Putting Games in their Place
Iain Simons, 13th September 2021
My role at the NVM has changed recently to ‘curator at large’ (want my job? Apply here!). It’s a slightly curious title, especially for someone who works AT a museum, so I thought I’d explain a little about it.
Museums are often thought of first and foremost as physical places. Trusted destinations with impenetrable walls that house our precious things and keep them safe for all of us – an endpoint. Whilst that can often be true, they also have a vital life in the outside world. That’s where I’m going to spending more of my time now, out in the wild finding new work and ideas to bring to the NVM…
So, if museums are one of the places where games end up, where do they start?
Many years ago I was working on a book about the early years of the UK games industry, and spent a lot of time interviewing some of its pioneers. It’s slightly jarring to be reminded of just how young many of these people were at the time. Only slightly more than children, who found themselves unexpectedly caught up in laying down the foundations of an art form and an industry. Some of the most fascinating encounters were with their parents, most of whom recalled being incredibly proud but also confused and worried for their offspring. It’s one thing to have kids that want to be astronauts or rock-stars, at least those are recognisable jobs, but these ‘videogames’ barely existed a few years earlier. What if they were just a passing fad?!
I found myself become more and more interested in the question of where games come from, where they begin. That can mean a lot of different things. As above, there’s are many stories about the emergence of games from middle-class bedrooms in the eighties – that in turn leading to tales of boom and bust played out in high-rent studios, sometimes even on television.
In seeking out some of places games are made, I was lucky enough to once be invited to visit the home of one of my heroes, Jeff Minter. For the uninitiated, Jeff is the creator of some of the most radical and committed videogames ever made. Fiercely indie before indie was even a thing, he’s somehow managed to continually follow his own singular vision for decades.
When I met him, he was working on ‘Unity’, a project that was bringing together the two core themes of his work – abstract shoot-em-ups and light synthesisers, and somehow involving Peter Molyneux as an executive producer/ cheerleader. It’s a long drive from the overcast midlands to the rolling beauty of South Wales, followed by a convoluted pre-Google Maps adventure to find the place where Jeff lives. The closest I’ve come to a pilgrimage until my son and I took the train out to Asbury Park decades later.
Thankfully, the Jeff I found there was exactly the Jeff I’d hoped for. In an industry not unaccustomed to artifice, Jeff is undiluted. The kind of person I’d call ‘the real deal’ unless I could think of a more imaginative phrase to describe his authenticity with.
Meeting Jeff in his natural habitat, surrounded by mugs of tea and ungulates, was as life-affirming as the PR-mediated press conference at E3 is soul-eroding. Unity was ultimately never completed, but was an honour to see it, miles from anywhere, surrounded by fields, being carefully reared.
In telling the story of videogames, places are important. Whilst the minutiae of developers desktops and the arrangement of studios is fascinating, there’s a story to be captured in postcodes and city-limits long before we get to that level of detail.
The places are starting to notice. In the past years I’ve had a number of conversations with councils who are just starting to sense a civic value in their videogame creatives beyond just their impact on the local economies. Pockets of pride are beginning to emerge across the country in a pattern that’s defying the usual London centrism that imbalances much of our cultural output. Towns and cities are getting a sense of the greater value of these new, digital things that people seem to love so much.
As the National Videogame Museum, maybe we might also start to look at the wider local scene of where games are born. There’s been some interesting research done through an economic lens, but that’s usually as far as the story extends. The story of the Beatles relationship to Liverpool isn’t one that starts and ends with their contribution to the visitor economy, that’s just a result of their deeper cultural value.
Will games start to be thought of in a similar way, if we start to put them more visibly in their place?