It's not all just fun and games when it comes to gaming. The Victoria & Albert Museum explores the transformative power of digital games in its latest exhibition, "Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt."
It's impossible to regard video games as part of a subculture anymore, as nearly a quarter of the world's population now plays digital games on a regular basis. Considering the short history of this medium, which has only existed for less than half a century, the rapid rise of gaming is truly a remarkable development permeating every fiber of the creative industries.
"There is a rich universality to video games in contemporary culture," said Tristram Hunt, the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), at the press preview of the "Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt" exhibition, which celebrates the innovative digital design of digital games.
Hunt also highlighted that this young and driven field of design was "uniquely immersive and interactive" and brought together "an extraordinary fusion of art, illustration, craft, architecture, literature, cinema — you can also add fashion and music."
With so many disciplines affected and shaped by the evolution of video games, the question at the heart of the exhibition at the V&A is not how much of reality shapes the design of video games but rather how much these games are increasingly shaping our perception of reality.
'Operas made out of bridges'
As you wander through the exhibition you can't help but feel like you're actually moving through a video game yourself. Meandering pathways reminiscent of an industrial maze feed a seemingly endless series of facts about the heaps of work that go into the meticulous design of video games.
From original prototypes to early character designs to hand-drawn storyboards, the new exhibition offers a glimpse into the creative process behind games in a way that people outside this industry rarely get to enjoy. It's a journey past landscapes that both look real and imaginary at the same time, interspersed with countless factoids about video games and related digital artifacts.
The exhibition highlights that the amount of detail found in many video games today means there may be hundreds of people involved in the design of a successful game. The process is similar to the energy devoted to making a major Hollywood movie.
This enormity of scope is reflected in the motto of the exhibition — a quote by Frank Lantz, the director of the Game Center at New York University:
"Making a game combines everything that's hard about building a bridge with everything that's hard about composing an opera. Games are basically operas made out of bridges."
A question of perspective
The main feature that sets the narrative form of video games apart from other forms of storytelling, and often is the main motivator that attracts people, is the fact that many games take place in the first-person perspective. The user is given agency in a way that traditional narratives in film and TV series can't compete with. The hero's journey becomes your own journey, and you choose where it takes you.
The show at the V&A highlights through a series of exhibits how this aspect of video games allows digital designers to invent characters able to fulfill every fantasy the user might have. You can be an elf or an orc; you can explore the depths of space on a broomstick or learn more about the naughty kinks of your sexual preferences. There's something for everyone, with the only limit being the game designers' imagination.
This very nature of video games frequently results in gamers becoming game designers themselves. While some choose to dedicate a full-time career to developing games, others pursue their interest part-time, with various platforms now allowing game enthusiasts to create entire imaginary worlds without knowing any coding at all, making the creation of digital works more accessible than ever before.
The V&A exhibition shows this exceptionally democratic dimension of the world of video games, while also addressing issues which have been criticized, such as games being inaccessible to the poor or being strongly gendered, influenced by patriarchal structures.
Social science of video games
A series of interviews shown at the exhibition explains how even in video games, minority interests often remain underrepresented. More than two-thirds of executives in the global gaming industry are reported to be straight, white males, despite the widespread mainstream popularity of games in some Asian markets.
Many of the scenarios depicted in games traditionally tend to follow narratives that the same straight, white, male demographic will typically be interested in, whether this is addressed directly by activities ranging from racing cars to shooting aliens, or communicated through other means such as the depiction of women with impossibly perfect measurements as sexual objects.
One particular issue repeatedly raised within the context of video games is violence, in particular the question whether the widespread portrayal and usage of guns throughout much of the gaming community might lead people to move their aggression from the gaming console into real life. Attempts by social scientists to associate aggressive personalities with violent games have failed so far, according to information shared at the exhibition.
Simon Parkin, a games journalist whose views are highlighted at the show, says guns in video games are used as universal tools to initiate actions in the virtual realm. "I can shoot a foe as they run in," he says and adds that he can also use it to "open a door." Parkin stresses it's the projectile quality of a gun that lends itself to the narrative of video games, and not its violent potential.
Back to real life
Other social issues that are frequently part of the debate surrounding video games are also highlighted at the exhibition, such as the introduction of a black protagonist in the computer game Mafia 3 — a first in the history of major computer games. However, while stressing the challenges of the gaming world with such social debates, the show also emphasizes the agency that video games can give to users.
There are, for instance, exhibits of video games that explore sexuality — whether as a playful way for youth to learn about the birds and the bees or as an outlet for closeted gays and lesbians to find out more about their sexual identity.
As much as video games fuel our imagination in fictive realms, they can also help us understand and come to terms with challenges we may face in real life. In that regard, games have a transformative potential that help people to find their true identities and express those dimensions of their personalities.
The exhibition further elaborates on this particular power by showing activities pursued by gamers when they're offline as well. From cosplay to the growing DIY arcade scene, in which gaming enthusiasts meet up and create handmade arcade units, video games bring people together, encourage the formation of communities and allow people to have creative outlets to learn more about themselves and others.
Marie Foulston, the curator of the "Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt" exhibition, said her aim was to "challenge people's perceptions about what video games are."
"We're talking about video games not from a retrospective. We're not looking back to a nostalgic past. Instead we're looking at the here and now, at the very, very contemporary. And it's exciting."
"Videogames: Design/ Play/ Disrupt" at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), London runs through February 24, 2019.