A quest awaits this intrepid explorer. One must brave through the dark sub-lairs of an evil city filled with Rogues and thieves into the crypts of a collection institute to survey the antiquities and report back to the leader. . . .Or IRL, my editor asked me to go to see a new video game display at a museum. The Museum of London in fact, where I learned that video games are being looked at in an entirely new way.
I met with Laura Jackson, the media officer for the MoL, who walked me through the museum towards the new display they have. As we walked she told me how video games are a bit of a hot topic in the museum world and that a debate has been going on about the inescapable, and now somewhat substantial, world of gaming. How the games are being viewed as collectable acquisitions that are now culturally significant. She then introduced me to the digital curator, Foteini Aravani, who was stood down by the display, a small section with the physical copy’s of the games and information on them and the development and a section of four retro titles being run on emulators. I was very interested by what they both had to say on the subject and found it eye opening that the games world was now being viewed from a historical and cultural viewpoint, not just you and your buddies discussing the best games of all time, but a scholar in a museum saying, yes these are a significant part of our social history and need to be recorded as such and not just a footnote in life, but a whole subjection in human history. Brilliant. Who would have guessed that from the humble beginnings of ‘Pong’ or ‘Zork’ would come record breaking developments that top the world entertainment industries for profit and growth. Deadpool is the biggest ‘R’ rated film in American film history with 135 million Dollars in a three day weekend. Big whoop, GTA V made over 800 million in 24 hours. Some significance there, for sure.
Here is my chat with Foteini about the display now on at the museum of London, it is in the Showspace temporary display and is there until the 28th of April. The London Games festival runs until the 10th of April across venues in London.
TIX – Hello and thank you for meeting with me Foteini, I was wondering if you could tell me about the display and collection?
Foteini – Yes. This is a new collecting area for the museum and its part of the digital collections. Digital collections are a new area that we started collecting a couple of years ago and encompass all new media. Like digital recordings, films, video’s, social media, photographs and now video games. This area, as every collection in the museum, documents London and tells the story of London in a different way. We wanted to find a more interactive and engaging way to do that, to tell the story, and we thought the immersion value that video games provide is the best way to capture the fluidity of the city. As the city evolves day by day, its a great way to show how the depictions of London change from the very early text based adventures, no visuals or pictures to the very advanced 3D renderings of the city. At the same time we wanted to capture the contribution of Londoners in video game development. So, in this collection we wanted to show the beginnings of games made by Londoners , the 16 year olds in their PJ’s in their bedrooms having just bought the first ZX spectrum and they started programming and where we are today.
TiX – How did the display come about?
Foteini – Showspace, this area here, is a temporary display area where we showcase new acquisitions. This new collecting area is very different in terms of what we are collecting in the museum. Video games have been in the spotlight the last few years when MoMA (Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan) and they began a huge debate in the museum world if video games can be in the same collection as a Picasso or a Monet. Since then the debate has gone on between curators, what are video games? Are they art? Are they not art? Are they a museum object or artefacts? What are they.
Here at the museum of London, video games are part of the social history collection and is seen as another way to document the history of London. We treat video games as museum objects, we acquire we collect the physical item that becomes part of the collection. As well as this we have started a research project on the digital preservation of the old video games. How best to preserve a medium that is dying or bout to die. How to we can preserve that in the long term. We are currently experimenting with emulation a lot, using Raspberry Pi’s to run older games and of course, how to display all of this.
Tix – That’s really interesting to hear from a gamers perspective that video games are now being viewed as a wider and more significant part of society..
Foteini – I have to admit I am not a gamer myself, so I see video games from a completely different perspective and I am really interested in the point of view of the gamer. In my mind and as a cultural institution the museum wants to ensure that the preservation of something which has a very limited life span is done properly. You have to be careful to see what is significant and what isn’t from a cultural perspective, you have two articles which have the same life span, but one may be a hugely significant piece and one may not. For that the perspective of the game players is very important to reflect on the correct collection.
TiX – Is the timing of the display any thing to do with the upcoming London games festival?
Foteini – Yes, (laughs) definitely. The Major of London has announced a three year project on video games. It has a business side to it and a cultural side, every year for the next three years there is to be a London games festival and we at the museum here are part of this. We are hosting and helping organise a cultural summit on video games it takes place here on the 8th of April which we will be speaking at as well. We wanted to bring together cultural institutions to see what they are doing around collecting video games.
We wanted this display to correspond with the festival and we wanted to showcase the new acquisitions alongside. It is also to say ‘this is the beginning’ the real work on the collections from us has been in the last 8 months or so, so its very new to us and is an ongoing collective project within the criteria for us, which is depictions of London and Londoners.
TiX – It really is great to see the recognition of video games from a historical perspective. I’ve had a look around and think the interactive section is my favourite bit, what do enjoy most out of the display?
Foteini – Well, again, I’m not a gamer but what intrigues me the most is the text based adventure games in the interactive section. They mesmerise me. My favourite is ‘Hampstead’, it was published in 1984 and is in the subject matter of the game is basically a social critique of Thatcherism and the 80’s in England. The point of the game is to climb up the social ladder and attain ‘Hampstead’ which is the well to-do area of the time, the peak of London living. To do it you have to find a good job, find nice clothes marry the right person all in your quest to be accepted and attain Hampstead living. Its interesting historically as the view of Hampstead then and now hasn’t changed much so the social views of the time are reflected in the game. I love the fact that there are no visuals and or images of London, but using your imagination, much like reading a book, this really triggers about this city just through text. It’s also very political and has commentary in the game which is another reflection of the attitudes of the time. Its all very British.
As I mentioned above, I very much enjoyed the talk and to hear about the new perspective on games from the museum. I also had great fun playing on the emulators that they had for the four titles in the display, if you like retro games or just want to know more about London’s contributions and history in game you should pop down, the display is small but nicely put together and the emulators can keep you there for a while. I will now be looking out for the digital collections of other museums to see who and where will also be making a show of video games and there significance. Well, the culture was nice and the people are lovely but ‘The Division’ calls to me and I’m not quite at DZ rank 50 yet, so….. bye.
Oh yeah, Happy gaming!