My Visit to SAAM Arcade 2023—Thinking Musically!

SAAM Arcade logo featuring the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) logo next to the word Arcade in a classic video game lettering font.

The phrase, “It’s been a long pandemic,” and similar come to mind far too often lately. Especially when I think about all the events happening around town that I’d make sure to visit. Staying at home was the safer option, of course, but that didn’t mean it was the most fun. So I was very happy when the stars and calendar aligns and I was able to head to see this year’s SAAM Arcade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Turn the volume up for SAAM Arcade 2023! Music and sound design are essential elements in the gaming experience. A soaring soundtrack engages players and draws them into the game narrative; a charming 8-bit tune reminds players of hours spent with friends and family, overcoming challenging puzzles and defeating extraordinary opponents. Music can act as a building block for game worlds and a mechanic for navigating those worlds through rhythm and repetition. This year’s Indie Showcase will highlight games that use music and sound design in engaging, experimental, and inventive ways, from classic rhythm games to musical puzzles to groundbreaking soundtracks.

My friend and I have been trying to get together a little bit more now that we’re both vaccinated several times over, while still limiting our contact with the outside world, and that’s mostly meant that we head out or hang out for Saturday brunches. And since starting to engage with the city again–more or less treating it like new, we’ve been putting events on the calendar to try and catch exhibits and exhibitions before they leave the local venues.

It just so happened that I was wondering what we might do at the weekend when I got an email about SAAM Arcade happening that Saturday. I floated the idea, the committee debated it–it’s us, we’re the committee–and decided it would be a fun thing to try. Not only that, but a nearby restaurant was new–to us–for brunch, so we’d get to try a new place to eat, enjoy good food and drinks and then enjoy a little museum time.

It’s always a good time, being able to see video games treated as art, the way they should. And the first time I visited this event, it was more than a little mind-blowing to see video games front and center in a museum. Not only that, but that it was a true family event with people from all age groups reminiscing over their first console, or learning more about video games from their kids than they may have expected.

With the theme being “Thinking Musically,” many of the games involved incorporated music and sound in imaginative ways, and they hosted several musical acts and DJs throughout the day. Though I also appreciated that they started the day with “quiet hours” in case people might not want too much sensory overload.

The Triforce Quartet at SAAM Arcade 2023

I always love seeing the history laid out via gaming consoles. This year didn’t have as many as previous events, but I did get to see my old school Atari 2600 out there along with consoles going forward through time up to modern day. They even had a few arcade cabinets, with Pac-Man of course.

Normally, they would have had games, vendors, and local interest groups throughout the museum, and in the past have even held gaming competitions, but I imagine they’re hesitant to go overboard since you can’t really gauge crowd sizes during a pandemic. Still, it was nice to see both classic and indie games that I recognized.

I did geek out a little bit to a woman in line waiting to see “Unpacking” up close as I was explaining what the game was all about, and she told me that she doesn’t know a lot about video games and had assumed that most of them were the types of shooters her kid plays. So to see independent developers given space to showcase their unique titles was really cool.

  • Listed games and developers at SAAM Arcade's Indie Developer Showcase. Betrayal at Club Low by Cosmo D Studios, Forest Quartet by Mads Vadsholt and Bedtime Digital Games, Rhythm Ranger by Moonradish, Smash n' Dab by Will Herring, Soundfall by Drastic Games, TUNIC by Isometricorp Games, Unknown Number by Meaning Machine, and Unpacking by Witch Beam Studios.
  • Will Herring shows off Smash n' Dab at SAAM Arcade 2023
  • Two young girls play The Forest Quartet at SAAM Arcade 2023
  • Isometricorp Games showcases TUNIC at SAAM Arcade 2023
  • Rhythm Ranger by Moonradish at SAAM Arcade 2023
  • A crowd gathered to watch and play Soundfall by Drastic Games at SAAM Arcade 2023
  • A woman sits and plays Unpacking by Witch Beam Studios at SAAM Arcade 2023
  • Attendees at SAAM Arcade 2023 play classic arcade games on standing NEO-GEO arcade cabinets.
  • Two Atari 2600 home gaming consoles at SAAM Arcade with the games Moon Patrol and Dig Dug.

Speaking of which, and since the event is past, here’s where you can find information on the games and devs invited to this year’s SAAM Arcade for the Independent Developer Showcase:

It made for a really pleasant afternoon and we also took the time out to wander the museum so we could visit the exhibit Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies exploring the connections between recent video art and popular music. And that’s there through January 2024. so if you’re in the area, be sure to check it out!

This coming weekend we’re going to try to check out Imagining the future – Leonardo da Vinci: In the mind of an Italian genius at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown. I’ve heard there can be a line and a wait, but that like restaurant reservations they encourage you to wander and explore and then just text you when it’s your turn in line.

I’ve lived in DC a long time, and “rediscovering” it like this makes it the city new and fun all over again. Remembering that while I do know this city, both it and I have changed and my experience of it was put on hold for 3 years. So why not reintroduce myself? 💖

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