Video Game Exhibitions: Going Beyond Novelty
Updated: Mar 18
With video games now culturally ubiquitous how do we situate them within heritage institutions and how do we approach their curation? Alex Grindley explores recent trends in video game curation, visiting the Imperial War Museum’s new exhibition War Games (30 September 2022 - 28 May 2023) to see how it measures up.
Above: display case from War Games featuring (left to right) a user manual, a drone controller and an Xbox 360 controller; behind is a projection of a night vision simulation. (Photo— Alex Grindley)
Video games are the most lucrative entertainment medium in the UK, valued at around £4.29 billion in 2021,  with an estimated 60% of us now being gamers.  Given this backdrop of ubiquity and increasing engagement, it is unsurprising that video games in the past decade have begun to be seen as meaningful artefacts, texts, artworks, objects, experiences, and everything in-between, ultimately worthy of preservation, moving beyond fan archives into institutional collections. In the UK we have seen the emergence of specialist institutions such as the Centre for Computing History and the National Video Game Museum, the foundation of networks such as the Video Game Heritage Society, and national institutions such as the BFI now presenting video games as a core part of their future work and collection strategies.
However, with all these developments and the flourishing of insightful critical and scholarly work on the medium – why do video game focused exhibitions in non-specialist institutions still so often seem stuck on the novelty of experience as the primary interpretive framing? Video games have been a part of popular culture for half a century, yet many exhibitions with this focus often present a rather surface level interpretation of their chosen focus. They will often take the form of a simple linear narrative from old games to new with stops off on the tour for particular innovations or impactful releases. The framing is one of the supposed novelty of a video game simply being present in the museum space, and being legitimated by a place within history, rather than a deeper interrogation of the medium and its associated historical or the cultural context from which it emerged.
Above: A crowd of visitors at The Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2012. (Photo – Blake Patterson)
Perhaps the most indicative example of this style of exhibition would be the Barbican’s Game On exhibition, which has been touring around the world since 2002 (with an updated version Game On 2.0 launched in 2010, now consolidated into one exhibition again). Visitors are able to see and play 150 games on original hardware following the journey of video games across 60 years of their development. I personally remember going to the Science Museum leg of its tour back in 2006/7 and annoying my dad and other visitors no end as I hogged The Sims PS2 game for about 45 minutes. However, there is a big question of whether this exhibition is a format that needs reassessing in its 20 years of existence - what others have criticised as a focus solely on the ‘original experience’ of simply playing the games, on original hardware, in relative isolation from each other rather than allowing for greater depth, creativity and contextualisation in interpretation or presentation.  This format of game exhibition as mere linear series of games you can play is far from an uncommon one, other big budget examples in this vein include the Science Museum Group’s Power Up, “the ultimate hands-on, interactive gaming experience”, the ACMI’s Game Masters, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s The Art of Video Games.
This is not to disparage the value of such exhibitions as we cannot assume everyone in our audience has a familiarity with the medium. Such exhibitions can of course serve as a useful introduction or spark of inspiration for people new to certain ideas and concepts. My question is more whether we can go further and be more creative in how we present video games as heritage and museum objects, beyond a linear series of technological innovations. To sum it up - "While game heritage, and the museums dealing with it, are getting more institutionalised... what they are often lacking is critical curatorial engagement with their subject matter." 
Above: Photo of the 70s-themed living room from the Computerspielemuseum in Berlin. (Photo – Sergiy Galyonkin on Flickr)
To find this more creative and engaging approach to video games interpretation one needs, perhaps unsurprisingly, to turn to more specialist institutions or projects. For example, the Computerspielemuseum in Berlin offers a fun example of how to present a narrative of video game history in an inventive and more active way. As visitors work their way through the museum, they find themselves in different set pieces for eras of video game history, for example on entering the 1970s a visitor finds themselves in a suitably garish 70s living room where they can sit down and play one of the first popular video games Pong. One is not only engaging with the game in isolation— the setting encourages reflection and curiosity about the rest of the objects within the space, allowing a visitor to gain more insight into the cultural and historical context in which this game was created – a dynamic which may not emerge from the isolated presentation of such an object. 
