What better place to host the Smithsonian’s Art of Video Games tour than the Experience Music Project? The building itself looks like it’s straight off the streets of SimCity 2000. Starting this weekend, the Frank Gehry–designed fortress is home to a 40-year history of gaming, from Atari’s Combat to Mass Effect 2. In 2011 the Smithsonian decided to tap into a whole new medium by profiling video games as an art form. “Games are so much more than just code running inside a computer,” Smithsonian curator Chris Melissinos says. “You are looking at the output of passion, of love, of art.” Even the method of arranging this exhibit was untraditional. Instead of choosing all the games himself, Melissinos compiled a list of 240 games and put it to a public vote, narrowing it down to the 80 featured in the traveling show.

At the doors of the exhibition, images of game players greet you onscreen. A camera zooms in on their faces; they stare intently at you, eyes bouncing and nostrils flaring in frustration. They’re concentrating on jumps, kills, and battles. They’re racing toward the finish line. A hint of a smile suggests a win, a roll of the eyes a loss. It shows the emotional connection people feel when immersed in the worlds of the Mario Brothers or Eve.

The exhibition itself is divided into four gaming categories at each station: action, target, adventure, and tactics. Along the way consoles show the evolution of the technology, from the original Atari to Xbox, with five playable games in the center of the room. You can show off your Pac-Man skills or your puzzle-solving smarts in Myst; there’s also a Game Night on February 15 with table-top and arcade play. Seattle, long considered a pioneer in game development, is well represented in this exhibition with screen shots of Halo’s alien battlegrounds (Microsoft) and the lush green forests of fantasy world Fable (Nintendo). Valve—the company to watch in 2013—made the cut with its puzzle-platformer Portal Luckily, evil super computer narrator GLaDOS isn't there to tell us to "assume the party escort submission position" or bribe us with cake.

Also on display: concept drawings for World of Warcraft and Fallout, a de-make (taking a newer game and adapting it for an older console) of Halo for Atari, and interviews with many influentials in the industry, including the founder of Atari Nolan Bushnell and Flower game designer Jenova Chen.

In addition to all the joystick fun on Friday, Game Nite will feature several talks, including a Q&A with Valve game programmer Dave Kircher and designer Clint Hocking, and Kiki Wolfkill, executive producer at 343 Industries, a wing of Microsoft Studios dedicated to the development of Halo. Expect your favorite characters in costume and tournament game play on the huge Sky Church screen.

The Art of Video Games
Feb 15–May 12, Experience Music Project, $5–$20