The National Videogame Arcade – Culture? Shock!

For over a decade I’ve been writing, talking and creating events that address games as a vital part of culture. I do this because they are. I mean, of course they are, right? Let’s not get into that again.

It’s been an interesting, challenging road. Back in 2005 I pitched New Statesman the idea that they might cover video games with a story about EA’s The Godfather game. To everyone’s surprise, Rosie Millard (then arts editor, now chair of Hull – City of Culture) commissioned a string of features from me, which grew into regular reviews and editorials.

There was a time when the video game establishment was desperate to be seen as culture. Back when one of the first UK game culture events was staged in Edinburgh at the same as the arts festival, because, you know, culture rubs off. Shortly afterwards, that event was renamed as an ‘Interactive Entertainment’ festival, because ‘games’ was too trivial a collective noun to really communicate just how cultural they are.

It’s an open door, but gaming needs to break the loop of justifying itself as art
Iain Simons, National Videogame Arcade 

Last year at the National Videogame Arcade, we staged a conference called ‘Continue’ (we’re running low on game- related puns) which sought to bring together the games establishment with the arts establishment. Given what I just wrote, I recognise the hypocrisy in that, so let me be clearer – it was about bringing together games ‘people’ with arts ‘people’. No, hang on, it was about bringing people who self- identify as being mostly game developers together with folks who self-identify as being mostly part of an arts world…

Okay, look, it’s an awkward fumble, but we need to allow ourselves a little slack. Of course there’s lots of crossover, but just because we know that the current labels don’t stretch far enough yet, it doesn’t mean we don’t need to use them to kick off some discussion.

Continue was trying to be pragmatic, helpful and consequential. It started when we were approached by Arts Council England with a question around how they might develop their funding and commissioning policy for video games.

They were recognising that it wasn’t enough anymore to just try and shoehorn games into the new-media funding policy, they were demanding of something more distinct. I’ve seen it too, recurring conversations with other festival directors, other gallery curators asking about how to ‘do’ games. Increasingly, they can see that there’s a vital place for games to occupy in their world.

There was a period when the main function of games in the cultural establishment was ‘only’ as a marketing tool for cultural product. Promotional embedded flash games, using video games as a tool for selling some other thing. Folks like Blast Theory and the sorely missed Hide & Seek started to rebalance that relationship, making pioneering work that demonstrated just how much games had to offer the ‘rest’ of the world, but there’s still a way to travel. At the conference we spent a full two days with the Arts Council, the BBC, 

V&A, Wellcome and lots of others, and at the close of it one thing was clear. There wasn’t some terrible gaping chasm of understanding between games and culture, it’s mostly that the people involved just drink in different bars. Their paths simply don’t usually cross.

The burden for understanding was definitely starting to shift though, a recognition that the literacy deficit wasn’t lying with the games establishment anymore. Games already ‘speak’ culture. The culture people need to learn to speak games.

There’s opportunity. As cultural commissioners awaken to the promise of games, they’re currently left with no clear pathway to understanding how to engage with their makers. Commissioners know where to go for their public art, their original theatre, their dance – but they’re struggling with video games. Bridges are being built. Ukie, TIGA, the newly announced BGI and even our own humble National Videogame Foundation are all trying to help nurture those relationships, but let’s do more.

It’s an open door, but the gaming establishment needs to break out of the feedback loop of continually justifying itself as art. As the esteemed Jon Jordan once commented to me, “games need more cultural confidence”. It’s a phrase that’s always stuck. Culture isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. Do it.

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