Running from September 8, 2018, to February 24, 2019, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt was one of the largest exhibitions on game design at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in South Kensington, London, to date. The exhibition focused on groundbreaking game design of the early 21st century, defined broadly, and displayed AAA titles like the 2013 The Last of Us alongside indie games like A Tale of Tale’s The Graveyard from 2008. Created out of the “Great Exhibition” of industry and crafts in 1851, the V&A is primarily a design museum. As a result, the Videogames exhibition aimed to teach the public about the process of game design and the issues debated within the contemporary game design community.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt was created through the V&A’s Design, Architecture, and Digital Department and two of its main producers were Marie Foulston, the lead curator, and Kristian Volsing, the exhibition’s research curator. Marie is a founding member of the UK video game collective, the Wild Rumpus, and she joined the V&A’s digital department after gaining acclaim as a curator of video games. Kristian started curating at the V&A in theater and fashion displays, with an interest in how museums can display popular culture, before he joined the digital department as well. Through our conversation together, we discussed the history of the exhibition—how it came to be at the museum and the turns it took under their direction. A recurring theme was how video games can fit into the processes of institutions that primarily display physical objects.
Videogames also exemplified changing standards of digital display compared to earlier exhibitions like the Barbican’s Game On, which ran from May to September 2002 and prioritized the interactivity of games in the exhibition. Game On traveled to museums in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. A similar, successful exhibition, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s 2012 Game Masters, traveled extensively as well. The V&A digital department intended Videogames to respond to this model of large exhibitions defined by their number of playable games. To that end, Videogames included design prototypes and character designs, as well as comparative artworks like René Magritte’s Le Blanc Seing painting (which was included so visitors could see its influence in the visual design of a Kentucky Route Zero scene). In our conversation, Marie and Kristian discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic had jeopardized the traveling plans, and potentially the legacy, of the V&A’s Videogames, even as it opened up new chances to explore play and performativity.
This interview was conducted over several hours with Marie Foulston and Kristian Volsing on July 9, 2020, using video-call software. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Sam DiBella: Thank you both for joining me. I wanted to talk to you about the Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum because you both worked and made curatorial decisions together. Now that it’s a couple years out, I thought it would be interesting to see where the lessons from that exhibition have taken both of you and to hear all the background that led up to the exhibition. To start, would you describe your career and curatorial work that led to the exhibition?
Kristian Volsing: I’ve been working in museums since the mid-2000s [ca. 2005]. One of the reasons I went into museums is that I saw an exhibition on video games in around 2003, 2002, in Edinburgh. It was Game On, this long-running exhibition. I was fascinated by how they explored elements of popular culture. It inspired me to look into that as a career, and several years later I ended up working at the V&A. I worked in several departments, from acquiring the Glastonbury Festival Archives for the Theatre and Performance Department to working with the Textiles and Fashion Department and then moving to DAD, the Design, Architecture, and Digital Department where this exhibition was developed.
SD: And Marie?
Marie Foulston: Unlike Kristian, I don’t come from a traditional museum background. It’s not an area I studied or envisaged myself getting into. I used to work in film distribution. I worked as a digital producer as well. But the first work I did curatorially came from a DIY space, the UK video game collective Wild Rumpus, which is a collective of six people. We used to do club nights and parties. We still do exhibitions and installations to create public spaces and platforms for alternative and independent video games. That was heavily inspired by Babycastles in New York and the work of Kokoromi in Montreal. Originally, I didn’t call that curatorial work. We were putting on parties. Over the years, as a collective, we learned as we went and undertook events, which were sometimes standalone but sometimes evolved into collaborations with institutions. Eventually, I did events with the Art Gallery of Ontario and with what is now called the Museum of Popular Culture in Seattle.
There was gradual acceptance of what that work was. Over the years, myself, with other peers, began to term it curation. Because of that, I eventually called myself a curator. I ended up at the V&A because I gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) back in 2014, and we called that “Curating Video Game Culture.”1 It was myself and a range of game curation practitioners. There was a curator from the V&A present and somebody else working on the earlier iteration of the Videogames exhibition who came along to that. That’s how the V&A became aware of my work. After a while, there was a position in the Design, Architecture, and Digital Department, or DAD. I was brought in originally as the curator of digital design in a maternity cover position. That’s everything that led me up to starting at the V&A.
SD: And, Kristian, you said you were influenced by that early Game On exhibition to look at video game curation. How did you wind your way through music and fashion to the digital department?
KV: [laughs] There is a thread there, somehow. I talk about my interest in popular culture, more widely. I suppose that’s where that lies. It’s not that I’m a real expert in haute couture fashion, but when I worked in the Fashion and Textiles Department, I did a display about T-shirts. That’s relevant to the department’s remit, but it’s also very everyday and not considered the bread and butter of the museum. That’s been my through line, getting this notion of popular culture to a wider audience.
SD: Marie, you mentioned that there was an earlier precursor plan for the exhibition, but it was around 2014, 2015, when the exhibition plans began in earnest. Would you both mind describing how the exhibition started, and how you wound up involved and working on it?
MF: Historically, the genesis for the exhibition happened when Martin Roth was the director. From what I understand, he was tasked with bringing in curators that were more contemporary and, as Kristian says, looking more toward popular culture. Bringing in more radical thinkers and such. One of the people he recruited was Kieran Long who was previously the keeper of the Design, Architecture, and Digital Department. He is no longer at the V&A. While he came from an architecture background, he had an interest in video games, played video games, and had attended events like GDC. I met him when I was giving the GDC presentation. He had already suggested the topic to the V&A, championed it, and did that early lobbying at a senior level for the museum to engage with the subject.
