Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

SAAM Arcade 2019: Representation Matters

A photograph of six individuals playing a video game together.
SAAM Arcade 2018. Photo by Libby Weiler.

At SAAM, we are committed to representing the full rainbow of the American experience in our galleries and in our public events. While heritage months provide great access and enthusiasm for increased diversity and inclusion—for Pride month in June, we hosted a party and celebrated LGBTQ+ artists—representation matters year round. We have embraced this value in the theme of SAAM Arcade this year with games and game makers who “break barriers” in the gaming industry and beyond. The 2019 Indie Developer Showcase, a centerpiece of the Arcade, features thirteen games that address issues of representation for diverse indie developers, and feature game mechanics and narrative elements that include games made by the LGBTQ+ community, games that address mental health and disability issues, games made by people of color, and games that use inventive play to break barriers.

LGBTQ+ stories are celebrated throughout our collection, including Paul Cadmus’s Bar Italia and Mickalene Thomas’s Portrait of Mnonja. But our connection to the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t stop there. Through the innovative and creative platform of SAAM Arcade, we are able to highlight LGBTQ+ creatives in an often overlooked art form—video games. This year, the Arcade celebrates a broad spectrum of LGBTQ+ experiences with games that encourage dialogue and broaden worldviews. In Bearded Dragons, players explore identity and gender expression through drag queen battles. In Genderwrecked, players enter a post-apocalyptic genderpunk visual novel seeking answers to the mysterious force, “Gender.” In Queer Quest: All in a Gay’s Work, the protagonist Lupe navigates players through her “gayborhood” in the Pacific Northwest in search of her kidnapped girlfriend. In Skate and Date, players compete in a roller derby rhythm game where lead jammer Maggie has a crush on her opponent, Patricia.

Image of Collapsus gameplay by Wraith Games

Featured games that explore experiences of mental health challenges include Black Room, an art game about an insomniac falling asleep at his or her computer, and She Dreams Elsewhere, in which players journey to defeat the nightmares preventing the comatose narrator from waking and conquering her fears. As national conversations around mental health issues rise, we look toward gaming creatives to boldly push boundaries through empathetic video games such as these.

Accessibility is also prevalent in SAAM Arcade 2019. Just as art hung in a gallery can be out of reach when we don’t consider the physical barriers of our museum spaces, video games must also consider inclusive access. So we are proud to present Collapsus, a mobile game with adapted versions for every type of known color-blindness. We also are providing adaptable controllers for the popular Xbox games Madden 2019 and Forza 7 at the Arcade this year.

Still from We Are the Caretakers from Heart Shaped Games

With one of the most diverse collections of American art it is only fitting that SAAM Arcade reflect such diversity as well. Among the games we are excited to highlight is We Are the Caretakers, an Afrofuturist role-playing game where players navigate physical and cultural barriers in a post-apocalyptic world. In this game, diplomacy and empathy are your key tools towards rebuilding a healthy and sustainable world. We are also very excited to present Tracking Ida, a tabletop role-playing game inspired by the pioneering investigative journalism of nineteenth-century civil rights leader Ida B. Wells.

It is the participatory essence of video games that make them powerful conveyors of emotional content. In many gameplay scenarios, you assume the identity of the creator or the creator’s community. You experience their experiences. Living in their shoes, seeing through their eyes, you empathize with their worldview. Many visitors will understand these lived experiences as their own, while many others will have access to such personal narratives for the first time. We can’t think of a better place to host such conversations and nuanced experiences than an art museum, because like video games, art is steeped in empathy and experiencing diverse perspectives.

We hope that you see SAAM Arcade as more than a two-day video game takeover. SAAM Arcade is a platform ripe for meaningful conversation about what it means to be represented in the rich tapestry of American creativity. Perhaps video games aren’t important to you. But we bet that art is. Considering the importance of these representation barrier-breaking, empathy producing, artistic explorations, we hope that these video games will broaden discussions about the power of art.

Even if you can’t attend the Arcade this year, don’t miss the webcast of the keynote talk by Tanya DePass, founder of the non-profit organization I Need Diverse Games. She is a fierce advocate for these inclusive and empathetic experiences. Her talk, “Barriers Are Meant To Be Destroyed, Not Just Broken,” is Saturday, August 3, at 6 p.m.

Related Blog Post: Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell on SAAM Arcade 2019 and Empathy

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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