The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s fourth annual “SAAM Arcade” links video games to art, architecture and the museum as a space for creativity, discovery and engagement. This program is part of the museum’s ongoing commitment to the study and interpretation of video games as part of the national visual culture. Visitors will have the opportunity to experience new independent games and gain an exciting glimpse into the innovative future of gaming. This free event is open to the public and will take place in various spaces in the museum’s main building Sunday, July 22, from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Artist Saya Woolfalk talks about her work at 4 p.m. as part of an annual tribute to legendary media artist Nam June Paik.
“At SAAM, we explore the intersection between art and technology in our special exhibitions and programs,” said Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Currently, we feature recent work with artificial intelligence in ‘Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen,’ and, at our Renwick Gallery, visitors can experience a virtual-reality work by Android Jones in ‘No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.’ This summer we offer once again our most popular public program, SAAM Arcade, bringing together creative developer talent from around the world and a community of gamers from novice to expert.”
A central component of the event is the “Indie Showcase,” which will feature 15 independent games. Developers from all over the world, including Great Britain and Switzerland, submitted more than 100 games for consideration. The selected 15 games offer an innovative way for gamers to explore the theme of “game spaces.” Featured games either transform the real-world spaces in which they are played, inspire a strong community or social space or make interesting use of board or level design.
Examples include “Doors to the City” that blends hip-hop music, planetary exploration and immersive holographic visuals in a quest through outer space while using a custom Tech-Deck controller. “Walden, a game” brings to life the world of Henry David Thoreau’s famous book about philosophy and nature, putting gamers in his shoes as he explores Walden Pond and chats with Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Four Last Things” transports gamers to a world built of Renaissance paintings where they seek to commit the seven deadly sins in order to win. The games were selected by Saisha Grayson, time-based media curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; author and video-game developer Chris Totten; and members of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Independent Game Developers Association.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is a leader in exploring the impact and artistry of video games and was one of the first art museums in the United States to acquire video games as part of its permanent collection. Video games create compelling participatory and social spaces, imagined by artists and designers and activated by players, whose individual interactions are uniquely required to complete the experience. SAAM Arcade emphasizes this aspect of video game appreciation by encouraging hands-on engagement and in-person exchanges between independent developers, gamers and new audiences.
A related free public program, Happy Birthday, Nam June Paik!, is presented in conjunction with SAAM Arcade and starts at 4 p.m. in the museum’s McEvoy Auditorium. Annually, the museum celebrates Paik’s July birthday by hosting colleagues, critics, curators and contemporary artists who engage with his pioneering work. This year, Woolfalk presents on her own art practice, which reimages the world in multiple dimensions using science fiction and fantasy, followed by a moderated discussion led by Grayson.
“Saya Woolfalk’s artwork envisions worlds populated by post-human avatars with hybrid, interspecies identities,” said Grayson. “We are thrilled to invite her to talk about her work and its connections to Paik’s TV-robots and video sculptures as well as the world-making and role-play inherent in video games that participants will experience in SAAM Arcade.”
The 15 independent games will be presented in the Kogod Courtyard, where visitors can also travel through time and play video games from different decades provided by Magfest. Mega Cat Studios transforms the Great Hall into a 1980s living room, allowing guests to step back in time and play new games created for old consoles. The local non-profit organization Boolean Girl will inspire the future generation of developers by hosting game-building workshops throughout the day.
Additional games will be available in the Kogod Courtyard for visitors to play including “Dance Dance Revolution,” “Guitar Hero” and other modern titles. Visitors can play games on arcade cabinets and vintage consoles; check out classics like “Galaga,” “Mortal Kombat 2” and “Joust”; and experience the game “Flower” from the museum’s collection.