What comes to your mind when you think of videogames?
If you are a so-called ‘hardcore gamer’ or a game enthusiast, games are intellectually challenging and aesthetically pleasing, but more importantly they are to be enjoyed. On the other hand, if you are an art lover who is at the Victoria & Albert to explore its collections of Islamic art for instance, they might stand for the unworthy hours and money spent by people who have nothing better to do in their lives. For both parties, however, the sight of an exhibition on videogames in this major London museum may raise some queries.
It is certainly exciting to see videogames being more widely discussed as a cultural phenomenon and as a genre in the contemporary design industry. It is, however, implausible to say that Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is a successful attempt to counter the discriminative view that considers videogames no more than a childish and frivolous pastime.
The exhibition’s curators, Marie Foulston and Kristian Volsing, consider these issues in terms of the design process of videogames and the provocative concepts which they convey.
Although the contents of the exhibition are sufficiently intriguing, they have an ambiguous appeal. While this vagueness ensures that the exhibition is appealing to both art and game lovers, it remains, at the same time, an unsatisfactory experience for both parties.
The first part of the exhibition explores the making and development processes in the designs of eight ground-breaking videogames from the past fifteen years, such as Journey. Each of these stories unfolds with displays of preliminary sketches, literary inspiration and digital models. It is through exploring the sense of craftsmanship behind the digital designs that the curators encourage viewers to see videogames as part of the field of design.
For audiences who have no prior-experience of playing the games, however, these eight displays are not necessarily self-explanatory. It is arguably only possible to understand a game by actually playing it – making it very difficult to display an interactive medium like videogames in a museum space.
This section of the exhibition appears to be much more appealing to viewers who have prior knowledge of, not to mention passion for, the games on display. The excitement of seeing original sketches by designers who have created their beloved games can only be experienced by such game lovers. This appeal therefore does not serve the exhibition’s aim of trying to change the biased view that sees videogames as simplistic entertainment software.
In a dark room, a large projected screen presents a number of young game designers discussing their opinions on the social roles of videogames. Alongside the interviews, there are a few conceptual games on display. They challenge topics including sexuality, violence, and political censorship. For example, in How do you do it?, a little girl tries to understand how sex works by playing with two naked dolls of male and female. Its discussion about intimacy through the words and actions of a little girl resembles a conceptual artwork, an interactive medium that emphasises its thought-provoking message rather than the recreational activity of playing. This section indicates that the medium is capable of expressing meaning with real social impact, thus encouraging people to consider videogames as a form of art.
The curators have put their emphasis on the games that have pushed the boundaries of their conventional counterparts, both in terms of their design and meaning. As a result, the mainstream online games and associated cultural phenomena are given very little attention. A viewer with no background knowledge approaching this subject matter will certainly be amazed by the innovations, the thought-provoking concepts, and the technological leaps made by the games on display, but they will not be able to grasp the sort of excitement that most of the 2.2 billion videogame players around the world experience on a daily basis.
The third section of the exhibition is a cinematic room. Video clips play regarding the rise of e-sports, the wide spread cultural phenomenon of cosplaying, the creativity of fan-arts, and a brief introduction to the most popular online games in recent years, including Minecraft and Overwatch. These two-minute clips only provide elementary information about a worldwide culture. They are clearly to be shown to the museum audience as an introduction to the world of game enthusiasts, but the importance of this section is underplayed to the extent that it is the only room where there is no physical interactive display. Its isolation means that this section could easily be ignored altogether.
The last room is filled with colour and interactive archaic games, which enhance the invisibility of mainstream online games shown in this exhibition. The pure playfulness of these games, dispersed throughout the room, is possibly what all visitors will take away with them as they leave the exhibition space.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is on display at the V&A until 24th February.