Building a community through video games | Smithsonian Voices | Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery
Building a community through video games
Chris Totten looks back on seven years of SAAM Arcade with a look back and an eager look at what’s new for 2021
After seven years of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s annual SAAM Arcade event, it’s time to reflect on the theme of community. Community is how SAAM Arcade started out, and that’s the reason, in my opinion, that it continues as an annual program rather than being a one-time or double event. SAAM Arcade continues to grow, having attracted national and international artists, while keeping its very united atmosphere. It is as much a meeting of old friends as it is a meeting of new ones. This is what I think has helped it overcome pandemic challenges for events over the past year and a half and enter its seventh iteration.
The genesis of SAAM Arcade took place in 2014 during the Check it out! Revelations in Media Arts exposure. I was president of the Washington, DC chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), and one of our members volunteered at SAAM at the Groundbreaking Exhibition the The art of video games in 2012. This member asked me if I would be willing to discuss potential game-based events with SAAM staff. The conversation started at an opportune time for the local independent game development community; several members had released commercial games during the previous year, and several more are on the way. We wanted to find a festival that could serve the local community and allow these developers to connect with the players. Likewise, the events at SAAM during The art of video games had broken attendance records and became a milestone in the acceptance of games as an art form. With two games being part of the 2014 Check it out! exhibition (Thatgamecompany’s Flower and Ed Fries’ Halo 2600), SAAM sought to continue The art of video games ” magic through educational programs. In August 2014, we decided to organize an indie game festival that would take place in December of the same year.
Building the program was also a community effort: we recruited the IGDA chapters of Baltimore and Philadelphia, friends from the Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest) and nearby universities. These groups have helped us recruit developers to submit their games for review and judge applications. While IGDA Chapters brought indie games, MAGFest brought classic consoles and arcade machines along with musical artists. Although organized quickly, the first SAAM arcade attracted thousands of people thanks to the hard work of the developers and staff at SAAM. Every year after that, something new has been added to SAAM Arcade, from eSports competitions and concerts to educational workshops on how to make your own games. Every year, I am always amazed at how much the crowd includes both familiar faces and newcomers, representing various groups, backgrounds and levels of gaming experience.
I am often asked questions about the format of SAAM Arcade: how do I see it evolving? Will it become more of the so-called “art games”? And why do we still need to have big name commercial games at the event? When I am asked these questions, I speak from my own experience to The art of video games. Standing near the Atari 2600 display during a visit, I listened to two people laugh and talk about a time in college where they bought the same console during a snowstorm so they had something to do while getting stuck inside. At that time, it was clear to me that these games weren’t there to be displayed in a museum, but to attract visitors’ memories and create a tapestry of shared experiences – that was the art of games. video.
This is what we have tried to preserve with SAAM Arcade. Every year when the event opens, families, tour groups and even non-gamers coincidentally visiting the museum take a stroll. a video game at their first of many. Inevitably, these audiences migrate to indie games, seeing a similar digital DNA among the works. The conversation is initiated and suddenly the player realizes that the person behind the table created the game they are playing! We always try to vary the types and formats of games at the event, so as by playing the works of independent developers, the audience sees how the limits of games and game design keep stretching. ‘to expand. Once an Arcade is launched, even skeptics say, “Okay, now I get it! ”
Since the first iteration of the Arcade, we’ve seen some really impressive evolutions. SAAM Arcade audiences now visit indies first, ahead of commercial consoles: One developer said the controller they brought was picked up when the event opened and was only dropped off at the end ! Another change has been the increasing inclusion of the games by SAAM in the museum’s other exhibits. During the SAAM Arcade 2019, I attended the American Myth and Memory: The Photographs of David Levinthal exhibition and seen a screenshot of the 1984 Apple II edition of The Oregon Trail. The game was shown to demonstrate the Oregon Trail’s place in American consciousness. Meanwhile, a copy of the same game on display at the ongoing SAAM Arcade prompted attendees to learn more about the trail in the exhibit – the arcade and exhibits now worked together!
One of the most important work we have done has been highlighting the work of developers from under-represented groups, work that is both continually needed and long overdue. Since 2018, SAAM Arcade has been offering a showcase for independent developers which revolves around a unifying theme. In 2019, the theme Break down barriers encouraged developers who identify as being from a minority group to submit games, and for anyone to submit games that meet the needs of under-represented groups. Some submissions included a tabletop game about civil rights leader Ida B. Wells and a mobile game with over fifty different accessibility options for players with visual impairments, dyslexia and other disabilities. This work has inspired similar events across the country, giving other communities the opportunity to grow around indie games.
While we cannot yet accommodate the crowds in the museum’s Kogod courtyard for an in-person SAAM arcade, we are thrilled to have the opportunity to welcome more developers and gamers to the SAAM Arcade community via the SAAM Arcade Game Jam online. For the first time, SAAM Arcade will not only be an exhibition of works, but a generator of them. Whether you’re a developer, a game player, or someone wondering why games are in the museum, we can’t wait to meet you at the Arcade!
SAAM Arcade 2021 Game Jam begins August 2, 2021 at 11:30 a.m. ET and submissions will be open until August 7, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. ET.Interested developers, artists and creators have a week to create a brand new game centered around our theme of Building community, embracing individuality. The jam is hosted on itch.io with a dedicated Discord server hosted by IGDA DC. To learn more about this new and exciting SAAM Arcade format, read our blog post on game jams.
Chris Totten, Assistant Professor of Game Design at Kent State University and Founder of Pie For Breakfast Studios, has been a dedicated collaborator and partner of SAAM Arcade since its inception in 2014. This year, SAAM Arcade is offering a one-stop game jam. week hosted on itch. .io from August 2. As the event kicks off, Totten reflects on how the amazing SAAM Arcade community has grown over the years.