The V&A breaks new ground by considering video games in the context of design, but fails to highlight Dundee’s games industry, writes Susan Mansfield
Video games now frequently outrank movies as the highest grossing entertainment products in the world and are played by almost a quarter of the world’s population, yet they are rarely considered in the context of design. This disparity forms the premise of the V&A exhibition (shown in London last year) Design/Play/Disrupt, one of the first museum shows to look at video games from a perspective other than their historical development.
The major part of the exhibition showcases eight games developed in the last 15 years which reveal the new directions being explored, from Journey, with its focus on emotion and collaboration rather than combat, to The Graveyard, in which the “player” is an elderly lady taking a walk through a graveyard, which its Belgian creators ardently claim is “not a game” but “new media art”.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, V&A Dundee ****
Pia Camil: Bara Bara Bara, Tramway, Glasgow ***
Top-selling games are also included, from The Last of Us, in which a hunter and his ward navigate a stunningly realised post-apocalyptic America, to Japanese gothic slasher Bloodborne (so difficult it has spawned a raft of homespun YouTube tutorials on how to master it), and Splatoon, Nintendo’s family-friendly shooting game in which teams of players win territory by splatting it (and each other) with coloured ink.
Also showcased is the work of solo designer Jenny Jiao Hsia, whose phone games explore issues of food and body image, plus Kentucky Route Zero, a magic-realist tale which focuses on the inner life of its characters and takes inspiration from William Faulkner and Rene Magritte among many others, and No Man’s Sky, which uses algorithms to devise more than 18 quintilian worlds which create themselves as your spaceship visits them (please don’t ask me how).
Better signposting from game to game would help: “It’s not called ‘Ellie and Jo-elle’, dad,” I heard one weary teenage voice exclaim. But the background material presented does, when taken together, build up a picture of what games design is (it has been described as combining “everything that’s hard about building a bridge with everything that’s hard about composing an opera”). We see pencil sketches and storyboards, scripts and colour palettes, Journey’s designers running up and down sand dunes, and a full choir and orchestra performing Bloodborne’s dramatic soundtrack.
After the eight games, there is a Disruptor’s Room which asks tough questions of games: do they objectify women? Glorify gun culture? Why is the games industry still dominated not only by men but by white men? A fascinating section on banned games offers a glimpse of projects such as Phone Story, a satirical game showing the conditions in which smartphones are made which found itself quickly banned from Apple’s app store.
The final sections explore the inventive ways people interact with games, from the Minecrafters who built their own Ikea store to eSports aficionados who pack stadiums in China to cheer on their teams. The last room is an “arcade” in which viewers can try a range of DIY games showcased at club nights such as those organised by Edinburgh-based We Throw Switches.
Taken as a whole, the show is rarely less than impressive and the curators show an awareness that too much analysis will destroy the heart of the matter: that games are first and foremost about entertainment. Games fans are likely to encounter a few things they didn’t know, while novices will find a new and rather fascinating world being opened up.
However, we non-gamers would also appreciate a greater degree of context. How might we relate these innovations to the big-name games we have heard of: Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Minecraft and so on? Without information on where the world of games has come from, how do we understand what makes these ground-breaking?
It was also disappointing to see the Scottish input confined to the final indy-arcade section (which features the work of two Dundee-trained designers and a mural by Glasgow-based Ursula Kam-Ling Cheng). We’re often told that Scotland – and Dundee in particular (which was the first city in the world to offer a degree in games design, and the birthplace of Grand Theft Auto) – punches above its weight in games design, but there is little evidence of that here. This is not to say an international level exhibition needs a parochial angle, but if these claims are accurate, surely Scotland’s achievement deserves to be represented in this context.
Video games are not art any more than art is a video game; however, Pia Camil’s first Scottish show in the main space at Tramway is an immersive exhibition with an element of play. The Mexican artist has created vast, sail-like textiles which are suspended throughout the space, made from T-shirts bought at markets which have been “deconstructed” and stitched together. We are permitted to poke our heads (carefully) through the neck-holes to glimpse the perspective above.
Attractively arranged according to rainbow colours, they are a snapshot of a journey in consumerism: cheap clothes made in Latin America for North American stores which find their way back, in time, to the market stalls of Mexico City where everything is “Bara bara bara” (“Cheap, cheap, cheap”). Now they read like a montage of culture, from Vote Obama to Paul McCartney on Tour to Jesus Loves (New) Jersey. For this show, Camil has also added “Bluejeanando” floor cushions, made from pairs of jeans stitched together and piled up, though they look far too much like piles of bodies for me to consider sitting on them.
The sails, Camil has said, echo the work of Brazilian artist Lygia Pape who, during the dictatorship’s ban on public gatherings, had people walk through the streets carrying a vast piece of white fabric. But these lack the gravitas and urgency of Pape’s work.
They’re colourful, playful and interesting but, when displayed on such a vast scale, there is a sense in which they need a greater degree of substance to match their ambition. n
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt runs until 8 September; Pia Camil: Bara Bara Bara until 23 June