There was already an iteration of an exhibition on video games. The curatorial team for that was a woman called Louise Shannon, who was the digital design curator at the time. She was creating that in collaboration with Alex Wiltshire, the ex-editor of Edge magazine but also a well-established games writer. Alex and Louise put together the concept for the exhibition. My understanding was that the first concept pitched from Kieran looked at video games, combat, and violence. I think the museum felt its first foray into the subject needed to be broad. It needed a survey introduction before it went into more detail. That was the early genesis of the exhibition: Kieran’s idea and then Louise and Alex developed this other concept. It had the legacy of combat—the title was “Headshots.” Then it became an exhibition looking at terms and specialisms in game design unique to that discipline. I think it was January 2014 when I started, and that is when the exhibition ticked over into the next stage of development.
SD: And, Kristian, how did you join the exhibition?
KV: By that time, I was already working in the Digital, Architecture, and Design Department. I’d been working as assistant curator across a couple projects. The projects were Rapid Response Collecting and an exhibition called All of This Belongs to You. Both looked at objects and the museum’s role in public life in some capacity. As the video game project developed and decisions were made for its date to open, there was an opportunity to join the project. It was something I was interested in, being a video game player myself.
Installation of Players_Offline section. Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, 2018. (Courtesy of Kristian Volsing)
SD: How did this exhibition fit into the Digital, Architecture, and Design Department? You both mentioned this was going to be the first, or certainly one of the largest, exhibitions on video games at the museum. It seemed that while you were making the exhibition, you were also figuring out and defining what the museum’s vision for displaying video games would be. How did that figure into the department as a whole?
MF: Kristian has the stronger history or legacy of being in the department and as one of the cocurators of All of This Belongs to You. It’s worth talking about his involvement. The other exhibition being developed was The Future Starts Here, which was cocurated by Mariana Pestana and Rory Hyde and felt like a sister project. A lot of those exhibitions tied into the legacy of All This Belongs to You and Rapid Response Collecting.
I agreed to come in as the curator because I felt there were different ways video games needed to occupy exhibitions and display spaces. The main mode of display within previous exhibitions—I’m talking about large headline exhibitions such as Game On or Game Masters—was interactivity. Games are brought into the spaces as playable works. My work with Wild Rumpus was always about bringing playable works into spaces, but it was also about how you subvert and alter those spaces as well. With the V&A wanting to engage with video games, alarm bells would ring with any institution saying, “We want to get into video games and have a video game exhibition.” I thought, “Is this going to tread the same ground, or is this going to build on it?”
I was comfortable joining the project because I spoke to Kieran, but also curators such as Corinna Gardner, a curator who supported the project all the way through. They wanted to find a different way of exhibiting video games. The work that happened with Rapid Response Collecting and what was happening with All of This Belongs to You showed a desire to have alternative thinking about the way objects and design stories could be told in institutions. But Kristian can probably speak better about the history of the exhibition that the department had done since its formation.
SD: I’d also be curious to hear about the rapid-response group. It seemed like there was a thread from the museum’s acquisition of Flappy Bird to the eventual exhibition.
KV: The V&A, along with other museums, has been grappling with changes in contemporary design and the focus on digital design that’s developed over the last decades. The V&A did a major exhibition on digital design and artwork in 2010 called Decode, which was curated by Louise Shannon. That preempted the creation of the department that we worked in. The Design, Architecture and Digital Department started in the end of 2013, and its remit was partly to explore digital design in the museum and how that could be presented and collected. Our head of department at the time, Kieran Long, was interested in video games as a way of looking at digital design in the popular space.
Unlike an exhibition, the Rapid Response Collecting is a long-term, ongoing project about collecting and representing designed objects in the museum as they’re happening in the world right now. Where other departments in the museum might be dedicated to a particular arena, like fashion and textiles for instance, Rapid Response Collecting was meant for across-the-board collections. We’ve collected stamps; we’ve collected flags designed to represent refugees; we’ve collected ceramic tiles. All sorts of things. All kinds of mediums. One of them, as you mentioned, was Flappy Bird, which was to explore how through digital distribution a single designer in Vietnam can now have a massive, worldwide global hit. That, more than the design of the game itself, and its gameplay created this viral moment. That was the reason for collecting it. Objects in Rapid Response Collecting are about something happening in the wider world—or individual stories that represent something in the wider world—as opposed to an exhibition that has a thesis.
SD: My next question is the million-dollar one, so we might have to break it out into different parts. What was the process for preparing and arranging the exhibition?
MF: There are parallels where you can see parts of the Design, Architecture and Digital Department’s work reflected in the exhibition, and you can see that in how Rapid Response informs it as well.
We’ve talked up to the point where there was the genesis for the exhibition, which Louise and Alex developed. The next stage was when I joined the institution in January 2014. That was when, as we said, the exhibition was beginning to ramp up and was about to go through the Exhibition Steering Group [ESG], which is a collection of senior people at the institution who approve which exhibitions are to go ahead. That happens at multiple points in an exhibition’s life cycle.
