SAAM Arcade will take a trip down memory lane, back to when game consoles like Atari 2600 were part of many households. 

SAAM will transform their Great Hall into a 1980s living room where players can use vintage consoles in vintage settings. Museum staff will "temporarily reconfigure the furniture and move things around in such a way that you feel like you’re really in an '80s basement," Snyder said. 

Not only is SAAM shipping in 1980s vintage consoles, the museum also is preparing for the infrastructure needed for the games, like extra wiring and a boosted network. 

SAAM is aiming to get the public involved in creating video games too. Visitors can start to learn how to code in a free workshop run by Boolean Girl, a nonprofit that teaches girls coding skills. That will take place from 4 to 6 p.m., in the MacMillan Education Center.

There's a little something for everyone, Stebich, the museum director said. 

“What’s the beauty of this program is that we bring both the contemporary and the historical together, and that allows us to mix audiences," she said. 

The SAAM Arcade will be held in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s main building on Sunday, July 22 from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free. The museum is located at 8th and F streets NW.

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