Victoria and Albert Museum | London
From the 8th of September 2018 to the 24th of February 2019
by Rory O'Keeffe
With 2.2 billion gamers worldwide, it’s not surprising that exhibitions on video games are everywhere; the Museum of Modern Art in New York has been acquiring games since 2012 and the Barbican’s Game On exhibition has toured to over 20 countries since 2002. Some cities even have their own Video Game museums, such as Berlin’s Computerspielemuseum and Vigamus in Rome. The V&A’s latest exhibition, however, is the first at a major institution to explore the concept of video games as a design discipline. Running from 8 September 2018 until 24 February 2019, Video Games: Design/Play/Disrupt covers the creative processes behind video game design, delves deep into the vast community of online gamers, and reflects on politically contentious debates around race, gender, and violence in the gaming world.
In acknowledging video games as a design field, the V&A faces the challenge of how video games as digital objects can be preserved and exhibited. From blockbusters such as The Last of Us and Splatoon, to independents like Journey and the cultural phenomenon Minecraft, the exhibition traces the craft and artistic influence behind game design. There is an eclectic mix of source material: prototypes, animation suits, spreadsheets, character sketches, viral videos, and more traditional art objects such as Magritte’s Le Blanc Seing, which inspired the visuals of a forest landscape in Kentucky Route Zero Act II.
As you progress through the exhibition, Orwellian slogans adorn the walls – “Make the experience feel real”, “Embrace non-linearity”, “Real time 3D is a poetic technology” – giving insight into the abstract philosophy behind game design. More concretely, the exhibition addresses real world communities and trends. The world of the street is explored through the game Splatoon, where players can portray themselves in street style influenced by contemporary fashion and the level design reflects urban cool. Corresponding street fashion merchandise is displayed on the walls, illustrating the intersection between video games, urban environments, and consumer culture. Huge screens depicting live spectacles of League of Legends championships show the vast scale of the online gaming movement, while the Minecraft section explores the role of players as co-creators, highlighting the possibility of democratising design.
The tonal range of the exhibition is impressive. Display/Play/Disrupt doesn’t shy away from the social and ethical debates that are provoked by video games, such as violence, depiction of women, and lack of diverse representation. Interviews with leading commentators on this issue are on show during the Disruptors section. In contrast, the tone of the finale is playful and immersive, exhibiting the world of DIY grassroots gaming. Innovative arcade games are available to view and play, such as Bush Bash by SK Games, played in a sedan car cut in half, and an arcade game attached to a backpack made by UCLA Games.
Overall there is plenty here for experienced gamers and ‘newbs’, although there are some notable absences. The extraordinary cultural sensation of Fortnite, for example, is not mentioned, perhaps reaching prominence too recently for the pace of the V&A’s curation. Clearly it is difficult for traditional art institutions to keep up with the constantly expanding world of video games. It is a challenge they will grapple with for many years to come. Video Games: Design/Play/Disrupt is a fascinating and engaging start.