When I started, I was originally the digital design curator. I was brought in with the knowledge that while I was coming in as the maternity cover for that role, the institution needed a subject specialist for the video games exhibition. One of the first things I remember was being told, “Marie, don’t spend too much time on the video game exhibition proposal because otherwise it’ll consume your entire work here.” After about a month, I spent a lot of time on it, and they said, “Look, do you want to step over to be the curator of this exhibition, as opposed to being the digital design curator?” So the thing they warned me against was the thing that happened, but I think that’s what we wanted to happen anyway.
I worked on the proposal. That was when the genesis for the exhibition developed, or the thesis as Kristian calls it. As someone who had never worked on an exhibition of that scale before, that was done with a great deal of support from the Design, Architecture and Digital Department and staff such as Corinna Gardner. The exhibition was originally called “Rebel Videogames.” There was a lot of pushback institutionally against that name, but it still set the tone. While my interest is in alternative games, the exhibition does cover AAA games. It covers big studio titles, but there was that thread through the work, that every work had to do something different, and had to be challenging video games in some way. We could see the games forming into categories, and originally there were five or six categories in the exhibition.
It originally opened on a section on hardware. We were looking at hardware developments and product design. It had a Wiimote and smartphones. The Players_Online section was originally purely about e-sports and competitive games. That sat separate from ideas of player creativity, fan art, and online creation, which in its original stages was focused on modding. We moved away from that. The genesis of the exhibition had these five or six sections, which eventually narrowed down to what the exhibition became. During that time, the core thesis was there, but what games would be brought in was still uncertain.
The process during that time was internal feedback in the institution. You pin up all your ideas and concepts onto these foam boards and present them to people from different departments and disciplines to gain their feedback for the exhibition concept. We also ran a couple of workshops with experts. I undertook those in the UK, and there was also one at NYU. I don’t know at what point the exhibition became the three sections it has now, but it still had that concept during that period. I don’t know what month of the year Kristian came onto the project full-time, but Kristian was also supporting the project for those stages with the department. Kristian, was it July or was it June?
KV: I think it was quite late. I didn’t start working on it until October or some time in 2015.
MF: So, that was when Kristian joined the project full-time. That was an early stage of the exhibition.
SD: In some of your talks about the exhibition, you mentioned wanting to deal with the varying video games literacy. It seemed like that was reflected in the structure of the exhibition, but also that it took a while to figure out the exact form that should take.
MF: When we go back and look at presentations or the first presentation I did to the Exhibition Steering Group, I think, “What on earth did we do for two to three years?” because the exhibition was there. The majority of the games are there, the majority of the exhibition is there, but you forget … Rory Hyde, one of the architecture curators in the department, used to draw this diagram, this spiral. He would say, “This is the way ideas get from here to here.” It’s a spiral, and you’re constantly working round and round and round an idea and refining it. When you get to the end and look back, you can see this straight line. And you’re like, “Why didn’t we just follow the straight line to get from here to here?” But you have to go through this cycle, this process of refining, circling, and regurgitating ideas until you get to the end.
SD: And, Kristian, when you started as the research curator, it seemed like everything had moved on from the first seeds to having the thesis, but how were you filling in those gaps?
KV: Nothing was fixed at the time. As Marie said, you go around in circles, you reiterate things, you reconsider what the visitor’s journey will be through the space. We spent a long time on this before we had an exhibition designer involved, who brings another element of how they see the space, how people engage with the space. When I joined, it was a lot of thinking about what games should be represented in the exhibition, building on Marie’s work, and doing research into the subject matter, particularly the politics questions. It was a lot of debate for a long time. Research and debate.
MF: I was going to say shuffling pieces of paper around. Post-It Notes. [laughs] Post-It Notes and pictures. I don’t know if Kristian uses as many Post-It Notes now or did before, but oh, God. That’s the way I worked, just covering everything in Post-It Notes. You’d find yourself in the canteen with a word like video games, racism, or sexism stuck to your body, and you’d think, “Oh, wait, no! We brought the exhibition down with us.”
SD: [laughs] So you had this physical embodiment of the exhibition with you?
MF: It was hard because you’re creating something in a physical space. It is a three-dimensional thing people move through. But the way most museums are laid out—it’s not a contemporary office space or creative studio where you have all this room and the tools to lay things out. The offices are shoehorned into weird parts of the museum where you can fit an office in. We were in these two desks in a section of the Design, Architecture, and Digital Department, but you have to make do with the space you have. When you’re creating a three-dimensional, temporal construct with all these moving parts, it’s hard if you’re just doing it on your computer. The best we could do with the tools and space we had was putting Post-It Notes everywhere. Also, the traditional tool of every curator is the beloved, or hated, foam board. Just giant white foam boards where you print out pictures of the objects and installations. You pin them up with labels, and it takes bloody forever to do.
I had three or four boards I worked on for about—I don’t know how many days we’d worked to get these boards up to scratch to go to ESG, and our offices backed onto a beautiful balcony that looked out onto Exhibition Road. Beautiful boards. It took days and days, and you have to put these pins in. It makes your hands—putting pins into foam boards is painful. There’s hundreds, and you keep putting them in. Over the weekend, some contractors came in. They did some work on the balcony and opened the doors. And if you opened the doors, the wind that came in was like a little tornado. When I came in, all the pieces of paper were blown off these boards. These boards were shredded and I said, “Oh my God.” Sorry, you just dredged up a painful memory. The foam boards getting destroyed … they ordered some biscuits, bless them, to apologize, but we still had to spend another couple days recreating them by cutting things out of tiny pictures.
