THE IDEA BEHIND Game Show could easily backfire. It's too tempting: an art exhibition about games in the middle of a mall during Christmas shopping insanity. Would Game Show become an ersatz daycare substitute? Would BAM be overrun by video-crazed children?

Thing is, BAM curator Brian Wallace wouldn't mind. A child playing a game would only be an example of what he calls "stealth education," in this case learning through decision-making, strategy, and working within rules. It is also a good introduction to how artists work, and to art itself. So, if A = B and B = C, it follows that Game Show is a fairly brilliant introduction to art.

In the phenomenology of art, as in games, the viewer must participate -- art happens when art is seen and experienced. The viewer must make some effort, or there is no experience. (Which, in my opinion, is why most people claim they don't "get" art -- they refuse to invest any time in simply looking.)

The beauty of Game Show is two-pronged. The viewer not only gets a sense of the rules artists bind themselves to, but also actively participates in working within these rules.

For example, Helen Lessick frequently works with delicate, small paintings which she groups and regroups to suggest different kinds of narratives or mental states. Sometimes her paintings are not grouped at all, but left for the viewer to mentally assemble. The game Lessick developed for BAM makes the associative leap she wants her viewers to make, turning her work into a question- and-answer game. The answer cards -- illustrated by her quirky paintings -- form a portrait of the person answering the questions. The "maestro," who is in charge of the questions, then creates an anti-portrait, choosing the cards which he or she feels are opposite to those chosen by the questioner. Color copies of these portraits and anti-portraits are tacked up on one wall of the museum.

Lessick's work is perhaps the most didactic, and not all of the games produce art. There are movement games, such as Eric Zimmerman's Duel (part of Three Games for a Gallery). Duel is a lot like Capture the Flag, but played in a small circle and with only two players. The result is kind of like dance, kind of like Greco-Roman wrestling, but mainly it's out of place, challenging the ways people usually behave in museums. There are what might be called mind games, like Dan Torop's Card Game, where two players sit facing each other and choose from a deck of cards, each of which has a difficult question on it. The questions -- including such challenges as "Was it inevitable that you ended up here?" and "Who is to blame for your troubles?" -- must be answered to the questioner's satisfaction, which is a tantalizingly open-ended rule. There are a couple of computer games, the most interesting being Natalie Bookchin's Intruder, which combines elements of video games (violence and graphics) and narrative storytelling.

Some of the works are imaginative re-thinkings of games we know well, such as Natalya Nyrkova's chess sets: one with fuzzy round pieces and one with pieces resembling eggs. These pieces work against the underlying conceit of chess -- a brutal and bloody battle -- so the work is as dislocating as it is cute and friendly. These works and others -- Mike Shea's fluid dynamics drawings, Sean Duffy's fuzzy Frisbees designed to look like the graphics from '70s-era video games, Laura Ruby's Nancy Drew paintings -- give insight into how an artist chooses a visual vocabulary.

On my third visit to Game Show I saw two pre-teen boys, parentless, running around yelling, "Where's the game show?" Finally, they found Bookchin's computer game -- the closest thing to Nintendo in the place -- and remained there. So despite Wallace's best intentions, this exhibition isn't as appealing to kids as it might be. The presentation, too, is underwhelming. The allure of the works is way beneath the surface, making Game Show another exhibition to be filed under "rewarding to those who take time to look carefully." But go, take the time -- and look carefully.

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