GLAMi nomination: SAAM Arcade

nominated by: Lauren Kolodkin, Smithsonian American Art Museum, USA
institution: Smithsonian American Art Museum
category: Museum-Wide Guide or Program

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s annual “SAAM Arcade” highlights the groundbreaking work of video game developers and emphasizes the connection between technology, art, and American culture. SAAM Arcade is a free public program with activities and performances throughout the Smithsonian American Art Museum building. The 40 independent games were presented in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard, while a variety of analog and digital games– including card games, pinball machines, virtual reality and arcade cabinets–were dispersed in other gallery spaces. Parents could show their young children vintage games like “Asteroids,” “Pac-Man,” “Tron,” “Arkanoid” and “Donkey Kong” on their original devices, while young visitors could try out groundbreaking VR games or watch a live esports championship. For music enthusiasts, there were three musical acts in the McEvoy Auditorium– the TriForce Quartet, the local rapper Mega Ran, and rock band Bit Brigade; there were also a variety of workshops in coding and game development for young visitors.

This year, SAAM Arcade’s Indie Showcase featured 40 independent game developers whose work challenged and excited notions of storytelling and visual experience. The featured independent games were selected by a panel of independent game makers and industry veterans, who were brought together by Chris Totten alongside American University’s Game Lab and the International Game Developers Association’s Baltimore and Washington, D.C., chapters. Developers from all over the world, including South Africa, Australia, China and Poland, submitted more than 150 games for consideration.

“We select games via a hybrid of curation and competition: wanting the best and most current games but also including offbeat and experimental works so that we can challenge attendees’ notions of what games are or can be,” said organizer Chris Totten. “Our lineup – classic games, entertaining indies, and experimental works – seeks to bring in attendees with experiences they are familiar with, introduce them to new works, and educate them on how game developers are challenging the boundaries of media art.”

Several of the student-designed independent games integrated analog control mechanics with digital displays. “Tiler Teller ” teaches children colors and shapes using a felt puzzle cube that connects to a personal wireless device and guides players through a story; “Loominary” is a digital “choose-your-own-adventure” game that uses a loom as its controller, allowing players to weave a scarf that reflects choices they make within the game. “Smash Bro” teaches players how to use prosthetic limbs by measuring electrical impulses from the user’s muscles through Limbitless Solution’s electromyography board technology.

Professional independent games were also showcased, including the RPG “Perception.” Developed by the husband-and-wife team Deep End Games (who helped create “Bioshock,”), “Perception” puts players in the shoes of a blind protagonist who must unravel the mysteries of an unnerving abandoned estate. The mobile game “Art Club Challenge” prompts players to draw a variety of complex images using only primary colors and basic shapes, offering a Mondrian-esque visual language that players can adapt to their own delight. Because the developers attend SAAM Arcade with their games, visitors are able to engage with them directly throughout the program.

This program is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s ongoing commitment to the study and interpretation of video games as part of our national zeitgeist. “Video games are a part of our visual culture and worthy of display as well as study at SAAM,” said Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We are pleased to provide ‘SAAM Arcade’ as an innovative forum for video game developers and fans as the field continues to test the boundaries between art, science and technology.”

SAAM Arcade allows the Smithsonian American Art Museum to reach a broader audience by inviting video-game enthusiasts to experience both classic and experimental games alongside great works of art. It also allows regular museum-goers to challenge their own preconceived notions about what belongs in a museum, and what experiences are museum-worthy. Whether a visitor is looking in awe at a great landscape painting or soaring over a virtual landscape with the aid of a VR headset, we believe art is powerful when it invites excitement, conversation, and curiosity. SAAM Arcade certainly provides that experience– and much, much more.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) Foundation supported this year’s SAAM Arcade. Arcade cabinets, pinball machines and consoles were provided by MAGFest, Death by Audio Arcade, Arcades4Home and CrabTowne USA. Workshops were provided by Boolean Girl and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. The Washington City Paper is the official media sponsor for this program.