SD: You mentioned earlier that the exhibition had an earlier, more controversial title within the museum and that the Disruptors section of the exhibition had a couple iterations. Would you mind talking about those changes?
MF: The name we called it originally was “Rebel Videogames.” That then became the name of a Friday Late instead. It was an evocative title. It helped set the tone for what we were looking to do. That was one of the best pieces of advice: having a title or using language that sets parameters for what does and doesn’t fit inside. If something you’re interested in doesn’t fit that definition, you need to reassess and change the name. The reason people in the institution didn’t like rebel was that they didn’t feel specific works were actually rebellious. Especially when we’re looking at AAA titles, they felt it was disingenuous to the actual idea of rebellion. There was the curatorial, internal research argument against that. On the other side, an exhibition for the V&A is still a commercial prospect. They did focus testing on that name, and people came back—it was the opposite. Some people felt the title “Rebel Videogames,” their assumption was that this exhibition would be about games like Grand Theft Auto. They assumed that video games in their very nature are rebellious. They thought that the most clichéd—I don’t mean in a bad way—stereotypical, big names you can think are the rebellious ones, when the exhibition was actually the inverse of that. So, it didn’t work from a marketing perspective but also internally.
All the sections had different names. New_Designers was “New Authors” at one point. I think “New Authors” went because we weren’t happy with auteur theory. We didn’t want to think about video games as the product of singular geniuses. We felt that was problematic, so we moved away from authors. The Disruptors section was called “Politics and Code,” and it was just wordy. “Disruptors” fit better by describing the action of the people. The last section is in two halves: Players_Online and Players_Offline. They were both called “Folk Design” for ages. We enjoyed that term, but it’s not used within games. It’s not one people would understand, so we changed it.
KV: Marie and I spent so much time thinking about the content. All this thinking. Years. And everybody else in the rest of the museum looks at the title, and they’d ask, “What’s it going to be called?” You need to evoke what you’re going to look at. The Disruptor section was an area Marie and me were both interested in: the issues in video games design, the industry, and the games themselves. But there was definitely a strong notion in the museum that we should explore controversies, particularly video games and violence, which has flare-ups all the time and did again during our research. There were other nuanced discussions we wanted to have. It was a difficult section to materialize.
MF: There was a lot of push to cover certain subjects. We wanted to touch on violence but not in the Daily Mail headline of “Ooo, Are Games Violent?” No, look, the point of that section was to provoke conversation and discussion. It was to highlight so many voices—designers, critics, and thinkers—who have explored nuanced subjects. It was to highlight those voices and uplift that debate, but the institution pushed back. I remember one of the subjects that’s not in the exhibition: games and addiction. They were saying, “Are you going to be covering whether games are addictive?” We said, “That conversation is not reflective of the design community’s discussion at the moment,” and it didn’t fit the nature of that section. We were never pushed to include things, but there was still that discussion and justification for why a subject is not explored. It was not supposed to be a section that said, “Here’s all the bad things about video games. And here’s all the excuses, all the clichés.” No, it is actually about the active conversation of the people exploring these subjects.
SD: You wanted to represent what the design community was paying attention to, rather than what people would assume or had heard of.
MF: We didn’t want to get caught in the same cyclical conversations in the mainstream press. These are the mainstream conversations and, yes, there needs to be nuance in those, but there are nuanced conversations happening. That’s what we wanted to highlight.
SD: How did you talk about those decisions, as curators?
MF: You train yourself to talk about it for the press launch, for the opening, for how you talk to the press, for how you give talks to the press afterward. Everything becomes set in stone, and I’m conscious of what parts of the history we don’t talk about or that get forgotten. You just think this exhibition arrives fully formed, that it was this nice, neat process from A to B. You forget that it was messy and complicated.
SD: I once did an internship at the Met in New York and I remember how much the museum felt like a stage. I got to go on the secret underground path where they wheel all the art and statues, and you had to be careful because you’d ruin an art handler’s day if you weren’t. There’s this whole aspect to how the museum as a place is produced that visitors are not supposed to see.
MF: There was a TV show developing a pilot when Kristian and I were developing the exhibition. It was looking behind the scenes at the V&A, and it was trying to show that romantic and physical side of curation, with all these old objects. But when you’re working with the digital, with the ephemeral, you don’t have the same sense of physicality. We’re not conservators; we’re not there dusting statues all day. I remember when they were recording this pilot, they said, “Could we come up and photograph or film you at the office? You could be curating, and we’ll watch you curate. Just tell us what you do.” And we said, “Watching us curate is watching us fill in a spreadsheet and send some emails. It’s typing at a computer. There’s no statues being wheeled; there’s no dusting. It’s all this small concentrated space. There’s interludes of travel and research, and watching stuff on YouTube for the research we had to do. You wouldn’t think curating was this big, active activity. It’s very discreet. Spreadsheets and emails predominantly.
KV: [laughs] That TV show was the Secrets of the Museum series, apparently. Pretty popular.
SD: Just to sum up, what did each stage of the exhibition look like?
MF: The main phases for the exhibition are the prehistory that predates Kristian and I’s time on the project; there’s the period where I was developing the revised proposal; there’s a year of Kristian and I doing the research and developing the concept; then there’s the period where the exhibition designers come in. You get the design of the exhibition, then the exhibition was put on hiatus for year. So you have a strange year with us doing different work that was beneficial for the project, then the year of the project spooling back up again and opening.
