On the 28th of August I was lucky enough to attend the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Pushing Buttons” exhibition with my favourite Australian escapee / epicly awesome game developer / software engineer Matt Sanders (@Wofiel).

The event ran as part of the V&A’s late night at the museum series and featured a line-up of great speakers, DJ sets of video-game music (and also sets DJ’d by game developers), pop up stands where you could make your own interactive fiction game and on top of this, many of the usually pensive painting exhibition rooms had been given over to eSports lounges where you could watch, play or cheer on other players in a variety of games.

The event was packed out by a truly diverse crowd – art types, socialites, 8 year olds, garage gamers, game developers, historians, archaeologists, THE WORKS. Everyone and everything in the museum was buzzing with excitement.

The first session that we got to attend was lead by the fantastic Sophie Sampson (@UltraCobalt) who talked about level design for historic spaces. I was super hyped for such a topic given that much of my MSc was devoted to thinking about and investigating how development practices included heritage (a research space which not a huge number of people were overtly interested in, save for the devoted few #archaeogamers and left of field developers… long story short, getting to hear a developer talk about this topic, openly, without my first having to bribe them with coffee, set my heart a-racing).

Sophie, who is a playful interaction designer at Matherson Marcault (mathersonmarcault.com // @mathmarcault) (a game developtment company which specialises in the production of games grounded spatially in historic sites (seriously, check out the webpage for more, it’s all rather magical and inspiring)) began her talk by showing game play footage from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and inviting us to shout out words about the historic setting and what play in the area could tell us about it. OLD! One person yelled… RAMSHACKLE! Was cast out by another…  EXOTIC! PRETTY! POOR! All echoed out into the hall as the Assassin leapt from roof top to roof top in the Caribbean until the clip ended. After a short gap Sophie held her hands up till the remaining chatter died down – ‘yes’ she said, ‘all these words describe the set dressing of history, the aesthetic… but what can we learn about history through the level design here?’. Blank stares answered back from around the room. Her reply, when it finally came, cut through the tension – ‘this, this silence here, is one of the biggest problems we have in game development – we tend to be inspired by and design history as an aesthetic, rather than as part of a function… take for instance this monumental chancery screen’ (handily located only a short stroll from our location in the grand court) – she waved us over to have a look – ‘it looks gorgeous, and would make a great platform for a climbing game, but what is its function? Why was it made this way? How would it have made you feel? Why? How could we show or challenge that in a game?’ The crowd began to mutter words – seclusion, secrecy, ritual, curiosity, religion, segregation, status… This back and forth between the audience and Sophie continued in this way as we proceeded around more items in the museum, discussing how the mechanics of a game could be tied in with the aesthetic and function of the objects being discussed. The talk finished up in the shadow of the Portico de la Gloria, Sophie’s parting words echoing off the impressive cast – ‘history is more than an aesthetic. By looking at the function of objects, by looking at their use and the moods, ideas and behaviours they included and inspired we can not only develop better history in games, but use history to develop better games’.

I almost cried. This was the holy grail of design principles that I had pursued. History, heritage and archaeology have some great mechanics held in the functions and roles of objects and practices of the past. BUT this design process is admittedly a two way street, for functions, moods and practices to be developed on we (referring to myself and others who are archaeologists, museum curators, heritage professionals etc) need to provide interpretive layers which facilitate these engagements. As we walked around the V&A we saw a ton of beautiful items, tagged up with their registry number, denoting what they were made of, when they were made, how they looked and who they belonged to, the accessible information was, largely, diagnostic and therefore it is hardly surprising that this is what filters through into the popular memory and ideas of the objects. Pursuing history as more than an aesthetic is certainly not without it’s issues (especially if one is to operate from a more processual perspective), however it seems like there is a space for reflexivity and discussion – where game developers can assist in opening up new ways to structure, engage and understand the past (both for public consumption, but also for those engaged as professionals in the heritage practices), but only if we (heritage practitioners) work to make those layers of interpretation recursive, reflexive and accessible.

