Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt at The V&A Museum, London

February 21, 2019
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Standing outside London’s palatial Victoria and Albert Museum and seeing two huge banners with the word “Videogames” written on them was somewhat of an emotional sight. The battle to define the medium we love as an art form has raged on for decades, and will undoubtedly do so for years to come, but as the word cascaded down the side of this Victorian hub of culture and expression I have to say I felt proud.

Having had no involvement in the exhibition, that is definitely an odd thing to say. However, it felt like a statement of how far we’ve come. As I posted on social media at the time, if you’d told Alan Alcorn in 1972 that videogames would far surpass ‘Pong’ and wind up in as celebrated a location as the V&A he’d have laughed in your face — probably. Yet here we are.

Even before I’d entered the exhibition this felt like a win. The hallway was a centre for discussion as the crowd waited to enter. Thirty-somethings discussing first gaming experiences, next to pre-teen Fortnite excitement, and storytelling parents wanting their kids to understand the art behind their favourite hobby. As the doors opened we were met with a fantastic quote from Frank Lantz (see below) on the process of game development and entered the first section of the exhibition — ‘Design’.

Setting the tone immediately was a giant screen displaying Journey — the well loved and much discussed indie game from ThatGameCompany. Within minutes I knew what we were in for. I was thrilled.

Being the V&A, each piece of the exhibit is well thought out and detailed. It felt built for non-gamers in a really good way. Switching between traditional glass cases and interactive, visual pieces, everything was well explained and reasoned. The idea is seemingly to allow people to come to understand the talent, effort and skill that goes into games. At the same time, it provided a wonderful array of artifacts for a diehard fan of the industry to enjoy.

A detailed breakdown of how The Last of Us came together — bridging the gap between cinema and videogames in many ways — was enthralling, with original notebooks from Neil Druckmann and a piece of cork board laying out a portion of the game’s story and locations was hard to pull myself away from.

Similarly, a discussion on the precise nature of Bloodborne and the way the game is designed to almost have the player beat themselves was brilliantly put together. Curated and narrated by YouTuber and critic Matt Lees, the visual exhibit showed an expert run at The Cleric Beast on one screen, whilst showcasing Lees’ hand movements on a controller and constant failures on another. As someone reluctant to even delve into From Software’s Lovecraftian nightmare, it allowed me to understand the game on a whole different level.  

However, it just seemed like a lot of this stuff is not what some people were anticipating. That perhaps the majority of those excited voices from earlier felt misled by the banners on the outside that I was so pleased to see. Bored children and regretful parents hoping to capture their or their child’s imagination filled this Saturday afternoon slot. I felt bad for them hoping that a splash of colour from Splatoon or the ever-evolving world of No Man’s Sky might spark something in them as it did with me. Alas, that was rarely the case. Interactive elements were few and far between and when they did appear, it wasn’t in the free-form arcade that some may have anticipated.

Putting that to the back of my mind, I drank in everything that this portion of the exhibit was about. I poured over notebooks and read every single piece of explanatory text. I wanted to know exactly why something had been done the way it had, even if it was a game I had never played or had no intention of playing.

My only knock against this first portion is that it felt like there wasn’t enough on show. Space felt limited, so each game was only granted a wall or two at best. Expanding this would’ve allowed for even more of an in-depth view of development of everything from small indie teams to huge AAA studios. Of course, more games would have been good too. As well as I felt the exhibition showed the breadth of what videogames have to offer, it would’ve been nice to see more. I don’t think the curators would disagree with this, and it only feels like a matter of time before a larger exhibition is

The ‘Disrupt’ part of the exhibition was more academically focused than the first, with topics ranging from race, sex, gun violence and politics in videogames. A huge video wall takes up the majority of the room, with industry luminaries, academics and journalists discussing the topics that were illustrated by the small exhibition tables dotted around the area. This, for me, was the most interesting part of the exhibit. It opened up these discussions to a wider audience, delivering the point perfectly to those who are yet to see videogames as anything other than a violent toy and providing a shining beacon of hope to those already in love with the medium.

Incredibly well presented and often showing off both sides of a particular argument, it laid bare some of the videogame industry’s biggest flaws and allowed you to confront them face to face, all whilst discovering new parts of the industry with more interactivity. It made me think, it made me laugh, and it made me hopeful for the future of games.

The third, and final, part of this excellent exhibition was ‘Play’. Here we saw examples of how play can differ throughout videogames. From Olympic-sized stadiums watching esports, to DIY punk rock ethos being displayed in a new arcade movement. This portion gave people the chance to play new games and have new experiences. One of the most striking games I played was Two Queers at the End of the World — a text adventure in ten seconds where you could only make a single choice. Impactful, fresh and, inspiring, this game challenged what people thought videogames could be in no time at all. That challenge was what this exhibition was all about.

Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is not without its flaws, but it feels like a huge step forward for games as a medium, especially in the wider contexts. Having this take over a huge area of a museum like the V&A feels incredibly important in legitimising this hobby we all love — whether you feel it needs legitimising or not.

For some, the exhibition may be a disappointment. A lack of videogame history or the ability to interact fully with games could put people off, but for those seeking in-depth explorations of games as a medium there is nothing out there like this.

If that sounds like you and you have chance before the exhibition closes in London on February 24th, I urge you to see it. If you can't make it, it opens again from April 9th at The V&A in Dundee.

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Ant Barlow

Started with the PlayStation, now I'm here... with a PlayStation. Once skipped school to play the Metal Gear Solid demo repeatedly. I love stories big and small. Trophy hunter. Recent VR convert. Probably a hipster.