Concept art of No Man’s Sky used in exhibition, ca. 2015 (Courtesy of Kristian Volsing)
SD: One of the things the exhibition did differently, compared to other video game exhibitions, was its emphasis on design documents and the material ephemera of the design process. What was it like to reach out to developers to ask them for those materials?
MF: There was one video that was just “This is how this section is”—Jenova Chen’s talk at GDC on Journey.2 In the early stages, the focus was on design because of the department and the museum, and it heavily influenced us. The design portion of the exhibition takes a lot from how architecture is displayed, but that video was early on—we were just sitting and watching that.
You see Jenova talking; he brings out all these key items. If you go back and watch that talk, you can see most of the key objects that formulated the Journey section in the exhibition. We spoke to others, but he talks about the spreadsheet. He talks about the prototypes; he talks about the research of going out to the desert. Watching that video, we thought, “These are the objects.” It was true for the whole exhibition. The videos were a key resource. Historically, I don’t know if people understand the value of the GDC Vault and the archive of talks held there for keeping that memory and history of game design. For this exhibition, GDC talks were a critical part for laying the foundation of what objects and materials might be visible.
At the beginning, most designers did not have an idea of what materials they could show. We also didn’t know, because we didn’t know what materials they would have. We would know it when we would see it, but they didn’t know what to show us. So there were large studios and games that didn’t make it into the exhibition. There was one studio I went out to, and they brought out all the promotional merchandise and materials they made for this big AAA. They said “Look, here’s the exclusive box set. Here’s this special model replica of a weapon we’ve made. Are these things you could show?” It was an example of, no, this was not what we were looking for.
People find it easy to focus on concept art and artwork because when you think exhibition, you think “pictures on a wall.” It’s an easy thing to translate. There’s all manner of objects and design stories we never figured out how to bring into the exhibition. One of the programmers on Journey gave a fascinating talk about programming the sand and the light on the sand in that game. Object-wise—I say object whether that’s a video or a material object—we never figured out how to convey that. It didn’t make it in. So that GDC talk laid out what range of materiality of objects we could bring in. Are there any you want to reference, Kristian?
KV: The spreadsheet is a good example. It’s right up front when you come in the exhibition, and it’s not something people are expecting to see in the V&A. [laughs] I completely agree with the GDC talks. So many things come out of online talks that we weren’t able to get directly. We spoke to designers, and they had a certain image of what we wanted to show. You’d find bits and pieces from seeing talks they’d done aimed at a different audience. We’d say, “We want to bring that into our museum.” At the end of that display was the No Man’s Sky installation, which actually utilized a tool they’d created to manifest all the different procedurally generated worlds, to check on the colors. So that huge installation was a tool they’d created for making the game.
No Man’s Sky installation, with procedurally generated world display. Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, 2018. (Courtesy of V&A South Kensington)
MF: Kieran used to marvel at GDC and at how open the game design community was about the design process. He said, “This doesn’t happen in architecture.” Obviously, there are still talks in architecture, and I can’t say there’s no place with that sheer amount of depth, not just from the architect but from all the people who work on a design product. Which other media have a space such as GDC where that is captured and talked about? OK, it’s predominantly behind a paywall, but it is accessible to some degree. It cracks open so many games. You’re going into a studio with hundreds of people who have worked on so many things, and it’s all on hard drives. These are studios that don’t necessarily have the time to impart the information or perhaps don’t have that archived. It was a huge resource.
A lot of the materials we had for Bloodborne—From Software had moved onto Sekiro, and they did not have those materials and works on computers. It was a shame. We wanted to see if there was a way to showcase how the combat was designed, like could we show the hit boxes? But the best objects we had for Bloodborne had been used for an article in a 3-D animation magazine, I think. Those assets and materials only existed because they were created for those purposes. The companies do not have the time or resources to go back and bring that stuff out.
I guess it’s the same for GDC. When you see those objects, we can say, “We know that exists. Even if it doesn’t exist in its original form, it at least exists as a video or capture somewhere.” Few studios are archiving or preserving the work they have. It’s a cliché that no matter who you speak to they say, “Oh, we have the original sketch of that thing. It is sat in a drawer with coffee precariously stacked on top of it about to be destroyed or crumpled up.” And we say, “No!” I’m thinking about Jenny Jiao Hsia, all the stuff we got from her for Consume Me. I’m reminiscing about getting Tsum Tsums and Gudetama in the exhibition.
SD: What were her design documents like?
MF: She was fantastic to work with. She had archived—I say archived like she was running a museum, but she had taken care of her objects, the design materials she worked with. She was so open about the materials she had and sent us these rigorous documents: “I’ve taken twenty photographs of things, like these paper tetronimoes.” She did a lot of paper prototyping and made these little lift-flap visualizations of how she wanted aspects of the game to look. She’d send us documents that had detailed breakdowns of what those objects were and where they’d come from. If there was ever a dream game designer or someone to work with from the exhibition, it was definitely Jenny. Of course, everyone was supportive.
SD: I think game design documents touch on this: it’s come up in a couple of your talks, that the exhibition had to present games and game design to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily have the material literacy to play the game or the cultural literacy of when the games were made, by who, in response to what. Broadly, how did you decide to approach that challenge, both with interactivity and the other materials in the exhibition?