The next set of talks we attended were lightning sessions held by a group of game designers, theorists and commentators. Whilst they were all fantastic (covering topicics from philosophy in games to issues of translating) two in particular stood out to me, both of which really revolved around the central issue of whether games could be art. The first of these talks was by the wonderful Mink Ette who framed her discussion of whether video-games were art through the lens of player interaction, co-creation and design principles (it should be noted that it was somewhat ironic that these talks were given in the cast-court of the V&A, which houses copies of some of the most outstanding art-works, thus being another veritable hot-spot for such discussions of when does art become something else, like, say, a copy, and does that lose value… anyway, I digress). The upshot of Mink Ette’s discussion was that yes, video-games assuredly COULD be art (though not necessarily all games are art), but they ARE design. A subtle but important distinction which notes the role of the developer in crafting an experience in collaboration with (and with mindfulness towards) the user. The question then becomes “does a game have good DESIGN” ie: does it fulfil its proposed function – be that aesthetic, use, etc – rather than “does a game display qualities (internally or externally imposed” that would qualify it as art”.

This, again, is a topic which I spent some time mulling over during my MSc – if games are art then the interpretive layer is subjective and held with the creator, meaning discussion of accuracy, authenticity or the conception of heritage is a rather non-important to the piece. If, however, games are to be understood as being (at least in one part) design, then the intent, implementation and function of heritage in these spaces is important (to a point), and thus offers a space for us to (somewhat) meaningfully think about ideas of representation, remediation and reception (of heritage in games).

The second of the talks revolving around ideas of art, design and games which I adored was William Pugh’s display of Kevin Patterson’s “A night with Kevin Patterson”. For those not ofay with video-game development circles Kevin Patterson is somewhat of an enigma (read as: shadowy precence on twitter with an elaborate back story as to why he does not show up to in-person events, apparently hiring actors to play as him so he can avoid the limelight despite being super in your face about signing his name over literally everything, anyway), despite “showing up” to present at GameCity, he probably (almost certainly) doesn’t exist as a real person, but rather is a persona, constructed to reflect a strand of the “art games” dialogue. The pretentious, self-absorbed end.

In my mind he kind of picks up where Stanley Parable left off in terms of developing the discourse style between creator and audience. Maybe Kevin is a real person and I am just a cynical old bat. And I guess to a point there certianly is a little bit of Kevin in many of us engaged in development practices. Anyway, I digress. The whole talk was somewhat reminiscent of “Exit Through The Gift Shop” (complete with the speculation over whether the whole thing was just a giant in-joke mockumentary, done just well enough to be totally believeable) in which William played clips of Kevin’s work before enacting a parody discussion of “what it all probably, maybe means… art”. It was a much different enactment of the dynamic to what we saw at GameCity – in which William antagonised “Kevin” consistantly – but one that equally engaged the crowd into the discussion of what it means to be an artist, a developer, a player of games and how we might look to talk about these things in ways that are critical, rather than prescriptive: Can games be art if we strip away the affordances of the medium? If we impose the ideals of other forms into it? If we ignore the role of the player? Do our games need to say somthing to be considered art? Can they be art if there is co-creation? If the developer is central or peripheral? What are the limits to the term, who can apply it and does it actually even matter? – The whole thing was a rather reflexive experience, one which tore apart our ideas of the medium and reconstructed them through sarcasm. You can check out the Kevin Patterson experience for yourself at kevinpatterson.org (I lied, it has since been taken down, damnit Kevin).

