The Victoria and Albert Museum is hosting an exhibition that takes a radical new approach towards the representation of video games as a medium. Rather than focusing on gaming history, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt looks at the changing nature of digital entertainment from the early 2000s right up to the present day. The internet and social media have had a massive impact on the way games are designed and played, and increased access to creative tools has meant that independent game developers have proliferated. By zooming in on a few key examples, the exhibition looks at how games go from concept to finished product, as well as how they deal with controversies, politics and taboo subjects.
The first part of the V&A exhibit pulls back the curtain on the design decisions behind eight contemporary video games. These range from big-budget titles like Splatoon 2, The Last of Us and Bloodborne to visionary indie games like Kentucky Route Zero and Journey. With Splatoon 2, this is a rare chance to see the gears whirring in Nintendo’s famously meticulous design process, with sketches and design documents showing how the concept evolved. There’s even a very early prototype version of the game where characters are little more than grey rectangles.
The evolution of the critically acclaimed indie game Journey is no less interesting, with concept artwork and spreadsheets showing how the designers aimed to evoke specific emotions in the player at various points in the game with things like colour. And the eclectic influences behind the surreal narrative game Kentucky Route Zero are fascinating, ranging from the play Death of a Salesman to a painting by René Magritte.
The second section of the exhibition looks at how games have tackled issues like violence, sexuality, race, gender and political change, asking questions like ‘Can a historic event be examined seriously by a video game?’ and ‘Why are video games so white?’
Disrupt opens with Super Columbine Massacre RPG, a highly controversial game from 2005 that depicts the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. The game caused a media storm on its release, and debate continues to rage over whether it trivialises the real-life event or offers a critique of the media sensationalism surrounding it.
Other evocative games in this section include Rinse and Repeat, in which a gay man washes other men in a shower, and How Do You Do It?, where a young girl manipulates plastic dolls in an effort to understand how sex works. Phone Story, meanwhile, is a satirical game that depicts exploitative practices in the manufacture of mobile phones, from miners working under harsh conditions to extract coltan from rocks, to workers attempting to commit suicide in a phone factory. The game was banned from the Apple App Store days after its release.
The final part of Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt gives visitors a chance to sample some varied and unique games that have really pushed the boundaries of the medium. The bizarre ‘one-dimensional dungeon crawler’ Line Wobbler is little more than a strip of LEDs with a spring for a joystick, but it creates a world of enemies and lava fields from simple flashing lights. And the Arcade Backpack is a joyous DIY creation that was designed to be worn to parties and events.
Other highlights include Queers in Love at the End of the World, which asks the question of what you would do with your partner if the world was going to be destroyed in ten seconds’ time. Players have to rapidly select highlighted words to make decisions as a brutal timer ticks down the seconds to the apocalypse. And in addition to these playable games, a video showcase reveals how the internet has revolutionised player interaction in games like EVE Online, Minecraft and League of Legends.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt provides a fascinating look at just how much video games have evolved in recent years. With this much change in such a short time, who knows where games will go in the next 20 years.
Tickets to Design/Play/Disrupt cost £18, but the exhibition is free to V&A members. Find out more at www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/videogames.