Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 8, 2019
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, September 8, 2018–February 24, 2019.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, installation view, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2018–19 (photograph by Kelli Wood)

Following the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, the V&A created a space for applied arts centered on industry and design, a space that serves as a conscious foil to traditional fine arts museums. Curators Marie Foulston and Kristian Volsing carried the spirit of this mission forward into the twenty-first century with their exhibition Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt. The show revealed the innovative practices video game designers have developed over the past fifteen years, while simultaneously asserting the radical potential of the medium by focusing on politically motivated activist games. In addition to examining the sociopolitical impact of a pastime that diverts nearly a quarter of the world’s population, the curators devoted specific attention to issues of design and craft. The exhibition was divided into four sections: New Designers, Disruptors, Players_Online, and Players_Offline. With its dim lighting, dark gray walls and permeable mesh dividers, fluorescent text, and video projections on LCD screens, the show’s inventive design immersed viewers and guided them through a space that felt like a virtual world.

New Designers, the heart of the exhibition, took on eight “trailblazing” games that push the boundaries of narrative, aesthetics, and technology. Described as an eclectic group, the majority of these games are recognizably present in the nascent canon of video game studies. The opening gallery was dedicated to Journey (thatgamecompany, 2012), which set the tone as an example of an art game primarily concerned with crafting an aesthetic experience for players. In both the game and the gallery alike, color took center stage to manipulate the player’s emotional path. In a revealing turn, the exhibition juxtaposed the marketable product with the inner workings of its design, which included a chart mapping the color flow vis-à-vis the plot, the delineation of the hero’s journey, digital paintings (such as one called White Light of the Mountain), prototypes and play testing run-throughs, and notebooks documenting the design process. Interviews with the team responsible for Journey exposed the exhibition’s intentionalist approach to art production by interrogating the motives of game creators. By focusing on the designers’ feelings about the limited range of hostile emotions typically prevalent in mainstream games, the exhibit linked the psychology of authorship to the intended reception by players.

Moving from an independent studio to a large-scale, well-funded corporate venture (known in the industry as an “AAA” company) and from artistic exploration to narrative-driven play, the visitor next encountered The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013). In this plot-driven game, players assume the identity of a smuggler named Joel. They then maneuver through a postapocalyptic world accompanied by twelve-year-old Ellie, whose artificial intelligence helps guide them through the dystopian landscape. Alongside a video of the game, vitrines displayed notebooks that offered insight into the evolution of the game’s design. This disclosure of process, an orthodox yet effective curatorial gesture, continued for each of the remaining six keystone games in the design section. For The Last of Us, the viewer was invited to trace the game’s development from start to finish, from initial digital drawings of Ellie’s character by Hyong Taek Nam and the architectonic technology of gray block mesh sets to final scenes from the game and advertisements for prospective players.

The curators continued this strategy of placing finished gameplay sequences and design work alongside descriptions of each game’s central story throughout the exhibition. These constellations succinctly introduced visitors to the overall form and content of the games, and as such provided a crucial shortcut that allowed the viewer to explore the games’ large-scale virtual worlds without expending the extended time typically required to play them. No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016), for example, thematically considers this challenge of scale as players pilot a spaceship through a vast universe. Developers used procedural generation, a method by which algorithms automatically create seemingly infinite content from a set of finite design elements, in order to develop an entire galaxy of novel planets and alien life-forms, and the exhibition’s inclusion of the game speaks to concerns about technology and world-building. The presence of Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013), on the other hand, brings attention to the role of text and the influences of other media, such as painting, in the creation of video games. The game’s combination of dialogue, interior monologue, and emotion crafts an adventure narrative. Foulston and Volsing reveal the roots of the game’s self-identified “magical realist” style by placing René Magritte’s surrealist painting Le Blanc Seing (1965) next to the scenography in the game that it inspired. A brief nod is also given to the influence of the history of video games through acknowledgment of Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), the first text-based adventure video game that inspired Kentucky Route Zero’s structure and textual prompts.

The second section of the exhibition, Disruptors, was physically walled off from the first and featured a plaque warning that the gallery contained nudity, fantasy violence, and adult themes. Stereotypes color the way we think about video games, the wall text cautioned, but disruptive designers, players, and writers are confronting controversial subjects. White marquee-style light boxes divided the blacked-out room with captions such as “Videogames are political,” “Why are videogames so white?,” and “Videogames are a girl thing.” This gallery almost exclusively featured small-scale art games like how do you Do it? (Nina Freeman, 2014) alongside snippets and quotes from mass-market media sources addressing subjects such as sex, gender, race, violence, disability, and labor. A thought-provoking display challenged the primacy of the Latin alphabet in gaming through Ramsey Nasser’s 2014 re-creation of Pong (Atari, 1972) in qalb, an Arabic programming language. The re-creation was paired with quotes addressing violence against Arabs in popular AAA combat games like Battlefield 3. The exhibit’s disclosure of the mislabeling of a map of Karachi in Arabic, not an official language of Pakistan, in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 testified to how commercial video games can disseminate racist ideologies.

While Disruptors perspicaciously championed avant-garde games as potential forces for social justice, the decision to partition off this section had the unfortunate result of establishing a disconnect between the ideologies reified in AAA games’ world-building and art games’ politically charged world-imagining. By purposefully selecting Splatoon! (Nintendo, 2015), a game in which the shooter uses ink, not bullets, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt failed to represent the full domain of contemporary games and the popularity of violent first-person shooters. One of the great strengths of the exhibition, on the other hand, was its ability to reveal the inner workings of the video game industry and its design practices. Access to such material, which is usually owned by large global corporations, is often conditional. The future of game exhibitions in an age of digital media hinges upon museums empowering curators to take advantage of fair use policies for gameplay video and stills rather than falling back on the legal safety of prescriptive licensing. By including a warning label and sectioning off Disruptors, however, the exhibition enacted the kind of biases it seeks to undo. Such a division reinforces the idea that themes of violence and sexuality are not ubiquitous in art (where is the warning sign for The Rape of Proserpina in the V&A’s own adjacent cast court?) and suggests that games require censorship, because they are somehow more prurient than other art objects.

Players_Online, the third section of the show, focused on spectatorship and interaction in the world of gaming. It consisted of a single gallery dominated by a curved-screen theater, which mimicked the magnitude of the communities that create, play, and comment on games. The space provided an ideal environment both for viewing clips of an Olympic-size stadium filled with fans watching the League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009) championship in China in 2017, and for taking in the immense creativity, wit, and skill of the builders creating virtual worlds in Minecraft (Markus Persson, 2009). As visitors left this theater, they became players themselves in the exhibition’s final gallery, Players_Offline, a pop-up arcade styled after organized gaming events such as Chicago’s Bit Bash.

Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt took an innovative approach to video games by focusing on design and opened a timely conversation that complements previous major exhibitions focused on the history of the medium, including Game On (Barbican, 2002) and The Art of Video Games (Smithsonian, 2012). By treating eight video games individually in the opening section, with focused attention on creators as artists and the workshop-style creation of AAA games, the exhibition employed a curatorial rhetoric and practice that is in fact deeply and effectively, if perhaps inadvertently, rooted in traditional concerns and questions about art and authorship, despite the novelty of the medium and an overt discourse emphasizing industry and design. And while the ambitious scope of the other sections led to a somewhat disjointed flow, the show’s provocative material will hopefully serve as an amuse-bouche for the V&A’s future slate of exhibitions on video games, which will attentively amplify the themes introduced here.

Kelli Wood
Assistant Professor, Art History, University of Tennessee