Computer games become museum pieces

The V&A has thrown its considerable weight behind the games design industry by naming Sophia George, designer and chairwoman at Swallowtail Games, as its first Game Designer in Residence.

Sophia George, the VA's new Game Designer in Residence
Sophia George, the V&A’s new Game Designer in Residence

George, who is just 22, will be with the V&A for six months, before heading to the University of Abertay Dundee to develop a game which will reference the V&A’s collection and provide a new point of interaction between museum and visitor.

While the game itself and indeed the residency – a huge undertaking in research and development – present an exciting prospect, the move says a lot about the willingness of the V&A and other institutions to embrace game design as a medium to be considered alongside graphics, furniture, products and other more ‘traditional’ design sectors.

Ruth Lloyd, V&A residency co-ordinator says, ‘We think this will let game designers know that the V&A is seriously interested in their craft, engage a new public in this important industry and explore how our collections can be used for creative game design research.’

The V&A is not alone in turning its focus to computer game design. In recent years several other major international institutions have brought computer games into their permanent collections.

Last year New York’s MoMA acquired a selection of 14 iconic games, including Pacman, Tetris and The Sims as part of its permanent collection.

Pacman

Source: Matt Hutchinson

Pacman

The games, which also include recent offerings such as 2009’s Canabalt and 2006’s flOw, will be on show in the museum’s Applied Design collection. MoMA curator Paola Antonelli says the initial games are a ‘seedbed’ for a wishlist of 40 games the museum will look to acquire in the near future.

And of course Bradford’s National Media Museum has long had a strong focus on game design.

The institute is the home of the National Videogame Archive, which is largely focused on hardware – it features more Nintendo Game Boys and Sega Megadrives than the average thirtysomething’s loft-space.

The collection also touches on the games themselves, with exhibits such as games designer Jakub Dvorsky’s sketches for 2005 game Samorost 2.

And the V&A itself is no slacker in exhibiting games – its collection at Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood for example contains such classics and Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Monkey Ball.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Source: Nick Stone

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

The appointment of a games designer in residence, though, sends a strong message about engagement with the future of games design, rather than archiving its past.

As Professor Louis Natanson, who leads computer games education at Abertay University, says, ‘This project is a genuine first – the world’s greatest museum of art and design, the V&A, recognising the artistic and cultural value of computer games.’

In practical terms the residency will offer George a monthly bursary and budget for materials and equipment as well as studio space. A team from the V&A, Abertay, and an industry mentor will provide support during the project to George and her Swallowtail colleagues.

George says she has several agendas. One is to inspire young women to follow her into the games industry by creating fun accessible games that people of all ages can share. 

She plans to run a project with a group of students from a girls’ school as part of her residency to increase interest game design for women.

Her primary focus, however, is to help the V&A bring a new dimension to its collections and engage its audience in new ways. She hopes the move will help change the perceptions of games, which are often seen as ‘a low art form’, she says.

As for the game itself, it’s far too early to say what it might be. Typically George says the game design process is subject to drastic changes along the way, although she adds, ‘I’m interested in a 3D virtual world and what we could do with characters.’

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