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From 8-Bit To 3-D, Video Game Art Through The Ages

The Smithsonian American Art Museum unveils The Art of Video Games on March 16, a retrospective that explores the pastime as an agent for technological change and artistic growth. From the post-arcade age to today, we revisit some of the games—and their artful contributions—that will be highlighted. Who knew all those hours spent playing Halo had such cultural value?

Start, early '80s

So named for the post-arcade introduction of in-home gaming systems, this era introduced humanoid characters moving in realistic motion with such games as Pitfall. Says guest curator Chris Melissinos: "The mechanics of that character laid the groundwork for design that continues generation to generation."

8-Bit, late '80s

An oversupply of low-quality games led to the video-game crash of 1983. (Seriously.) "It destroyed consumer support," says game designer and critic Ian Bogost. "Nintendo's NES recast games as toys to regain trust." The adventure-like gameplay and colorful environments of Super Mario Bros. 3 ruled this era and introduced the terrain seen in modern gaming.

Bit War, early '90s

Familiarity with processing speeds and storage on gaming systems triggered a war of sorts—everyone wanted to be bigger, better, and faster than everyone else. "Super Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past offered a variety of gameplay mechanics as well as a handcrafted art style," says Melissinos. Adds Bogost: "It tightened that experience to the point of ascendancy."

Transition, late '90s

Remember Dreamcast? Shenmue, designed by Sega's Yu Suzuki, created an environment based on real-world weather and geographical characters of the late 1980s in Yokosuka, Japan. "You could interact with anything," says Melissinos. "It was one of the most ambitious open-world games of the era."

Next Generation, 2000s

Welcome to the era of photo-realism and real-time 3-D. In 2007, Portal triggered a new concept of in-home gameplay—physics, fantasy, puzzle, and sci-fi wrapped in one. "It offers an opening to the video games we already know, but also to undiscovered terrain," says Bogost.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.