V&A: Bringing game design to the masses

On paper, family-friendly shooter Splatoon, controversial satirical game Phone Story, survival horror blockbuster The Last of Us and indie darling Journey don’t necessarily have a lot in common.

But when you scratch below the surface, they actually all have (at least) one similarity: they pushed the boundaries of game design and redefined what video games can be.

And that’s why they’re all part of the V&A’s upcoming exhibition, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, which will be the museum’s headline exhibition next autumn and was announced as part of the London Games Festival festivities.

Celebrating and exploring groundbreaking design in video games since the mid-2000s, the exhibition will feature original prototypes, early character designs, notebooks and much more from games that challenged the conventions of game design. It will also delve into how video games explore “complex and sensitive subject matters such as representation, race, sexuality and geopolitics.”

Taking over the North Court of the V&A from September 8th 2018 to February 24th 2019, the exhibition has been years in the making, with the V&A’s curator for video games Marie Foulston working with research curator Kristian Volsing.

“I was brought in a few years ago and the V&A already knew at that time that it wanted to create an exhibition around video games,” Foulston explains. “It was actually our previous department keeper, Kieran Long, who was incredibly interested in video game design, who championed and pushed for the institution to undertake this project. So it was a huge privilege for me to be able to come into an institution that was so willing to engage with this subject matter and to be able to bring in new ideas.”

There have been other exhibitions dedicated to video games in the past, but Design/Play/Disrupt takes a new approach, choosing to focus on a selection of groundbreaking items from a specific period of recent time instead of going down the historical path.

“We obviously felt very fortunate to work with studios willing to open up their art books and their hard drives to show us some work that is rarely seen. But for us, this is not a canon of video games from the mid-2000s to the present day. Not every important game will be featured, not every game that everybody knows and loves will be here, because there are just too many. But what was important for us was finding an eclectic selection of games which showed the real range from big triple-A blockbusters down to smaller independent games to show different genres, different modes of creation and creativity, different design processes.

“We have works such as No Man’s Sky which was created through procedural generation, which is a radically different design process from, say, the way the game Journey was created. It’s that diversity that was important to us, to show what unites everything in this exhibition is that it is all groundbreaking. It all pushes people’s expectations and the boundaries of the medium in very exciting ways.”

Foulston and the V&A also thought the time was finally right to offer this exhibition, with video games being increasingly recognised on a par with other industries such as film and TV.

“For us what’s important about ‘now’ is I feel like we’re at a cultural tipping point with more institutions engaging with this medium and extending its value,” Foulston says. “Obviously this is not the first major exhibition on video games, this is built on the legacy of other institutions and other works such as Game On by the Barbican, or institutions such as the MOMA or the Smithsonian. But for us this is looking at the period from the mid-2000s to present day that’s been a really important and interesting time in video games design particularly.

“There’s a whole host of technological catalysts from the mid-2000s, such as the price of broadband, to smartphones, to democratisation of design tools and all of that had a radical impact on design as a whole and life as a whole. Video games being a digital design medium, that obviously impacted it quite radically, so for us it’s a period of immense creativity and work.”

What’s also interesting about Design/Play/Disrupt is that the V&A has chosen not only to present works from established studios but also to highlight the work of game communities.

“For us it’s incredibly important to tell a full story of design but also to represent the players and the communities – work that, for one, is important, but two is also just incredibly captivating,” Foulston says, with the Minecraft community being fairly represented in the exhibition.

“You cannot tell a full story of video game design by just looking at the more conventional conception of what we understand to be a designer. A lot of the design stories in video games actually sit in the hands of those players and those creative communities. It’s a dizzying sort of creative chaos. We want to bring these really amazing things that those communities create to the audience.”


With Design/Play/Disrupt, the V&A hopes to attract an audience of both gamers and non-gamers.

“There’s a whole host of different audiences that we want to reach,” Foulston says. “This is an exhibition that is seeking to appeal to people who are literate in games. There is not one homogenous audience of game players and there are a whole host of games but there will be something in here for everybody who likes games. For those audiences we wanted to make sure that we’re providing insights into some of the works that they know and love and the designers that they hold dear. To be able to show them something unique such as the pencil sketches from their favourite designer or a prototype that they’ve never seen of one of their favourite games.”

She continues: “But we do want to speak to other audiences, who play games more casually, don’t consider themselves to be hardcore gamers, and hopefully people who perhaps have never picked up a controller. Perhaps their only knowledge is what their kids are doing on Minecraft and it’s challenging to reach those audiences.”

Which is why the games on show are placed in a context, showing the wide range of inspirations that get into the making of video games, from a Magritte painting (pictured top) to a cat video.

“We wanted to make sure that there were works across the whole range of the exhibition which appeal to those different audiences. The first object we approved for the exhibition was a Magritte painting. And that should definitely get a few audiences in,” Foulston smiles. “For us, it’s trying to reach those audiences to show them ‘hey look video games are connected to broader visual culture, they are connected to the stories that you love in other disciplines’. The ambition when people leave this exhibition is not to necessarily convert them into thinking that they’re going to become a designer – although that would be amazing to be able to do so – it’s not even to necessarily have everybody leave thinking that they’re going to go home and start playing games. But we do hope that everybody who leaves this exhibition has a newfound respect for the design work and the creativity of both the designers and the player communities. And that for us is what is important; it’s educating people about video game design.”

She continues, emphasising the importance of placing games next to other pieces of art or pop culture elements: “It was important for us to have a range of different materials that honestly show the range of sources that people get inspiration from. So yes, on one end of the spectrum that’s a Magritte painting, and on the other end it’s a viral YouTube cat video.

“It’s being honest to the range of inspirations and design material. We don’t need to force that connection, it is there.”

Foulston then refers to a quote from Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center, that was used as the opening quote for the exhibition’s press presentation: “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.”

And that’s exactly what the team at the V&A wants to show with Design/Play/Disrupt, Foulston concludes: “Games are operas made of bridges: that’s what’s important for us to educate people about, and what is so fascinating and complex about the design discipline.”

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s former senior staff writer. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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