My interest in this piece had a little bit to do with the whole “art – design – games” thing (after all, it is pretty fascinating), but rather was more about how we can explore ideas through the construciton of games in ways which get the audience to reflect (and reflex) on their own perspective. This is what really did it for me in Stanley Parable – that the game showed you the limits of your conceptions and repeatedly asked you to challenge them through implementing those EXACT constraints on you before providing ways to kinda, sorta, maybe break them kinda. “A night with Kevin Patterson” did the same thing. It bound the argument it was trying to make INTO the medium, it SHOWED us and let us EXPERIENCE that argument, rather than just telling it. The medium (to get all McLuhan on you for a second) becomes the point, it becomes intrinsically tied to the message, rather than just being a carrier for it. This point – of using the affordances of media to show, rather than tell – is one that I like to rant about a lot with regards to heritage. On the whole we (heritage practitioners, archaeologists etc) are a bit shit at showing our audience our argument. In part because we have some fantastic long-standing traditions of what constitutes “propper heritage”. In part because we probably don’t really trust our audience enough to explore information or get the point we are trying to present (goodness knows we are the experts who have studied for many moons and have enacted the blood sacrifices required to effectively navigate this interpretive layer). And in part because (I think) we keep trying to ram the conventions of the written, academic monograph into other forms (hey, I have done it, repeatedly whilst I have tried to make games, it’s hard to break 7 years of academic habit…). The monograph and journal writing will always be important for expression and investigation of archaeology and heritage, but it is not the only way to think about it. By applying the standards of past forms and ideals to what we are doing now in new mediums is to miss the point. There are affordances and deep structures which can tell us a lot of differnet things about art, history, whatever else you might have a passing interest in, but to do that we first need to take 10 steps back and think first about why and how these are constructed before leveraging the medium and the message together.

The rest of the event was a blur – we created a zine, we drank beers, we contributed words to the text adventure, we watched people play games amidst renaissance art and we listened to two of my favourite game creators / journalists / critics / general awesome people DJ (I shuffle danced along) and then were treated to hearing 65daysofstatic (the musicians behind Hello Games’ forthcoming No Mans Sky) play a set of procedurally generated music backed by imagery from the game. Hnng. Heaven.

In the end the “Pushing Buttons” event was an exceptional one. It showcased how games can have a role in the life of museums – not just as objects in collections or as education apps, but as cultural, artistic and academic elements. It showcased how diverse the audience for video-games as a form of culture can be and how much the critics and creators of these games can offer us as historians, archaeologists or heritage practitioners. It showcased the potential for more interaction between the public, video-game designers, historians and artists and the hunger that people have to engage in this way.

But more than this it also showed the disjuncture which currently exists between these disciplines. In the end Pushing Buttons – as fantastic of an event as it was – ultimately ended up being a games event which happened to be held in an art gallery / museum. It showcased how much we have learnt about the importance of games, but how little we have actually adapted our practices to reflect this transition. This, admittedly is a huge step, acceptance, and one that I am over the friggin moon about (when I started up my research in video-games and archaelogy I was laughed out of the building on multiple occasions, so, events of this kind are a huge success). But still, I wanted something more. Something that bridged the museum into the talks, that created a dialogue between creators, participants and musem. For certain, some of the talks – such as Sophie’s – leveraged items in the museum and tentatively began to create links, to talk, create and collaborate with the museum, but I think there is the potential to do this in a more reflexive way. Hell, she even literally said that there is much to be gained by game developers thinking like historians as well as historians thinking like game developers.

At the end of the day we all went home, the museum was cleaned up and the old status-quo was returned. The event was ephemeral. The lasting impact remaining with the patrons and developers that participated rather than as a reflexive exchange between the parties involved and the practices that they carry out in the long-run. The V&A has, over the last few years, been taking steps towards including video-games into their practices in meaningful ways (Sophia George’s residence there, the series of devleopment events where game-industry folk talked to musem staff, the current advertisement for a full time curator of video-games, and also this here Pushing Buttons event). All great stuff. All showing that transition from games as the “other” to games as part of the cultural cannon. As this development continues to gain momentum I hope that we see more of a dialogue between the stakeholders, more of a reflexive discussion, for as much as video-games stand to gain from their inclusion into the hertiage-practice I feel that the heritage practice also stands to gain a lot by developing its understanding and implementation of this fab medium.

To finish up – thanks a ton to the V&A guys n gals for putting on such a wonderful event – I am looking forward to seeing more crossovers between cultural institutions and events of this nature in the future, to seeing how this relationship might develop!