Similarly, the UK’s National Video Game Museum has an interesting interpretative space known simply as The Lab, which focuses specifically on the game development process. Games in progress from indie developers are displayed for visitors to playtest throughout the iterative process of a game’s development. Visiting at another time you may encounter the same game but in a different form, presenting an interesting challenge to typical ideas of a museum object as an unchanging artefact forever preserved in the same state it entered a collection. Moreover a visitor is also presented with specific game development toolkits for visitors to experiment with. This offers the visitor an interactive ‘way in’ to understanding how the often opaque process of game development works, and therefore a way they themselves might see a ‘way in’ to developing their own. However, while these two museums offer us some creative and innovative approaches to video game in museums, it is unclear whether these approaches will be adopted more widely by non-specialist institutions.
This brings us to the Imperial War Museum London’s (IWM) exhibition War Games. It positions itself as ‘The UK’s first exhibition to explore what video games can tell us about conflict,’ a promising premise, suggesting a deeper and fundamentally richer approach to video game interpretation than just a linear narrative. The end result, however, is a mixed bag falling into some of the aforementioned simplistic interpretive traps of video game curation, while also offering some creative and promising steps in the right direction.
Above: A neon sign greeting the visitor as they enter the exhibition reading ‘Good Stories Need Conflict’. (Photo – Alex Grindley)
The mixed nature of the exhibition is clear in one of the introductory rooms. Visitors are able to press 3 buttons to ask questions of why this exhibition is taking place – videos featuring developers, journalists and academics then play to answer questions of ‘Why video games?’, ‘Why war?’, ‘Why should we care?’, and so on. While it is informative to hear from these people, my question is whether we should take this justificatory approach in the first place. We wouldn’t open an exhibition focusing on paintings, sculpture, film, or archaeological objects with a justification as to why these objects are worthy of display within the museum space, so should we be doing this for video games? Essentially, it is a question of whether we need to be more confident and bold in how we approach these topics.
This lack of confidence is also apparent in how the exhibition approaches a behemoth such as Call of Duty, a franchise which as of 2022 has made a whopping $30 billion since it began in 2003. It is a cultural phenomenon in the purest sense and so, for better or worse, presents an interesting interpretative possibility within a museum given an audience member is likely familiar with or aware of the series to some extent. As curators we could leverage this broad familiarity with the series to provoke discussions on its various themes and issues : about the presentation of war in media and to what extent it could be said to glorify it; about the representation of the past and how this has changed in myriad ways since 2003; about its controversies, or about the ethics related to the series’ links to the US military and its sponsorship deals with various arms companies. The exhibition does not touch on any of these aspects, instead opting for a surface level discussion with developers about the mechanics of creating a virtual world, and nothing more. The mechanics of designing a game are worthy of exploration, but we can take a more nuanced approach to how we engage with and present big-budget games such as this. Ultimately, this is a missed opportunity - stemming from a lack of confidence - to delve deeper into what a series like Call of Duty says about how we interpret war through a pop culture lens.
Above: Sketchbook of Beatrice Fergusson produced in the shadow of the outbreak of the Second World War (1938, IWM Collection). Objects from the IWM’s collections are paired next to contemporary video games throughout the exhibition. (Photo – Alex Grindley)
On a more positive side, the exhibition offers some interesting content and interpretive ideas. In one room of the exhibition a number of games taking differing approaches to war are displayed with clips from the game and interviews with a number of people who assisted in their development. The variety of games in this space is intriguing and highlights a number of independent games with unorthodox approaches to design and content. An example is Through the Darkest of Times, which has you playing as a resistance group against the Nazis in 1933 Germany. Rather than active combat, the game focuses on the hard work of building connections, allies and solidarity within your community in the face of a great evil. The IWM could have easily opted for better known or more standard examples of ‘war games’ for marketability’s sake, but has instead gone for a real focus on the creative potentials of game design to engage with war as a subject matter. It is a far richer experience for it.
