For too long now, Marie Foulston says, we’ve been thinking about video games the wrong way. “It isn’t,” she says to It’s Nice That over the phone a few weeks before the opening of the major new show she’s curated for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), “a case of asking if video games are art. We don’t need to ask if all games are the Mona Lisa. We need to change that question. We need to ask, ‘are games craft,’ and we need to do that through the lens of design.”
For the past decade, Marie has been channelling her long-held interest in the medium into a variety of creative avenues. A firm believer in the inherently social aspects of gaming, she’s a co-founder of Wild Rumpus, a participatory scheme which brings experimental video games into different spaces, from clubs to galleries to ex-cold war fishing vessels.
Now the chief curator of video games at the V&A, Marie’s latest project has seen her assemble the ambitious, inventive, and innovative exhibition, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, a celebration of how video games have changed since the arrival of smartphones, broadband, and social media.
Marie stresses that “the museum has a history of engaging with digital and interactive design,” pointing out the fact that Flappy Bird is part of the permanent collection, as at home in South Kensington as a marble bust of John the Baptist, or an ornate Alexander McQueen dress.
Joining the dots between Rene Magritte’s 1965 Le Blanc Seing and Nintendo’s paint-heavy 2015 title Splatoon, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is, Marie says, “an attempt to show the breadth of what is happening in game design in the modern moment,” with an approach that sees both major publishers and independent developers represented via original prototypes, early character designs notebooks, and interactive installations.
Like most gamers, and there are an estimated 2.2 to 2.6 billion of them on earth, Marie fell for the medium as a child. On account of it’s more colourful box, her dad opted for a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) over the Sega Megadrive, and said SNES came bundled with the game that changed Marie’s life, 1991 title The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past.
The bona fide role-playing game classic, produced by the iconic Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, wasn’t just a first taste of the pleasure that can be derived from and delivered by video games, but proof that games don’t emerge fully formed and ready to be stuffed into a console.
Whether it’s the latest Call of Duty title with its team of hundreds of coders, testers, developers, animators, voice-over actors, and software engineers, or a two-man mega success story like Super Meat Boy games are more often than not, the end result of painstaking labour. Even Pong is the result of myriad design-related choices.
Those design choices impact everything about a game, including how we, as players, put ourselves into it. “When we think about games from a design perspective,” Marie says, “we have to look at what they do differently to other mediums. Interactivity and the ability to embody different characters in different stories, dealing with different ideas is key.”
It could be pipe-loving plumber Mario, or one of the Grand Theft Auto series’ multi-faceted protagonists, but whenever we pick up a controller and play a game, we’re being asked to implicitly fuse ourselves with the virtual self of another.
Given that most gamers are happy to accept such genuinely complex interpersonal interpretations of identity so readily – one minute you’re banging in a goal for Colchester United on FIFA, the next you’re skulking around dungeons in your finest armour on World of Warcraft – Marie seems surprised that there is still what she thinks of as “a broader lack of cultural literacy in the discipline.”
“Broadly,” she says, “we think of it as a medium purely for entertainment, or that it is for children, or assume that it lacks the ability to engage with complex subject matters.” Recent titles like Papers Please (a puzzle game about border crossing in a fictional faux-Eastern bloc nation) prove that as the medium ages, it is maturing as well.
“If you’re literate in that space, you’ll understand the vast scope of work going on, and the richness of design studios working today.”
Fundamentally Marie sees this exhibition as a way of introducing a design-focused appreciation of gaming to a museum audience and hopes that the disciplinary approach to curation shows viewers that. “Blurring distinctions is really important! Look at how architects use the game engine Unity, or the work that visual artists like Cory Arcangel and Lawrence Lek are known for,” she says. “We often focus on the way in which we see those artists are creating a dialogue in institutions, but we don’t see designers in those spaces.”
Featuring a span of titles from the deep space exploration simulator No Man’s Sky to cult classic Kentucky Route Zero, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is, at the end of the day, a form of message dissemination. Games, it says, residing in one of the grandest spaces in Britain, have changed, and we all owe it to ourselves to understand how that has happened, and what it means.
“We want,” Marie concludes, “viewers to go out and create games, to go out and play them, to go out and find respect for them.”