KV: For a large part of our audience, we made sure to put the exhibition in the context of the mid-2000s [ca. 2005]. So many people would have thought of it as a retro gaming exhibition about Pac-Man and Space Invaders. That’s all been done before. We wanted to look at what was happening in games over the last decade. Where we’d experienced games exhibitions before, often it was about putting as many playable games in a space as possible. But that doesn’t tell you anything—to pick up a game that’s meant to be played for forty hours and play it halfway through, with no understanding of what the controls mean, and no understanding of the game generally. It was about contextualizing these games in the period they come from and then the nature of those particular games and why we chose them. Rather than focusing on playing the games, we wanted to bring interaction when it spoke to the design process or some other element of the game, but only when it was relevant. It was more about creating a feel for what the game is about through the visual experiences.
MF: One of the factors is the complexity of interactivity in exhibition spaces. There’s a whole environment other than the thing being interacted with. There’s also the nature of literacy, which is time-bound to the period the game came out—how to use the controls, the design language of that time, understanding the functionality. That’s all about the interactivity, but there’s another question about digital literacy, which is not necessarily connected to interactivity or play, which is about understanding and familiarity with the medium. As Kristian says, yes, video games are interactive, but directly interacting with a game is not the only way people engage with the medium. It is a medium that has a strong history of spectatorship.
The fact that Videogames had to be a survey show is something I feel contentious about, at the moment. This exhibition built on the legacy of Game On and Game Masters and other exhibitions that looked at video games. It was still a survey show. While we focused on a specific period, it still tells me about the apprehension of an institution to become confident and look at that medium in a niche way or in detail. It still says, “We need to introduce this subject to people, because we perceive our audience as those who don’t play games. So, we have to introduce that audience to video games.” It’s also about those audiences seeing the institution saying, “Hey, look! We understand this subject.” That’s a frustration I still feel about needing to approach video games from these survey perspectives.
There’s not one homogenous games audience either. There are audiences who will be literate in different genres, different games, who come from different communities. There are people who played games previously but don’t feel confident in that medium. Maybe their family members play games. Maybe their kids play Minecraft. Then there’s the other audience where we’re thinking “OK, this is an audience that does not interact with video games,” but perhaps games still impact them from popular culture. If you’re trying to speak to all these audiences, do you end up with something that ultimately, maybe, speaks to no one? That is my concern for survey exhibitions.
People talked about whether we needed to have glossaries within the exhibition. We didn’t want to isolate people by using jargon, but we also did not want to jettison the design language of the medium. I remember somebody saying, “Look, we would not remove this language for architecture. If it was architecture, we would keep this specific term in.” If you contextualize the language, people will still be able to understand. That was the approach we tried to take. If we ever used a term like engine or AAA, we didn’t use a glossary. We would normally say “a blockbuster AAA videogame” or “the tool used to design a game, like an engine,” just language that couched it.
KV: Having to explain everything in great detail—it’s exactly what Marie just said. “Our audiences don’t play videogames.” Well, maybe the audiences don’t make teapots at the V&A, but they can go and look at them. It’s a medium with lots of jargon, but that’s part of the nature of interpretation. It’s similar in other mediums as well, but it’s something people know is new for the V&A.
MF: The institution is apprehensive. And it’s interpretation not just for text labels. In the New_Designers—the range of materiality we have for each of those games. If you look at a wall like Bloodborne, you see this range of images. You can see sketchbooks, you can see notebooks, you can see wireframes, you can see a choir singing. Even if you don’t play video games, there’s enough there visually to construct an idea of the processes and tools in that design discipline. Even if you’re not getting in-depth, you can step back and look at that. Equally, if you know an intense amount about Bloodborne and you’ve seen all the design talks and read all the magazines, you still have never stood up close to the sketchbooks and those original pen-and-ink sketches. You’ll have a different relationship with that object. It was something the Interpretation team referred to as “paddlers, swimmers, and divers”—the modes of interaction visitors have within a gallery. The name speaks for itself. The paddlers are people who will step back and look at things as a whole. They will loosely dip in and out of things. The swimmers who will spend more time with objects, maybe read the labels, and then divers are the people who are going to read absolutely everything and take everything in.
New_Designers installation. Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, 2018. (Courtesy of Marie Foulston)
SD: There was all this work going into the planning, but could you also speak to the events that surrounded the exhibition?
KV: As part of the research process, there was this delay. We were asked to develop other ideas. We produced a series of conferences. Alongside that, the V&A has this monthly event called Friday Late, where they bring in designers, creators, and speakers to talk about a subject. We did one before I joined, then some together. Those were events for bringing audiences in to say, “We’re building connections with the grassroots of this community” but also projects that you couldn’t showcase on a permanent basis or that they wouldn’t be able to access at home. That was in the lead-up to the exhibition.
MF: I’m proud of the events we did with the conference. The V&A has a separate Learning Department, and they undertake the learning programs for the different age groups. With every exhibition, they’re brought in. We, as curators, would go out to different departments. As the exhibition spooled up to opening, all the departments plugged in. Me and Kristian would go out and do our song-and-dance routine, this perfectly perfected overview of the exhibition, so people could understand the concepts. That would give them enough to start developing programs, and we did that with the Learning team. They developed workshops and programming that ran along the exhibition, but because of the scale of the V&A, it was never as collaborative a process as I would have wanted it to be. That’s not just true of Learning. It was true of the other departments. That’s not a reflection on the people in those teams. It’s a reflection on the scale of the institution.
