Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt at the V&A
Video games are fun, socially connective and, at times, politically poignant. In his review of a landmark exhibition, Kyle Hoekstra explores the fascinating intersection of art and technology
At first, there’s something incongruous in watching Bloodborne being played in the world’s premier museum of art, design and performance. But as the avatar swings an axe through the insides of a beast in a cathartic eruption of blood and gore, the narrator explains how it’s right at home: ‘what you see here isn’t just a fight with a horrifying, hairy monster. It’s a fight against a system entirely designed to panic, to stress, to tease you into making mistakes.’
This is characteristic of Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, an interactive exhibition that subverts your expectations of what belongs in a museum and what constitutes a video game. Games are presented as innovative forms of design, situated at the fascinating intersection of art and technology where, its curators explain, ‘objective and rational system design meets subjective emotional and aesthetic design.’
Video games are special. The kinds of experiences they create, among them choice, responsibility and friendship, are possible because games give so much control over how they unfold to players. Though the exhibition prefers not to dwell on the (often tedious) question of whether or not games are “art”, this understanding is threaded throughout as it explores game design’s capacity to produce novel, shared experiences and tackle serious contemporary themes. Bridling these varied ambitions was always going to be difficult, but Design/Play/Disrupt is a pioneering success, packed with joy and wisdom.
Journey is one of eight games—from blockbuster Bloodborne to indie pick Consume Me—chosen to showcase the diverse aims and methods driving contemporary designers, whose craft is elaborated in artefacts like concept art and prototypes. In Journey you travel across an evocative, stylised desert with an anonymous companion, with whom you can only communicate through a musical chime. It looks and sounds breath-taking, but its ambition to forge emotional connections between its players makes it exceptional.
While creative producer Robin Hunicker’s notebooks highlight technical challenges and bug frustrations (they’re filled with notes like ‘I don’t get it!’ and ‘Do: want to make the game good’), they also demonstrate the team’s devotion to bigger ideas, with ‘FAITH, EMPATHY, TRUST’ scribbled in as watchwords.
At an early stage in its development, game director Jenova Chen was disappointed to learn that, rather than cooperate, his own developers preferred to push each other off cliffs. To figure out why, Chen spoke to a psychologist. Their explanation recalled a central precept of game design: maximise the feedback for behaviour you want to encourage, and vice versa. In the final version of Journey, you can’t push other players; instead, physical proximity provides players with the energy for flight which is used to progress further in the game. Such a seemingly inconsequential design problem and its solution illustrates how the unique design process of video games blend technology, mechanics, aesthetics and story, and often draws from psychology, anthropology, and more established traditions of design.
This convergence of system and soul straddled by video games is explicit in the curators’ take on FromSoftware’s Bloodborne, which sees you fight monsters in a plague-stricken, gothic city. You succeed with perfectly-timed attacks and movements, while its mechanics encourage you to maintain a nightmarish pace in an escalating bargain of risk-and-reward. Your frenetic work pays off in satisfying victories and access to new weapons, yet one slip-up can mean death, and with it your hard-won progress.
This tension – between your own impulses and a system intent on punishing your every mistake – is illustrated in a sharply-observed film by Matt Lees (one of a number of industry personalities popping up in the exhibition), while wireframe models, concept art and level-planning papers (seemingly seized directly from developers’ desks) clarify the work of different artists and engineers.
These materials introduce a museum audience to the hidden labour in games. On iPhones dangling from the ceiling, you can play Consume Me. Here you feverishly slot Tetris-shaped food onto a plate to reach a calorie target and force your uncooperating avatar through a workout. The game is slight and the visuals are cheerful, but its approach to body image is confessional. Inspired by the personal experiences of its New York-based designer Jenny Jiao Hsia, Consume Me is the product of an unusual process in which she creates art assets before coding any rules. Though it exposes her to problems later, her method as described in storyboards and a technical breakdown, lets her rapidly prototype on new ideas.
Elsewhere, a motion-capture suit used to animate characters in The Last of Us meets book covers for vintage science-fiction, which were a touchstone for the 18-quintillion procedurally generated planets in No Man’s Sky.
Where Design/Play/Disrupt surprises most is the space it gives to ‘Disruptors’. These are critics and designers who are examining the role of video games in society and subverting its stereotypes. Their responses to themes including race and gender are presented with article clippings and even complete games.
A Series of Gunshots is one such game made in 2015 by Montreal-based designer Pippin Bar, which explores gun violence in video games. You are presented with a street scene and, at the touch of a key, a gunshot flashes inside one of the windows. Before ambient street sounds resume, the scene fades and another replaces it. Unlike most games, firing a gun doesn’t get you anything in reward. The absence of a celebratory narrative is meant to make players consider the appeal of guns in games and the consequences of gun violence in everyday life. While A Series of Gunshots demonstrates how games can talk about real social problems, the “disruptive” voices highlighted by the exhibition extend to efforts, often contentious, to democratise video games and the industry.
We see how Mafia III tries to impart the experiences of African Americans in 1960s Louisiana, and how its game design is informed by the rules which upheld white supremacy – restricted access to white areas for the mixed-race protagonist being one example.
We also learn how Anita Sarkeesian’s 2012 video, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, which applied basic feminist theory to the representation of women in games, was met with vicious and protracted harassment. So with enthusiasm, but also concern, the many possibilities of video games are unpacked.
Subverting yet more stereotypes of video games is a room filled with dazzling arcade cabinets and playable off-beat games. These are dedicated to the punk scene of experimental, DIY arcade games promoted by groups like We Throw Switches in Edinburgh. Since the Kokoromi collective started hosting “GAMMA” arcade parties in Montreal nightclubs in 2006, like-minded people have joined to transform arcade cabinets and build raucous, physical multiplayer games, some of which are gathered here.
At one moment, a huge screen renders vast, unscripted battles from EVE Online featuring thousands of participants, the cosplay communities of Overwatch, and the semi-professional builders of Minecraft to show how communities have formed around video games beyond the intentions of their designers. We get an impression of the scale and diversity of online and offline communities in games at the moment, and something of what it now means to play.
It’s an optimistic segue between the critical and playful spaces of the exhibition and represents the curators’ delight in expressing games’ promise and depth. Awake to the diverse experiences designers try to create and those that players make themselves, Design/Play/Disrupt shows that video games matter, that they are interesting, and that they belong in the V&A.
Videogames: Design/ Play/ Disrupt will be shown at the V&A until Sunday 24th February 2019. For more information, click here.