Games in the museum: How do you put play on display?

A new wave of developers and curators are questioning what it means to tell the story of games

Someone’s fallen over in the paddling pool. A raucous game of Jelly Stomp has toppled over, and a small wave soaks the person next to me. Over in the corner, people queue in pairs outside a small wooden booth to play Realistic Kissing Simulator.

It’s 11pm, dark, and I’m standing in a courtyard in a vaguely fashionable part of north-east London at Wild Rumpus, a clubnight of local multiplayer games. Back in 2013, Wild Rumpus was one of my first experiences in the contemporary games community. Today, it’s part of a growing global trend of curators redefining what it means to present games in public; working out how we tell the story of what games are and what they might be.

“Curation is the story that a community tells itself,” explains Robert Yang, a game designer who recently curated No Quarter 2015, an exhibition based at the NYU Game Center. While museums and galleries have evolved to tell these stories in a particular way, games raise an important questions when it comes to curation. How do you put play on a pedestal?

Games in the gallery

With high profile exhibits hitting the headlines, such as the Davis Museum’s Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer (which claims to be the first museum retrospective dedicated to the work of a single video game maker), art institutions and museums are waking up to the complex challenge of curating games. Marie Foulston, curator of video games for the world-renowned V&A Museum in London, is working towards a blockbuster exhibition on games. Foulston explains that the methods by which you show games in these contexts are only just beginning to be explored.

“For a lot of cases it shouldn’t necessarily be the games themselves that we’re preserving,” she tells me. “A game is not something that necessarily just exists. If you look at a game like Minecraft, it’s one thing to collect Minecraft and have it sitting in a server so that you can turn it on in a hundred years and play Minecraft as it was. That’s only one facet of understanding it […] look at the millions and millions of YouTube videos of people engaging with Minecraft, not in one way, in thousands upon thousands of different ways.”

(Above: Now Play This / credit: Ben Peter Catchpole)

Games curators are also exploring the relationship between games and other forms. If you visit Somerset House this April, you may come across the three day Now Play This festival as part of the London Games Festival. Piloted last year, the festival showcases a huge breadth of game design, including work from poets, theatre makers and board game designers. Holly Gramazio, co-director of Now Play This, is keen to explore the many fields where interaction and playfulness cross over into games.

“There is a long line of playful, interactive and immersive work in traditional arts that are games practices.”

For Gramazio, good curationcan help people find work that they wouldn’t necessarily have experienced.” In particular, she’s interested in curation as a means of showcasing – introducing experimental practices to new audiences, and new audiences to game designers.

The festival’s mixed bill of digital and non-digital play, and of cross-artform work, represents a growing recognition that not only do games belong in art contexts, but that there is a long line of playful, interactive and immersive work in traditional arts that are games practices. In this way, it’s reclamation of history on behalf of games.

Gramazio talks about the problem of talking about these things, but the ease of showing people how the history of (for example) Oulipo poetry relates to generative text bots, or to Ross Sutherland’s Infinite Non-Linear Break Up Poem, a poem built by the shuffle function of your mp3 player. Gramazio describes the work they present at Now Play This as “digitally agnostic” – from digital games controlled with yoga balls, to folk game-style works that involve no computing technology whatsoever. Like Yang, she is another artist-curator, who likens the experience of curating to that of game design:

“Obviously it’s also about the work itself and finding ways to present that in ways that are sympathetic to it,” she explains, “but it does feel like a thing that is quite allied to game design, actually […] game design under another name from another perspective.”

Punk and impermanence

While Foulston, Gramazio and Yang are all working, to some degree, within cultural and academic institutions, there are other approaches able to exhibit in a more rough-and-ready format. Louis Roots of SK Games (alongside Sophie Mather) curates events and parties internationally, but is based primarily in Perth and Melbourne, Australia. Roots specialises in building custom controllers with the “intention of getting games into the hands of people who don’t play games”. He is driven by a DIY approach: “You make the parties you want to go to,” he explains, while touching on his background in punk music.