We developed a partnership with Code Liberation and ran a series of workshops for women to learn how to code and program. We also had ambitions to make the exhibition space more active. A museum’s role is not just creating exhibitions, but our focus is normally on exhibitions and displays. We had these ideas that the Players_Online section, with a big screen, could become an event space where we’d hold tournaments. Maybe we’d get speed runners in and do events during the run of the exhibition. None of that materialized. I think it was partly because of how the institution runs, but it was also partly because the year the exhibition opened was an immensely busy year for exhibitions at the V&A. It was probably the most simultaneous headline exhibitions that have been open at any one time. There was Frida Kahlo, there was The Future Starts Here, and maybe Winnie-the-Pooh at some point.
KV: And Fashion from Nature.
MF: All of these additional departments were so heavily pushed and Frida Kahlo was this huge success, so a lot of time and resources went to supporting those exhibitions. You can see in the tour the way the V&A Dundee were able to undertake the exhibition. Because they are a smaller institution and focused on one exhibition—this was the museum’s second touring exhibition—they were able to develop learning programs that felt more collaborative and integrated.
I caveat that by saying it’s not a reflection on the departments or teams but just the nature of the circumstances and how those two institutions were set up to deal with that. You can see that in sections like Players_Offline, the DIY arcade space. They did all these workshops leading up to the exhibition with different communities and local groups. Ursula Kam-Ling Cheng worked with local community groups to create these murals inside the exhibition. That made it feel more connected to the community.
SD: And at the V&A, what was the plan for the exhibition to carry over to the permanent collection? How much of the design documents went back to the designers, was digitized in some way, or made it into the permanent collection of the museum?
MF: Kristian is the only one of us still working for the institution so he can perhaps … An exhibition has a momentum that it brings with it. It’s such a huge machine that commands so much attention within an institution. There was discussion during the exhibition planning that “Great, we’ve got these ideas for design materials and these artifacts. We should be working to bring them into the collection. This exhibition defines how we view this constellation of objects that are needed to collect and consider what a video game is and how that can be archived.” It’s easy to say during an exhibition’s development that “Yes! This is the beginning. We’re going to collect and do all of that work within V&A South Kensington.”
At the moment, I think none of the work or materials from the exhibition has been brought into the collection. That is not due to lack of ambition or desire, but because the museum has two curators who focus on digital. There’s Natalie Kane, who is the digital curator, and Corinna Gardner, who is the senior curator of digital and design. They are both strong supporters, but when you have two curators covering the entire gamut of “digital”—and it’s such a complex subject—collecting all the material from that exhibition would take a huge financial effort. And the museum sadly did not have the finances to have a permanent curator of video games. That’s South Kensington. I don’t know the legacy within the Museum of Childhood.
I did a fellowship at the Cooper Hewitt, and I spoke with colleagues from the Smithsonian American Art Museum [SAAM]. If you look at the legacy of SAAM’s The Art of Video Games exhibition, there were three games brought into the collection. There was not a huge groundswell of activity around video games. It mellows out. They have the legacy of the SAAM arcade, which they do on an annual basis. It’s only now, several years later with their digital curator Saisha Grayson, that the momentum is building up again. I speculate that is what will happen with the V&A. I don’t say that to be disheartened, but I’m looking at places like the Smithsonian and thinking, “OK, is this just part of the natural cycle institutions have to go through to get used to a subject?” Collection work is very different, and neither Kristian or I, developing an exhibition, had the capacity to be collecting at the same time as preparing an exhibition.
KV: After the project, I moved on to the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in East London. It has gone from a very traditional collection of toys, basically, and material about the social history of childhood to being redeveloped as a space to encourage children to engage with design. The age bracket for that museum is zero to fourteen, so we’re curating exhibition spaces for newborns. It’s very different from what we were working on, going from in-depth exhibition material to the entire history of design and making that appeal to children. Since the museum is closed and will reopen in 2023, the way the galleries are developing is a different prospect from the Videogames exhibition. The museum has collected video games in the past. It has old games consoles and package games, but nothing other than what has been donated. There’s no sense that anyone will do anything beyond look at the packaged game in the collection. Whether that develops as a project in the future, when the museum reopens and the nature of the museum is more solidified—that might be something they find funding for. Of course, that may change with this worldwide pandemic. [laughs]
MF: Who knows what will happen now? An exhibition is resourced. It’s a commercial prospect, and collecting is different from that. And we’re not there within the institution. It’s a museum that has an extensive collection of more items that are more embedded in the space. When you look, historically, at the V&A, performance starts in a separate institution, in a separate space. Other subjects such as architecture—they have a separate area where the curatorial language can develop and then that is brought into the institution. Trying to start that in this machine feels almost impossible, because you are struggling for resources. All the infrastructure of the institution is not set up to deal with digital and the complexities of that design medium. In my vision, it needs to happen externally, or at least at arm’s length. I wonder if that is the way that video games need to operate. The way the V&A might end up engaging is if a separate institution is doing that and ten, twenty years from now it becomes part of the institution.
SD: You described receiving all this institutional support, but it makes sense that if they’re just not used to this form of presenting, it takes a while.
MF: It felt like a good segue into Kristian’s work at the Museum of Childhood. For me, it segues into where I find myself now, which is working as an independent curator. I say “independent” as a nice way of saying, “I’m unemployed in the middle of a pandemic.” But as an independent curator, my interests will always be exhibition and an ongoing dialogue with the public about this medium. I’m not a collections curator, and I don’t think that I’ll ever find myself as one. I have this experience now of these two polar opposites. One working in a DIY capacity, holding things together with sticky tape, making things up as you go, and the other within an institution that has strict, rigid procedures. Now I’m thinking, “How do I resolve these two extremes?” That’s where my research is at the moment.
