Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

SAAM Arcade 2019: Art, Video Games, and Empathy

Testing out Virtual Reality at SAAM Arcade 2018. Photo by Libby Weiler.

Think video games are all guns, gore, and simulated car theft? SAAM Arcade 2019 challenges you to experience the amazing array of games being created today that allow us to tell stories and experience moments of empathy.

On August 3 and 4, SAAM Arcade returns to turn the museum into a two-day full-experience gaming arcade for visitors of all ages to enjoy! The 5th annual SAAM Arcade explores breaking down barriers within the gaming industry and beyond, inviting independent video game developers to present their dynamic, inclusive games for public play in the Indie Developer Showcase. With the theme of “breaking barriers,” SAAM Arcade 2019 seeks to highlight diverse and inclusive games from underrepresented creators. This year, all of the games in the Indie Showcase explore empathetic realities, visions, and imaginings of diverse characters and real-life people. The event features games where a wide-array of players can see themselves and their interests reflected on screen.

Image of "Conspiracy Theories About Myself" gameplay by Juno Morrow

SAAM is commited to the study and interpretation of video games as part of the national visual culture. We believe the games we present should be just as diverse as our visitors who come from all backgrounds, experiences, and walks of life and the collections on display in our galleries. As one of the first museums to ever collect and display video games as art, we continue to grapple with nuanced ideas through the medium—and this year we turn to consider the complexity of identity and the challenge of empathy.

Celebrating LGBTQ+ indie game creators and stories, this iteration of the Arcade features inquisitive, thoughtful, funny, and adventurous video games about a broad spectrum of LGBTQ+ experiences. I found two games particularly powerful. Conspiracy Theories About Myself is an immersive, first-person autobiography about self-acceptance and being transgendered; the object of the game is to walk home from the laundromat without crying as you experience everyday transphobia by the people you pass along the way. Conspiracy Theories About Myself takes the first-person shooter genre and flips the experience. Here you are the vulnerable target, peering through the eyes of an anxious trans woman, consumed by her worried monologue; you are on the receiving end of casual phobia, scrutiny, and rejection. As a first-person gaming experience, playing as the narrator exposes you to simultaneous world-expanding and intimate observations, thoroughly rendered in a digital existence.

Image of "Pre-Shave" game play by Saam Pahlavan

The Indie Showcase also highlights people of color in gaming and beyond. Having a brown-skinned, hairy brother who has experienced racial profiling at the airport, I was uneasy with Pre-Shave at first, a game you play as the developer, Saam Pahlavan, dealing with racial anxieties as a brown man attempting to groom his facial hair in preparation for American air travel. The South Park-esque clownish animation makes the experience comical, not nerve-wracking as I’ve experienced personally. I realized that by playing as Saam himself, I learned so much more having walked in his shoes—or shaved by his hand as it were.

Conspiracy Theories About Myself and Pre-Shave offer nuanced insights into human experience. Just as an artwork, like Norman Lewis’s Evening Rendezvous, reveals unexpected truths through deeper examination, video games as a genre, an art form, a means to develop empathy across communities, can unveil surprising depths into the familiar and foreign, the known and the unknown.

Few material things can harness the power of empathetic experiences. At SAAM we are proud to deliver access to two: art and video games. The indie games to be experienced at SAAM Arcade 2019 take a deep, creative, unexpected, and sometimes bizarre dive into experiences of LGBTQ+ people, women, people of color, people with mental health issues or other disabilities, and more. Playing these games brings you into a world of empathy, surrounded by experiences that may reflect your own or may bring you to newfound understanding of people unlike yourself.

Tanya DePass, founder of the non-profit organization I Need Diverse Games, is an advocate for these inclusive and empathetic experiences. She will deliver a keynote titled “Barriers Are Meant to be Destroyed, Not Just Broken” on Saturday, August 3, at 6 p.m. If you can't attend the talk, tune in to the webcast.

Related Blog Post: SAAM Arcade: Breaking Barriers

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is an experienced program designer and audience and inclusivity specialist interested in how we can use art to tell stories.

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