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Road to GDC: Curating Video Games

This is part of a series of columns written by developers and others speaking at or about the Game Developers Conference in March.

On February 24 the past four years of my life closed its doors as the exhibition Videogames: Design/ Play/ Disrupt ended its run at the V&A museum in London. The show was a headline exhibition on contemporary videogame design and culture that I was incredibly privileged to work on as lead curator.

While it was by no means the first major exhibition on this subject by a major cultural institution it was still one I consider a first, in that it was an attempt to radically reconsider what an exhibition on videogame design could be.

The premise of the exhibition wasn’t to look back to a nostalgic retro past, but instead to look at videogames in the here and now, from the mid-2000s through to the present day. This is a period of time defined by technological catalysts: smartphones, the rise of broadband, social media, all technologies which have radically impacted the way that games are designed, the way they are discussed and the way they are played. It’s been a time of democratization, of new ideas and voices that challenge our understanding of what games are and what they can be.

The exhibition brought together a broad and eclectic range of games, games from big AAA studios and solo independent designers, games of different genres, different styles, different creative ambitions. Yet as diverse a selection as it might have been they were all connected by a common thread: they were all groundbreaking, each confronting our expectations of the discipline be it aesthetically, technologically, emotionally or politically.

This was also an exhibition that sought to find a new curatorial language for videogames, one which would transcend the game purely as a playable object. Through our years of research as curators, we were welcomed in by many designers from around the world. All generously opened up their notebooks and hard drives and laid bare a rich trail of debris of artifacts and materials that spoke so strongly of their design processes and creative ambitions.

In the exhibition, their prototypes, sketches, scripts, animations, diaries, engines, wikis, tumblrs, spreadsheets, and ephemera sat alongside large scale immersive installations seeking to collectively provide unique and multifaceted insights into each game as a rich and complex design object.

I’ve worked as a curator in video games for about 8 years now, and not always with the conscious awareness that this was the role or work I was undertaking. Before becoming a curator with a capital ‘C’ at the V&A my practice was more grassroots and centered in the independent and alternative game community. I spent this time not seeking to bring games into museums, but instead into quite different cultural spaces such as nightclubs, pubs, and galleries.

This work was always driven by a desire to be disruptive, to create new cultural spaces for the medium to inhabit and to help foster in others an appreciation for the work of such an incredibly inspiring design community. And while on the surface my curatorial practice at the V&A may seem to take on a very different form to the events and exhibitions that preceded it, it is still fuelled by these same motivations.

For many, the design process of video games can seem like an impenetrable black box, an unknown combination of technology and magic. In a recent interview in GQ co-founder of Rockstar Games Dan Houser stated, “…games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made.”

But do we really believe that a true appreciation of a creative work is intrinsically bound to, or heightened by an ignorance of the creative practice it is born from? For me, no, it is not; I want designers to tell me of the complexities, of the skill, the challenges and the constraints of their practice and when they do it can turn even the smallest detail of a game into an absolute miracle of craft and achievement.

As a whole, I think this speaks of a broader lack of cultural literacy around videogames. In its place sits a vacuum that can easily be filled with stereotypes and assumptions, a vacuum that can deny the medium criticality, nuance, and humanity.

Filling this void is to me the true value of what a museum can bring to a subject. It’s a value that is frequently mischaracterized as an elevation of status, that by placing videogames into spaces such as the V&A we have now deemed them worthy of a higher value. Instead, we should see the value of institutions as a desperately needed space for debate and discussion, for learning and new perspectives, to show that videogames do not sit as some isolated anomaly in our cultural landscape, but that they are intricately connected to a rich history of design, literature and visual arts that precede them.

Curation in the context of video games is still unusual and rare, but I truly feel as though we are at a cultural tipping point. MoMA, the Barbican, ACMI, the Smithsonian, Somerset House, the British Library, the Museum of London are all spaces actively engaged with the collection or exhibition of games.

This is not just a shift happening top down either. Over the years developing my practice as a curator in this field I’ve felt a swell of peers also coming to see their roles as that of the curator, many of whom, like myself, also come from grassroots backgrounds, their work equally radical and disruptive.

This exhibition was a risk.

We pushed back against the public expectation of what a video game exhibition was expected to be, without really knowing if this would be welcomed or wanted.

However, the reaction from the games community and press has been frequently supportive and at times emotional, a sense of relief that yes, we are allowed to imagine and consider different cultural contexts for this medium.

While I see this show as a landmark, it is ultimately just another step in a journey that I know will be continued by other playful curators and innovative institutions who will undertake new exhibitions and installations. I hope they will also be given the freedom to push the bar to take more radical and unexpected approaches; to look beyond broad survey exhibitions and to dig down into unexplored histories and niches; to experiment with and build on the curatorial languages that have gone before them. And I am excited to see where this playful disruption will take not just exhibitions and museums, but also what unexpected places this space and freedom might take video games to.

Marie Foulston is the curator of video games at London’s V&A – the world’s leading museum of art and design — and co-founder of independent game collective the Wild Rumpus.

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