When you think about museum exhibitions on video games, the idea that often comes to mind is having a showcase of the history of games, showing how the technology has advanced over the last few decades to get to the polished products we have right now. It's a trip of sorts down memory lane, showing what great games have come our way in the last 40 years, getting the nostalgia going as young and old alike unite over our entertaining medium.
This museum has chosen to do something different with their gaming exhibit though. If you knew nothing about the museum you'd be a little shocked, as upon entering you're greeted with lavish sculptures and history everywhere you look, but the V&A has always prided itself on showcasing art in its various forms. It's a museum of art and design after all, so there's nowhere better for a serious and detailed exhibition on gaming to sit, alongside others on subjects like fashion and photography.
The exhibition is called Design/Play/Disrupt - split into the three sections in the title - and instead of giving us a showcase of all the games we've come to know and love, this is more analytical, and looks at the impact games can make on our world. It's a celebration of their power and their influence, rather than simply holding them up and showing how fun they are and how quickly they've advanced.
"It's a show that we hope challenges people's perceptions and assumptions about video games," curator Marie Foulston said to us. "It'd perhaps be expected for a show such as this to explore a retrospective history of the medium (as many major exhibitions have done previously), but instead we chose to focus on video games today and specifically the period from the mid-2000s to the present day. During that time technological innovations from the rise of broadband and smartphones, to social media have all had a radical impact on the way that games are designed, discussed and played. These new technologies provided opportunities for new voices and ideas within games and this exhibition celebrates the work of ground-breaking designers and players from these years."
Design: The Method behind the Madness
The best way to tell you about the exhibit is probably to talk about it step-by-step, as first you enter the Design area. Here you're greeted with dimmed lights (it's a museum of course) and a huge screen showing footage from thatgamecompany's 2012 game, Journey, which introduces you to approach taken with this first section.
To discuss how games are made and designed, this exhibition uses case studies of iconic titles to prove its point, and Journey is perhaps the best starting point because it oozes style. Even if you haven't played this title, it's interesting not only to read about how it was made but also to look at the design documents that helped make it possible. These put into perspective the fact that people and their toil are the chief ingredients that produce these memorable experiences, reminiscent of Chris Bratt's YouTube channel People Make Games.
It's also incredibly interesting to see how the developers schedule the production and make sure everything gets done that needs to be, and of course as you move around and see more of the games on show we get an insight into concept drawings, design proposals, and even a live-action film made by the developers of The Last of Us to give an early idea of what the post-apocalyptic setting would look like.
Perhaps most interesting from a visual point of view, however, is From Software's Bloodborne, which gets a desk filled with haunting drawings and ideas that helped bring the Gothic world to life. Splatoon, however, is more a case study in marketing, showing a lot of the merchandise that comes with the franchise.
Disrupt: The Ways Games can Shape Our World
Even if you haven't played any of the games in the Design section it's still interesting to get a peek behind the curtain of game development, seeing how they go from ideas to reality and the cogs that are at work to make this possible. On the other hand, though, the following part of the exhibition - Disrupt - looks more deeply into how games can impact the world around them once they're released and available for consumption
This is based more around ideas than specific games, exploring themes including gun violence, female representation, race, and more. Basically, this explores the responsibilities games have, and how they're products of the world around them, highlighting debates that you might be familiar with, and those that might be new. For instance, we've all heard of games being blamed for violent behaviour, but few might have heard people say that they should explore sex in a variety of ways.
All of this is complemented by a continuous film of developers offering insights into the topics at hand, including Fullbright developer Nina Freeman who discusses sexuality and gender, and Vlambeer's Rami Ismail. Ismail perhaps provided one of the most thought-provoking anecdotes of our time there, saying that a very popular video game (that wasn't named) included totally wrong Arabic in the levels; basic errors like writing from left to right rather the other way round.
This part as a whole provides a lot of food for thought when it comes down to the big issues, and as a community who wants their art form respected as just that - art - it's important to consider how powerful these games can be. It serves to remind us that games don't live in a bubble and that they stand alongside films, books, and music as an expressive medium that can help change lives.
Play: Thinking Outside the (X)Box
The last section we walked into was the Play finale, providing a selection of interactive experiences for gamers to try. While there were arcade cabinets on show, there were also more unique games like one that requires you to move a red dot up a tube of LED lights, and another that saw you step into the driver's seat of a car that had been cut in half, using that to control a game projected on the wall in front of you.
The ideas presented in Disrupt also pervade into this, as unique experiences celebrate the unrepresented side of video games. Queers In Love At The End Of The World, for example, is an arcade game that sees you control a quick-fire text adventure describing your romantic encounter with your partner before the world ends, and is a beautiful yet brief rollercoaster ride.
Another highlight is a six-player game called Breakup Squad that requires two people to find each other in a crowded room, while the other four work to split them up by pushing and pulling the people in the room so as to get in their way. It's funny, it's confusing, and it provides a lot of laughs... especially if you're playing with total strangers.
When we walked out of the exhibition we felt as if we'd been surprised. Without really researching it and going in as simply a fan of games, you get a lot more than you bargained for here. As we said before, it's not just showing how good games look and how far they've come, provides a deeper look into the complexities of how they're made, the significance they hold in our society, and the potential they have for both good and bad. It's an eye-opener for gamers, and we'd recommend it to fans young and old.