Given that roughly half of the UK population plays videogames, with the gaming industry itself worth a cool £3bn to the UK economy, it’s astonishing that so few exhibitions have examined the medium and its impact on society. Encompassing two of the fastest-growing entertainment sectors (Virtual Reality and E-Sports), videogames have long been viewed as a popular pastime rather than as an interactive, studio-designed experience.
In the V&A's latest exhibition, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, their Curator of Videogames Marie Foulston takes on the mammoth task of setting the record straight. Refreshingly, the exhibition does away with tedious quibblings over whether or not videogames have any artistic value, ploughing through criticisms that they offer little else but a lobotomising escape for thumb-twiddling teenagers.
Real-time strategy, interactive stories, first-person shooters, whatever Candy Crush is – the potential scope is immense. Add to that the swathes of players who have joined gaming communities and you have an incredibly broad culture that exists both on- and offline. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the exhibition sprawls out in various directions, glancing briefly at the ways videogames have developed as an art form and continue to engage with our lives politically.
Collecting together concept art, character designs and prototypes, focusing on games from the mid-2000s onwards, Design/Play/Disrupt spotlights a handful of titles familiar to anyone who’s held a controller. (Sorry PC gamers, there’s not much for you here). Including pre-release footage of The Last of Us and stunning illustrations from Thatgamecompany’s The Journey, cinematic blockbusters and independent titles are given an equal look-in. Some may find the displays frustrating, since they cater to the general public rather than your hardcore gamer, but the sheer breadth of the exhibition is sure to give even your fast-twitch die-hards something to mull over.
Following a deep dive into title-specific displays by theme, the collection segues from community engagement to the political impact of games design and its relationship to culture more broadly. Controversial, satirical titles examine the gaming industry’s apparent obsession with Shoot ‘Em Ups, whereas Appstore titles, such as Phone Story, a mobile game about exploitative labour practices, demonstrate the ways developers are seeking to challenge players to consider the kinds of choices videogames ask them to make.
An exhibit on Mafia III displays footage of one the few recent games to feature mixed-race protagonists. Players are asked to navigate a story set in the United States a few years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited segregation. To progress the narrative, the game demands that you play by its rules. Follow this cursor, jump over this wall, experience racism in the Deep South – the human experiences of the story involve players through in-game interaction and foster empathy. As the exhibition explains, they not only reflect but comment on the society we live in.
A game is a series of interesting choices – Sid Meier, creator of Civilization
Famous for designing the turn-based strategy game Civilization, Sid Meier is often quoted as saying that ‘a game is series of interesting choices’ – which is, broadly speaking, true of most videogames. Increasingly, developers have been pushing their players to reflect on their choices and build in consequences for them. But what does this mean from a design perspective? While role-playing games have been doing this for years, Foulston’s exhibition highlights the deeply entrenched norms of videogames design, interrogating the same rules so many of them limit us to.
Who is the hero of the story? Why is it always told from the perspective a straight white American? Why is computer programming only available in the Roman Alphabet? How do these limited experiences and perspectives effect the stories being told? The choices we make in games are invariably limited by those who make the rules. Perhaps the most interesting take-away from the V&A is the handful of games that are designed to challenge these norms, the games which ask you to play differently, by different rules.
Despite some innovation, there’s still a long way to go to balance representation across different platforms. Robert Yang’s Rinse and Repeat, a gay shower simulator which explores consent and sexuality, like Phone Story, was banned from a major platform because of its explicit content. In their 2010 App Store Review Guidelines, Apple issued the following statement, which is incorporated into the display: ‘We view Apps as different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticise a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or ... create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kind of content in the App Store.’
Playing by the rules is something we all have to do, especially in games. But the V&A’s latest exhibition, which offers an incredibly broad, panoramic snapshot of the gaming industry, also reveals much of how the rules we play by are often determined by restrictive platforms and publishers who are all too ready to limit the content we are able to access. Certainly, videogames and apps behave differently other art forms, like books or songs. But who’s to say their aims are any different?
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is showing at the V&A from 8th September 2018 – 24th February 2019.