Above: Screencap from the game Bury Me My Love (2019, The Pixel Hunt) featuring the protagonist Nour, a Syrian refugee (© The Pixel Hunt)
Moreover, next to these games are objects from the IWM’s collections, offering a creative framing and contextualisation for the subject matter of said games, bringing the virtual into the real world so to speak. Bury Me My Love, a game putting you in the shoes of a refugee making the dangerous journey to Europe from a contemporary war-torn Syria, is displayed alongside a number of objects from the IWM collection from Jewish refugees in the Second World War. These historical objects complement the themes of the game while also adding to the exhibition experience. The similarities of displaced people’s experience is well-demonstrated, provoking potentially difficult questions from the audience about their own differing perceptions of these groups.
Above: copies of Desert Strike (1992) and Cannon Fodder (1994) on original hardware in War Games’ retro gaming space. (Photo – Alex Grindley)
We also see a more playful approach in the retro gaming space at the end of the exhibition. Here the visitor can play with games depicting war throughout history, inviting the audience to experience differing presentations of conflict across a variety of genres. The experience is open-ended without any specific path, allowing for an open method of engagement and learning within the space. However, while I was there I made some interesting observations on other visitors – a group went to the copy of Command and Conquer: Red Alert, picked it up, and made comments akin to ‘I don’t know what's going on here’, then moved onto another game immediately. This raises the interesting question of whether certain games are more suited to short form exhibition spaces than others – the gameplay of a real time strategy game is fundamentally an iterative process that relies on the player being present for each different move on the field as it happens in order to react and strategise as part of gameplay. Moreover, if I’m only in the exhibition space for a short period of time, can I fully engage with a game that takes 20+ hours to complete? It raises a question of how we might resolve these frictions of genre and game length or if these are inevitable limitations of a short-form exhibition medium.
Ultimately, while there are moments of creative interpretation within War Games, it does not reach the innovative potential that other exhibitions by specialist gaming heritage projects have achieved. At times, it falls back on the tried and tested framing of video games as novel museum objects. Moreover, there is a question of whether an institution like IWM can really confront the more difficult questions raised by the theme of war in video games within the constraints of its position as a national museum of modern conflict. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction for video game display, being presented as pieces of media worthy of serious interrogation, discussion and study in a wider cultural context. We cannot keep seeing video games as mere novelty to include in the museum space and we should see them as a core part of the material/immaterial culture we use to construct ourselves and our histories.
Alex Grindley is a London-based heritage professional working at The British Library. They currently help put on exhibitions in public libraries around the UK, and have interests in digital heritage, public archaeology, community engagement, and their intersection.
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 The Digital Entertainment and Retail Association (2022) ERA 2022 Yearbook, p. 13. Available at - https://eraltd.org/media/72514/2022-era-yearbook_interactive.pdf
 OFCOM (2022) Adults' media use and attitudes report 2022, p. 27. Available at - https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/234362/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2022.pdf
 BFI (2022) Screen Culture 2033: Embracing a Wider Screen Culture. Available at - https://blog.bfi.org.uk/long-read/our-ambitions/embracing-a-wider-screen-culture/
 See Nylund, N. (2018) Constructing Digital Game Exhibitions: Objects, Experiences, and Context. Arts 7(4), p.103. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7040103 and Prax, P., Sjöblom, B. and Eklund, L. (2016) GameOff: Moving Beyond the ‘Original Experience’ in the Exhibition of Games. SIRG Research Reports 2016: 1–17., for a discussion of Game On specifically
 Nylund, N., Prax, P. & Sotamaa, O. (2020): Rethinking game heritage– towards reflexivity in game preservation, International Journal of Heritage Studies, p.4.
 Newman, J., and Simons, I. (2018) Game Over? Curating, Preserving and Exhibiting Videogames: A White Paper. Available at- https://drive.google.com/file/d/11vWx_5LMK6qxW-3rqqvB-MemW6Sk-Ep3/view pp. 33-35.