The first video game ever made was Tennis for Two, in 1958. Gaming has come a long way since then, as the tools and technology have made them ever faster and easier to build and play. But despite massive advances in graphics and storytelling, mainstream society still refuses to accept that games are art.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, the V&A's newest show that opens on the 8th of September, rejects society's established wisdom. Through a series of exhibitions covering the largest AAA titles, indy developers and the grassroots gaming movement, it details the social and cultural impacts that gaming has had over the last 15 years.
As curator Marie Foulston put it: "We are not looking to the nostalgic past, but the present day."
The past 15 years, argue Foulston and fellow curator Kristian Volsing, are the time that has changed the process of creating and distributing games: partly thanks to new tools and technology, like Unity, Twine, smartphones and social media; and more significantly to the new designers entering the space.
"The future of video games is not about tools and technology, that's secondary," says Foulston. "Designers come first."
The mid-2000s are when games really began to get interesting on an artistic and emotional level, and the Design area highlights that aspect: a walkthrough of eight games that have had an impact on society or gaming.
Some of the biggest, most (in)famous titles of the past decade are here, including The Last of Us and Journey; but more oddball choices, like Kentucky Route Zero and, perhaps controversially, The Graveyard (a 10-minute ‘game' that asks players to navigate an old woman to a bench) are also featured.
The extra content around each area is fascinating, including concept art, mood boards and notebooks. Some, like No Man's Sky, also have videos and 3D-printed prototypes.
Although this extra content is curated, and space is limited, it would have been nice to see more dedicated to the specific area that each game has been picked for highlighting. Some do this very well: Journey is here because of its emotional storytelling, and there are boards charting the player's movement according to Campbell's The Hero's Journey. The Splatoon exhibit, focusing on fashion in gaming, shows the merchandise that fans can buy to represent their team in real life.
Others, though, have little relevance. Bloodborne is picked out for its combat system, which forces players to fight against the system as well as the monsters; but the extra material mainly deals with the game's architecture.
The independent titles feature some of the most fascinating extra content. Kentucky Route Zero, for example, showcases Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, a surrealist painting and early text-based game Colossal Cave Adventure.
Next is the dimly-lit Disrupt area. As game development has become easier, new designers have been able to enter the space and build titles that ask players to think about more than tactics and lines of sight. Here, games' ability to tackle complex and sensitive subjects like race, language and diversity are showcased.
Visitors face a series of areas dealing with controversies in modern video games, and how games are tackling - or causing - them. A featured game, normally subversive, is presented alongside news coverage and video interviews with critics and academics around that particular topic, which range from language barriers to gun violence.
With the exception of Mafia III, which highlights the issue of race, the titles featured in this section are mostly independent. Phone Story is a commentary on exploitive manufacturing, while How Do You Do It handles the discovery of sex.
It isn't until reaching the final area, Play, that visitors find more of what might normally be expected at a video games exhibition. Videos highlighting different areas of gaming run on a a gigantic projector screen: fan art from Overwatch, creativity in Minecraft, the spectacle of a League of Legends grand final and a summary of the world's largest online video game battle in history, the 21-hour long Bloodbath of B-R5RB in EVE Online.
At the very end, finally, visitors get the chance to play some games in an arcade area - but these are not your normal Sniper Elite or Jurassic Park shoot-'em-ups. Machines made from reclaimed materials, including cars, teddy bears and neon light tubes, provide the opportunity for some fun and unusual grassroots gaming. The area is an ode to the DIY ‘hacker-maker' scene.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt charts the evolution of gaming and its cultural impact since the turn of the century, and even the most ardent fans are sure to discover something new. To those who question the absence of some of the world's most popular titles, like World of Warcraft and Fortnite, curator Volsing justifies the choices, saying: "[The games we chose] had to say something new about the medium."
Rather than taking the easy, some might say expected, route of portraying games as an area for academic study, the installation recognises them for the new art form that they have become. Rather than portray them as time-wasting, violence-inducing distractions, the curators present them in an emotional, engaging way: just how their designers intend for their increasingly culturally- and socially-aware audience to play them.
The V&A is hosting its newest exhibit from the 8th of September 2018 until the 24th of February 2019.