The V&A's video game exhibition is a must for any serious gamer
We're surely past the 'Are video games art?' discussions by now, right?
Video games are almost certainly going to be the defining artistic medium of the twenty-first century.
Interactive entertainment has the potential to thrill us, bring us together, let us experience the lives of others, and be creative, in ways passive mediums like movies and novels never could. And we are only really scratching the surface of what they are capable of.
All this is demonstrated in the V&A's current Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition, which runs until February 24th.
There have been exhibitions about games before - even whole museums - but they've tended to focus on a bog standard history of the medium. Here's Pong, here's an Atari, here is Tomb Raider 2, etc, etc.
You wouldn't expect to be able to tell the entire history of cinema or popular music in a handful of gallery rooms - and trying to do the same for games would be equally reductive. Instead, the V&A focus on where games are now, and where they can go.
It opens with dissections of important titles from the last half-decade or so, from AAA games like The Last of Us and Bloodborne, to indie innovators like Journey. As well as concept art and test builds, we get to see unique behind-the-scenes insights, like a giant colour-coded chart keeping track of the player's emotion at every step of Journey, or footage of Nintendo auteur Shigeru Miyamoto playing Splatoon for the first time.
One of the most interesting games explored is The Graveyard, where all you do is lead a frail, slow, old woman around a graveyard. Free to play at the exhibition, it is intended to slow down the experience, forcing you to take in beautifully rendered, serene black and white world the developers have created. It might not distract you from Red Dead Redemption 2 for more than about 30 minutes, but it is a lovely new way of thinking about games.
The second half of the exhibition goes broader, breaking down wider issues around the medium. There is an examination of violence in video games, alongside titles that strive to make wider political and ethical points. One example shown is Phone Story, a reinterpretation of the classic Nintendo game Fire, where you catch exasperated workers jumping from the roof of an iPhone factory.
Another section asks "Why are games so white?", using Mafia III are a rare example of a AAA title with a mixed-race protagonist, and a surprisingly fascinating version of Pong coded in Arabic.
There is also an examination of sex and relationships in games, including Rinse and Repeat, which subverts the latent homoeroticism of games like God of War by having you scrub down hunky polygon dudes in the shower.
The exhibition ends with a collection of unique custom-made arcade cabinets - and yes, you can play most of them. While the concept of indie game development is now well established, the usual mode of distribution of them is via the internet, directly into your home or straight to your personal device. These charmingly home-made cabinets bring games back into the public sphere and feature subjects diverse as queer love and a bear that drives around a stolen car.
One particular stand-out is Line Wobbler, a "one-dimensional" game played on a string of LCD lights.
Really, what stands out about Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt overall though is its non-patronising approach. Video games still get sneered at in many circles, but the exhibition really presents a look at what the medium can really do. It doesn't hold your hand and shows they can handle any topic any other form can. Plus, y'know, you get to play some video games.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until February 24th. Find out more at https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/videogames