Monday, 27 July 2015

Press Start to Play: Archives and Videogames

Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2012 
Image licensed under CC by 2.0
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you imagine a videogame exhibition?

My first thought was an interactive, arcade-type display such as at the National Videogame Arcade or the Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibition "The Art of Video Games" (right). 

What I had not considered was an exploration beyond the "game as artefact" viewpoint. This involves de-constructing the end product into a combination of design elements, from art to coding - and I was happy to discover it involved the use of archives!

With both my archives and gamer hat on, I ventured to the grand Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum for the “Videogames in the Museum” workshop (21st July). The aim of the workshop was to learn about the V&A's planning for an exhibition in 2017 where videogames will be portrayed as a significant medium in the history of design. 

Video Games in the Museum. Image by Author
During the workshop I was very fortunate to listen to curators from the V&A’s Design Architecture and Digital Department talk about the potential of archives, such as the work of the National Videogame Archive, for asking questions related to fan culture, authorship and players' experiences.
They claimed that it is not within the interests of most game designers and developers to archive their “ephemeral” design work and that there is an increasing need to begin recording material for preservation, curation and research. It was also suggested that archivists, curators and game developers should collaborate more to preserve these fragments of videogame history before they are lost, particularly with the ever-evolving challenges of hardware and software obsolescence.

The material that the V&A are interested in collecting for their exhibition include:
  • transcripts of communications (meetings, emails) 
  • model designs
  • audio
  • player experiences
  • marketing ephemera
  • coding
All these accompanying elements will serve an archival purpose beyond their 2017 exhibition, for example the V&A are also interested in collecting coding to assist with emulation research.

The Chinese Room Director and Composer, Jessica Curry,
talking about audio and storytelling. Image by Author.

Also presenting at the event were the award-winning game developers The Chinese Room whose games I have enjoyed playing in the past. It was interesting to hear direct from the developers themselves on the challenges of creating intangible and subjective experiences, such as nostalgia, within their upcoming game Everybody's Gone to the Rapture based in a Shropshire village from 1984.

From The Chinese Room’s presentation, the V&A curators then explored how such experiences and narratives could be presented in their exhibition- with the challenge in mind of exhibiting a playable 48 hour long game within the museum space! Their answer referred back to their interest in curating the development material of a game’s wider fan culture, such as reviews, art and videos, to emphasise cultural significance.

Overall, the key point I took away from “Videogames in the Museum” was the concept of the “total artwork”, or synthesis of art forms, with games being a combination of audio, visual and narrative design. If you remove one art form from the presentation of a game (such as not allowing an audience to hear the audio) it will disengage the player from the full experience. For an archivist, this means preserving each art form. All parts of the design layer should be documented and archived, alongside an effort to preserve the hardware (which is another large debate in itself!). 

All of the discussions were part of a larger project by the V&A where their exhibition is just the very beginning of a journey to build upon existing knowledge on how to archive and curate challenging design media. I will be looking forward to seeing how this exhibition develops!

Hannah Rice
Transforming Archives Trainee

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