(Above: An SK Games Backyard event / credit: SK Games)

“He builds a sawn-half-car controller that you can physically sit in, a clay skull that you brush the teeth of, or two stuffed cats with playable nipples.”

Roots is particularly interested in making games immediately playable for people of any level of games experience – using his parents as the classic example of little-to-no experience of controllers. So he builds a sawn-half-car controller that you can physically sit in, a clay skull that you brush the teeth of, or two stuffed cats with playable nipples. Roots is not only interested in curating the collection of games, but also the interface between game and player, and does so by thinking carefully and inventively about how the players control the games – in a way that’s new and fun to everyone, not new and daunting to just some.

“I like that games go away,” Root explains, “my aim is to make it so that every time you play something it’ll be transient and never the same again”.

One question facing curators is: are games an authored and recorded medium, or are they co-authored and live experiences? The answer is both, and you need different approaches to exhibit, archive and conserve different kinds of game, and the different ways they are played. Roots describes a game that he designed for Games Are For Everyone in Edinburgh, coded in two hours for a clay controller that he crushed after the event, before deleting the software. To present that kind of game is a different curatorial task – one embedded in the liveness of the experience.

However, the transience of performance has issues for sustainability and, for this reason, SK Games are opening a permanent bar and exhibition space in Melbourne in May 2016. With an aim to provide income, the emphasis here isn’t on preserving games but preserving game-makers. “I want to continue what I do,” Roots explains. “I want to be there for future events, I want to be able to preserve the people who are doing this stuff; that’s the difficult thing.”

Telling more than one story

Thorsten S Wiedemann, artistic director of the A MAZE video games festival in Berlin and Johannesburg, notes the challenge to the curation community of the prevalence of Western voices. “For me it’s very important to be an international festival and have not just a Western view, but it’s hard.”

Wiedemann explains that, while they don’t have all the resources they would like, they have been providing workshops around the world, in places such as Palestine and Kosovo, and of inviting designers from those places to A MAZE, in the hope that they may become part of a “feedback loop”. Likewise, as well as running the Johannesburg arm of the festival in Braamfontein, Wiedemann’s team has also been visiting townships and running workshops in places like Soweto and Alexandra. “I brought experts from South Africa and from Europe to the townships to make workshops with the kids […] [hopefully] in two or three years that will mean we will have games from Soweto as well.”

(Above: A Wild Rumpus event / credit: Wild Rumpus)

Crucially, the most valuable thing emerging from new curators in games is that there’s room for different approaches in what it means to curate, and to the related fields of documentation and preservation. Curation is a creative act, it’s one of telling a story through existing works; highlighting unknown histories; bringing together new audiences and makers; commissioning new work; re-revealing things you thought you knew, or just having a drink and falling over in a paddling pool trying to stomp on your rival’s iMove controller.

“I feel like that we’re in a bit of a tipping point now.”

Games practices are many and varied, and so too are the processes of curating them or, in the old meaning of the word, caring for them. “I feel like that we’re in a bit of a tipping point now,” Foulston says. “I feel like we’re just at the beginning of something.”

To care for games, we need to understand their story; their history, the way that they play, and the way they sit in a wider cultural and creative context. Games have historically been bad at reflecting on their lineage – in the context of a computational and technological industry arms race, games often become wrapped up in constantly producing what is new and ‘innovative’. They forget to reflect on where they’ve come from, and therefore where they’re heading. By telling their story of the work, these new curators are bringing together communities of makers and players new and old to reflect on what has gone before, and to get excited about what we can games can be here, now, together.

  • Now Play This is at Somerset House in London 1st-3 April 2016
  • A MAZE Festival happens in Berlin over 20th-23 April 2016
  • SK Games will be opening a new venue in Melbourne in May 2016.
  • You can see more about Robert Yang’s curated No Quarter 2015 here.
  • Check out this great Hand Eye Society blog post detailing more work that’s happening around the world.

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