London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, known as the V&A, houses the world’s largest collection of decorative arts and design. From silverware collections, wrought iron and the famous William Morris room, to the huge Ardabil Carpet, which is the oldest in the world, the V&A is home to a range of treasures, representing the best of cultures around the planet. It’s a collection of human creativity from the past, right through to industrial and commercial design of every day objects and on 8 September, the doors open on ‘Design Play Disrupt’, a new video game exhibition.
Celebrating nearly 20 years of games design and culture, the V&A’s Design Play Disrupt show is a beautifully curated collection that unveils the creativity at the heart of games. This exhibition displays games as art and alongside art, dispensing with the notion that they are purely commercial products holding little cultural value or importance.
Design Play Disrupt is an exhibition about games as a part of a continuum of human creativity that evolves and influences across disciplines and media, spanning through time. This is an exciting moment for an industry that is often vilified for the violence that is centred in some games or praised for the commercial boon it offers UK plc.
Rarely are games considered as a vital part of our cultural heritage or future. They often something to be feared, as in the recent Fortnite hysteria. They are definitely separated from art and music and theatre. Games are seen as an oddity, an obsession of the young or the anti-social. They are too popular to be high art and too digital or new to have earned their place beside cinema, literature or even TV.
This exhibition shrugs off all of those biases. The space begins with the beautiful Journey, the perfect way to ease in wary audiences who may not be literate in the world of games. Visitors are welcomes with a wall of gorgeous visuals from the game. This section also reveals video footage of developers struggling up sand dunes and playing with fabric in the desert wind, as inspiration for the animation that later gave the game such weight.
Throughout the space, heavyweight titles, such as The Last of Us are supported with developer notebooks, spreadsheets and concept art, lifting the curtain on the creativity behind these polished products. Something that’s quite striking is the amount of analogue material that comes with video game design. A wall of post-it notes reveal the story beats and levels for The Last of Us. Scratchy, expressive sketches for Bloodborne abound in open notebooks. Scribbled notes, design ideas and concepts are laid bare for all to see. It’s tangible and we see the hand of the developers in a way game footage doesn’t allow.
Kentucky Route Zero sits alongside Magritte painting, illustrating the direct line from fine art through to games. This then leads to the second half of the exhibition, where visitors are given a chance to play, but don’t expect banks of screen and controllers. This isn’t a game expo. Instead phones are suspended from chords and a room furnished with arcade machines shows experimental titles, exploring the political and the genre-breaking creations from the less commercial side of games.
I’m lucky enough to be part of this exhibition, joining a number of industry figures to become talking heads in video footage within the exhibition space. I was at the preview this week, with industry figures, including developers and they were excited to be in this space that’s usually reserved for ‘proper art’. It’s heartwarming to see the hard work and creativity of our peers represented alongside priceless vases, furniture from Persia and Japan and a replica of Michelangelo’s David. Maybe now we’ve finally answered the question; are games art? Yes.
Design Play Disrupt opens on 8 September and runs until 24 February 2019. If you’re in London, book a ticket and head to the V&A for a glimpse of what makes a game, as well as all the things they are and what they can be.