Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt Review
On entry the initial room is dimly lit with a glowing neon sign advertising the subject of the exhibition: Videogames. There is sufficient light to navigate and read but enough darkness so that each screen, projection, and CRT monitor pops with colour, drawing each visitor to its glow. The track ‘Nascence’ from the soundtrack of Journey puts the listener into a state of awe while around each corner more iconic videogame music entices further exploration. This is the space containing the V&A’s Design/Play/Disrupt exhibit.
The V&A museum’s founding mission statement – established by Prince Albert – was to educate designers and the public in Art and Design. To realise this the museum has run many exhibitions and events surrounding aspects of design, ranging from: small scale bookbinding in 2009 (Design and Ornament in Renaissance Bindings), to large scale architecture in 2007 (On the Threshold: The Changing Face of Housing). In 2015, the museum made headlines with its extravagant and meticulously curated Alexander McQueen display titled Savage Beauty. The V&A has a reputation for a high level of quality and an attention to detail which I believe is reflected in this exhibition of contemporary videogames.
Design/Play/Disrupt is curated in a different manner to previous exhibitions of videogames. It is not concerned with charting the history of videogames, and as such is not ordered chronologically. It is also not concerned with the monetary output of games which is so often stated to convince others of their worth. You will find no mention of the number of copies that each game has sold, or the total profit that they have generated. What the V&A is instead interested in is not so easily quantifiable. Here the focus is on each game as a product of design, each section concerned with the process of creation, how the design affects, and is affected by, the culture surrounding it. Overall, this is a refreshing look at curating the medium.
The layout splits the collection into three distinct zones, Design first, followed by Disrupt, and finally Play. Each zone is traversed in a linear manner, with the audience moving between brightly coloured items. Sometimes there is a glimpse of what is to come through a mesh divider, at other times there is no way to tell what is hiding behind a curtain, which leads to gasps of awe on entering a space with an absolutely gigantic screen displaying the story of the Bloodbath of B-R5RB in Eve Online.
The exhibition begins with the Design part of Design/Play/Disrupt. The V&A have chosen a handful of different titles to act as case studies. Their choices reflect a decision to offer those in attendance a wide range from an extremely large medium. All the titles chosen in this section are contemporary, with the earliest game shown being The Graveyard, developed by Tale of Tales in 2008. These games also come from a wide range of developer backgrounds: games with a large budget and workforce (what’s known as triple A) for example, The Last of Us by Naughty Dog, mid-range studios like No Man’s Sky by Hello Games, and extremely small team indies such as Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computers. There are also games from a range of platforms: Bloodborne is a PS4 exclusive, Splatoon a Nintendo Switch exclusive, and Consume Me a PC game which had prototypes on mobile. Such a collection of titles shows the V&A’s willingness to exhibit a variety of different types of design process. It also widens the likelihood of visitors having had previous experience with at least one of the titles that are being exhibited.
Each case study included artefacts from the game’s creation, such as notebooks, sketchbooks, post-it notes, and early testing recordings. Any scrap of information which helps to detail the process of creating the game in question is presented with care in glass cabinets. During my time at Design/Play/Disrupt this was one of the most emotionally affecting part of the exhibit. To see not only the videogame itself as being important enough to exhibit, but also the ephemera which surrounded each game’s process from initial idea to realised product felt like a mark of respect for a medium whose development is often mythicised or ignored.
At the end of the Design space the visitor is then moved into Disrupt. This room is much darker than the previous room and is made up of six tables with a glowing sign above each signalling the theme for what is presented. These include tables on political videogames, violence in games, programming in Arabic, and how gender, race, and sexuality are presented in games. Each table includes one example game and quotes from newspaper articles, tweets, and personal blogs, while in the middle of the tables a large screen shows interviews with industry professionals discussing these different aspects of disruption. A personal highlight of this section was being able to play How Do You Do It? a game which explores the taboo of sex in games. This is a humorous title which has you spinning naked dolls to crudely simulate sex before the mum comes home and catches you. All of this takes place while a young girl muses over what sex is. It is a game made to spark conversations about an aspect of games that is often purposefully ignored.
Although I feel that each section was well covered, and that each game was well chosen to represent the relevant topic, I felt as if something was missing from this section. Labour issues have become more prominent within the last six months with the discourse surrounding Red Dead Redemption 2’s one-hundred-hour work weeks, and the creation of the first Game Worker’s Union. However, labour issues have been rife within the industry since its inception and this has influenced the design process. Why is the price we pay to make games the destruction of health, unstable employment, and an industry which has such a high rate of turnover? I understand if the V&A didn’t want to place one game under such intense scrutiny for this but instead it could have chosen to present a game like Slime Rancher, a title which stuck to forty-hour work weeks. This would have provided an example of a sustainable design process for the audience to experience and consider.
The final rooms cover the Play from the exhibition’s title. Moving from the Disrupt section there was a massive screen showing 12 minutes of short films on repeat. These focused on: D.VA cosplay and fan art from Overwatch, the creativity that Minecraft inspires, the League of Legend ESport scene, and an historical event from Eve Online, the Bloodbath of B-R5RB. All four films were united in an exploration of how games are played and the effects of games outside of the game-world. Being able to see this presented in a mini-documentary format lent weight to how seriously these subjects have been taken by the V&A.
The last room of the exhibition is the brightest and most colourful of all the rooms. Several screens are stacked in the middle of the room showing players of strange looking games, while around the edge is an assortment of different games for visitors to get their hands on. Traditional arcade cabinets are placed alongside more experimental forms: a string of lights game called Line Wobbler, a car which has been retrofitted to be an arcade machine, and two helmets with buttons on top. This is a great end to a fantastic exhibition. Up until this point visitors have been asked to look, swipe, and on a few occasions to interact, but proper play has been missing. This last room felt like walking into a playground. I spent the most time here trying to play QWOP and drive weird beings around in Horse Game: A Friend You Can Ride On. Unfortunately Queers in Love at the End of the World was not working on my visit which was disappointing but it is understandable that there will be issues in keeping all these games working constantly.
Exiting the final room leads to the delights of the exhibition gift shop. Here there is a collection of standard museum merch: pencils, rubbers, posters, and an accompanying book for Design/Play/Disrupt which includes essays and photos of the exhibit. My experience in the gift shop summed up my feelings surrounding the entire exhibition. Being able to buy a Design/Play/Disrupt branded pencil may seem like a small inconsequential action, but it is representative of how games are being treated as worthy of attention alongside more traditional forms of art and design. Not because of their ability to make money, or the length of time they have existed, but because of the unique design process that creates them. Games are being allowed space within a prestigious institution which had never previously considered videogames as a way of realising their own mission statement, that of teaching the public and professionals about art and design. I hope that the V&A’s attention to detail and meticulously curated collection is mirrored by other institutions so that more interesting views on games and gaming can be shown beyond a historical account of games. I am excited to see the effect that this exhibit will have on both museum curating and the way in which development and design is viewed within the industry.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is on at the V&A until Sunday 24th February 2019. For those interested that cannot attend the exhibition book is available for purchase on the V&A’s website.