Major New Games Exhibition Opens In London – Should You Go?

What’s happening?

Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is a major new exhibition of video games that has just opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.  It is on until 24 February 2019. Tickets are £18 with various concessions for students, job seekers, people with disabilities and other groups. There’s a book to accompany the exhibition priced at £20. If you don’t live in London that can add up to quite a pricey day out. Gamebyte went along to check out the exhibition and find out whether it’s good value.

What is this exhibition about? Is it about historical games?

The first thing the curators want you to know is that this is not a retrospective. It’s not a history of video games, studded with ancient plastic hardware in glass cases. It is a contemporary review of gaming and considers it as a creative process and something which has the potential to disrupt popular thought and change society. It aims to celebrate creativity. Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, said “There is a wealth of creativity to explore, from the craft of the studios to the innovation of the audience as players”.

Which games are featured?

This exhibition is organised into three distinct parts – there’s a beginning, middle and end to this story. In the opening section, you are ushered through a series of darkened rooms, each one dedicated to a particular game. The featured games include the instantly recognisable Journey, Bloodborne, Splatoon, No Man’s Sky, The Last of Us, Kentucky Route Zero, Minecraft and League of Legends as well as various indie titles. The aim here is to uncover and reveal how games are made by showing the products of that labour which is usually hidden from view. Reading about how games are made is one thing and we’ve all done this, but seeing the products of the work that went into making games that you have played yourself is another. It’s quite an intimate experience, seeing early character sketches for No Man’s Sky, not to mention development meeting notes, desk toys, paper cut-outs, Instagram photos and the other everyday tools that creatives and developers use for thinking.

What’s the role of video in this exhibition?

While there’s a lot of video capture in the ‘featured games’ part of the exhbition, including some sensational footage of a League of Legends esports event, video becomes more than mere display in the  middle section of the exhibition. In this area, the visitor is invited to sit and watch some well-made and well-edited interviews with various people who are in some way on the periphery of the white, heterosexual aesthetic that dominates gaming. That is, if we stop to think about it, it doesn’t take much to realise that most video game heroes are the same person. Geralt of The Witcher, Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series, Joel in The Last of Us, and too many more to count. They are all male, white, heterosexual, Anglo-American, English-speaking, rugged of jaw, stereotypically masculine. Athletic and trigger-happy.

Whether you are a gamer or an opinion leader in the games industry, if you are female, black, gender fluid or gay, if your first language is Arabic or if you are 50lbs heavier than fashion says you should be, you are not going to see yourself represented in games very much or at all, and especially not in a good way or as the main character that you are invited to identify with. This is consequential. It’s not just about gamers who differ from the norm feeling left out. It’s an industry-wide and society-wide problem. What I mean by this is that when video game characters and stories keep returning to a culturally specific norm, the eventual result of that is that games as a whole risk using racist and sexist stereotypes that are not what one would hope for from a relatively young art form and progressive industry. What’s more, the games all begin to tell the same story. A trigger-happy, muscular guy with a gun attempts to save the world. But that guy is not all of humanity and so millions of stories are being lost. Stories of people who are brown, speak Arabic, are mothers, people who have different lives.

This part of the exhibition highlights the idea that we should not just take steps to erase racism and other polluting elements from game design but take the additional, positive step of helping games to usher in a new era. The situation to aspire to is one where all the diverse, mysterious, banal, exotic, thrilling and untold stories that make up human lives become visible in games. We don’t have to move into the future endlessly repeating the story of a guy who is just another incarnation of Indiana Jones or Superman. We can and should expect a future where games show more of the truths of human existence. This is how gaming is going to prove itself and find longevity as an art form. Interviewees include Tanya de Pass of I Need Diverse Games, Katherine Cross, sociologist and critic, and Rami Ismail, game designer.

This part of the exhibition has still images as well as video displays, with relevant quotes from industry leaders captured and highlighted for the visitor. One says: “Come on video games, let’s see some black people I’m not embarrassed by” (Evan Narcisse, Kotaku, 2012), another says “America’s ‘vision’ of the Black made body is one of threat, menace and labor. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how they end up represented in games” (Sidney Fussell, 2015, Offworld).

It’s in this same area of the exhibition that visitors may encounter serious discussion of sex. Historically, gaming has not dealt with sex in a nuanced or mature way. Geralt of The Witcher is slightly more mature than Leisure Suit Larry but he still has a long way to go. His relationship with his wife is reducible to teenage sarcasm and he stares at women’s chests. It’s not much of a step forward. We may hope that this, too, will change as gaming matures. In the meantime, the V&A has two interactive games to try out which approach the topic more intelligently. One, Rinse and Repeat by Robert Yang (2015) is almost an art piece, a meditation on the public shower as a place where gay men encounter sexual opportunities but also threats. The other, How Do You Do It, by Nina Freeman, places the gamer in the role of a little girl, playing ‘sexy’ games with her Barbie and Ken dolls and trying to figure out human sexuality during a brief period when her mother is out of the house.

What are the opportunities for interaction?

In the final part of the exhibition, having watched all the video interviews, you are ushered out into a hall where several large arcade-style cabinets have been built. These encase some unusual indie games of varying lengths and visitors are invited to play with them. Of these, the most memorable is the work of some Australian artists who sawed an abandoned car in half and this becomes a gaming station that two players can sit in. Gaming controls are built into the dashboard and the players look out through the missing windshield at a screen that shows a racing game. It is quite innovative and the most attention-getting of the exhibits in this section.

Overall, this is the least meaty aspect of the exhibition and feels a bit like an afterthought. I almost would have preferred the reverse sequence of events. Begin by experiencing some refreshingly different games in the brightly-painted arcade housing that plays on the imaginary historical exhibits that you thought you were going to be presented with. Have the video interview section in the middle where we learn about why games matter, how they shape society and what we want the future to look like. Lastly, armed with our new vision of the future, move into the deep aspects of the creative process where we can see the pencil-and-paper mechanics of implementing change.


Should I visit?

Yes, this is a thoughtful exhibition. It’s not very large and it cannot survey everybody’s favourite games but it offers an intelligent look at the creative and political processes of making games. There’s plenty here to spend time with and there’s a sense of intimacy in being able to get a close look at the hand-crafted notes and bits of concept art that developers use in the early stages of making games that you have played.