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The Art of Video Games
Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Metro: Nearest station is Gallery Place/Chinatown
Admission: Free
The exhibit runs through Sept. 30.

It’s estimated that certain members of the human race spend a combined 3 billion hours per week playing video games.

Ask a gamer why, and they may wax poetic about the out-of-body experience of venturing into ancient tombs, rising through the ranks of the criminal underworld and saving loved ones from a serial killer. Ask a parent about it, and they’ll probably deem the endeavor a colossal waste of time and couch space.

But is it art? The Smithsonian American Art Museum asserts that it is, with an exploration of the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium. The Art of Video Games is the first exhibit of its kind, featuring interactive displays of games with striking visual graphics and engaging story lines to prove the point.

Upon entering the gallery, a video montage of cut scenes from Heavy Rain, Minecraft and the Legend of Zelda — to name just a few — greet the visitor, and you know you’ll find a few childhood favorites here. The nostalgia is so thick you could cut it with a laser.

Curator Chris Melissinos, founder of Past Pixels and collector of video games and gaming systems, has gathered more than 80 games through still images and video footage. He portrays the medium as he sees it, combining storytelling, animation, music and cinematography to create art that reaches beyond traditional definitions.

Offering an opportunity for gamers to plug into the exhibit, five classic titles are available to play: Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst and Flower. While you may only get a few minutes of game play, you’ll gain insight about the creative process by watching interviews with producers and developers.

Jenova Chen wanted Flower to be a working poem — both beautiful and calming — so he created an opportunity for players to become the wind, breathing life into the world by gathering and carrying vibrantly colored petals. Adopting the role of one of the five elements, a feeling of peace, joy, freedom and sadness washed over me. And isn’t that what effective art is all about?

A collection of historic game consoles, tinny music, and 8-bit characters would almost be laughable, if not for the tone of reverence in these halls. Some have come to browse while others have come to worship. Let’s just say you’ll know who’s who by their garb.

Don’t miss Megatron Matrix, a conglomeration of 215 monitors by Nam June Paik that fuses images from the Seoul Olympics with those of Korean folk art rituals to portray a world without borders in the digital age. The assault of stimuli is alluring yet overwhelming, which might well be the point.

The Art of Video Games will surely fuel an ongoing debate. This exhibit isn’t just for people who grew up with a joy stick in one hand and a piece of pizza in the other; it’s for the confused parent and the armchair anthropologist, as well. Above all, it’s the highlight of day that illustrates that art can be anywhere, and it can certainly be fun.

Art-o-matUpon exiting The Art of Video Games, don’t miss a retrofitted cigarette vending machine that happily dispenses delightful, diminutive works of art. Art-o-mat is the brainchild of Clark Whittington, who first used it as part of his art installation in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1997. The moment became a movement, and Artists in Cellophane was born.

Now over 400 artists in 10 different countries contribute to the inventory in dozens of machines, one on the third floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Feed a $5 bill in and choose from the offerings — fiber art, mini landscape paintings and the mysterious Mind’s Eye. Then pull the knob and … kerchunk … you’re an art collector.

Unlike the cigarette machines of old, this is a life-affirming venture. Proceeds go to the contributing artists as well as to the sponsoring museum.

MatchboxWithin walking distance, at 713 H Street NW, is Matchbox. You’ll know it when you see it by the flames emanating from a gigantic ashtray on the roof. Don’t worry; it’s all part of a well-executed theme that included wooden menus and warm decor.

Inside a tall, narrow row house that looks a bit like a matchbox and once was a Chinese grocery store, wood-fired pizza pies are produced and served. The space is at once lofty, trendy and cozy, with painted ductwork and exposed brick walls. Outdoor tables expand the restaurant’s seating capacity in good weather.

The pizza gets rave reviews, as does the plate of 3-6-9 Angus beef mini burgers topped with crispy onion rings. Appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts round out the menu, along with an excellent selection of wines, craft brews and other beverages. Brunch is offered on both Saturday and Sunday.

At Matchbox, pizza and burgers are elevated to a winning level. What better way to end a day devoted to the art of the video game than at a restaurant devoted to the love of hand-held food?

Elaine Jean is a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She and husband/photographer Paul are roaming the planet, starting in the mid-Atlantic region. Learn more about this and other day trips at www.roamingtheplanet.com.