SD: That goes to my last question: how have both of your curation practices changed since the exhibition?
MF: I remember when we first started working on this, people said, “Marie, this must be your dream exhibition.” Not to put the exhibition down, but it’s not. I never had the ambition of doing a broad survey exhibition. As you can probably tell, I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the need to do these big survey shows that are an “introduction.” The exhibition was not an introduction to video games—I can’t say I would do anything differently. I wouldn’t want the exhibition to be any different, since it was a product of so many interconnecting circumstances and reasons for why it materialized as and when it did.
Before I went into this exhibition, I had a much more sarcastic impression of video game exhibitions, the way that traditional institutions engage with video games. I was way more dismissive of the foundational work of people like Conrad Bodman and Helen Stuckey. Understanding the fights that they had—it’s not just the institutions, but games culture—to say, “Hey, this is what an exhibition can be.” I see the value and need to build on that, understanding that people will have the same reflection on our exhibition as well and will feel sarcastic and dismissive of it in different ways. It’s part of an iterative process.
I worked on Now Play This for Somerset House, which sadly due to the pandemic will never see the light of day. But there are installations we’re still working on that will be exhibited at some point. It’s hard to pinpoint. At the moment, what’s impacted my curatorial practice more is having to work digitally, because of the pandemic. How do you rationalize and connect the digital with the physical exhibition space? It’s pushed me into this strange existential space about when you’re working digitally. “What is an exhibition? Why are we even doing this?” It is a fun space to noodle about in.
KV: One of the things that I and, I think, the institution have learned that we’ve taken to the Museum of Childhood redevelopment is exploring process and making that visible to people. It’s not just putting an object on display with some text next to it and thinking people will understand what that means for society. People are more interested in the process of making something. That might be the many iterations or all the people that work on different elements or products, or it might be prototypes. I think that speaks more to a wider and younger audience. Working in a museum, particularly the Museum of Childhood, is about encouraging children to engage with design, to think about it as a career.
MF: Partially from working digitally over the past few months both for Now Play This and with things for spreadsheets—for me, video games open the door to new modes and thinking for how exhibitions and museums can operate. It’s a playful, speculative, imaginative medium, and curators should embrace the nature of the subject. I’m interested in exhibitions that are more speculative. It doesn’t have to be “Here’s the design story.” We can blur the line between fact and fiction, as long as it’s prompting people to think differently about the medium and about subjects. While my specialism is in video games, I’m interested in how you apply it to other areas. I like having fun and doing stupid things. I want the freedom to do that more, because as we’ve seen in the past few months, doing that stuff can be really meaningful. Not to look for silver linings in pandemics, but the past few months have shown us that there’s a lot to be gained from existing in this slightly absurd space and exploring strange ideas.
KV: I think one thing that was groundbreaking about this, that Marie brought to the exhibition, is looking at the player’s creativity with the game. Not just the designers, but actually putting the focus on what it means for a player to engage with a game. That was fundamental.
MF: Kieran also had a strong interest in that. It touches on the question about what a video game is and understanding who its creator is. I’m interested in pursuing the idea of video games not as objects, but as performance. And performance means that, yes, you have this history and the material object, but you also have the person playing it. Any video game has the ability for infinite variations of itself. It only exists in the moment it is played. That implies the creator is not defined as simply the people who designed it. A video game is also the creation of the people playing it, and playing it is an act of creation itself. As noted in T. L. Taylor’s book Watch Me Play this also extends out to the role of the spectator.3 Games are not just material. They can be material design, but I want to look at them as performance and where that interconnects with all these other areas such as the spectating audience.
SD: That it’s a time-based media, and all that brings.
MF: There’s a quote that I can’t remember, it came from the Variable Media Initiative.4 It was part of the Guggenheim’s research into collecting ephemeral and digital objects. They were equating the digital and ephemeral to music. They said, “With a digital object, do you want to preserve this or do you want to keep this alive?” and they were talking about whether you keep the recording of a performance or whether you keep the score of the music piece. Thinking of games as performance sounds daunting, perhaps, but it also frees you up. There is no perfect way to collect a video game. No object can ever embody that. There are many ways of thinking of materials differently. There’s no one way to get through how to exhibit or collect a game. In all truth, you can’t capture it. You can’t exhibit it. It only exists in the moment it’s played, and you can’t control how it’s played. Don’t give up, but have some fun instead!
I want to thank both Marie and Kristian for taking the time to review the transcript of our conversation for accuracy and concision, as well as Mary Reilly for copyediting and proofreading this article. If any errors remain, they are mine.
1. ^ A description of this event is on the GDC Vault website. Sarah Brin et al., “Curating Video Game Culture: The New Wave of Video Game Events” (presentation at the Game Developers Conference, San Francisco, CA, March 17–21, 2014), https://gdcvault.com/play/1020374/Curating-Video-Game-Culture-The.
3. ^ Taylor, T. L., Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming. Princeton Studies in Culture and Technology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 37.
4. ^ “The Variable Media Initiative,”The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, accessed October 6, 2020, https://www.guggenheim.org/conservation/the-variable-media-initiative.