[In this analysis, UK-based writer Lewis Denby shares his visit to Manchester's "shameless -- nay, proud" Videogame Nation exhibit to reflect on art galleries, history, and the diversity of people interested in gaming.]
I've mentioned Videogame Nation already, but only in passing. Launched in May, it's a summer-long exhibit at Manchester's Urbis Centre, showcasing the history of video games and the big issues surrounding them.
A few weeks since my visit, during which I had the pleasure of dining with Introversion, the significance of the event is starting to hit home.
Actually, that's a lie. It started to hit home before I'd even arrived. On the journey, I found myself pondering Videogame Nation, and wondering why it felt quite so significant for our little hobby. Then, with the proverbial light bulb flashing on above my head, it clicked.
Because, well, what is the Urbis Centre?
It's an art gallery.
Painting A Picture
That's certainly a heady victory for the games-as-art brigade, of which I'd probably have to consider myself a member. I won't pretend to have researched the history of video games being displayed in art galleries, but I can't imagine it will have been a huge one, and I'd be surprised if any other gallery has made the courageous move of dedicating an entire floor to them.
But that's what Videogame Nation is: a shameless - nay, proud - exhibit; extensive, thorough and respectful. In the hour I spent exploring, I fear I barely saw half of it.
There's a lot of history here. The exhibit documents the story of the video game from its inception to its modern form, with insightful commentary from various members of the industry and community scattered around the walls. (The walls are worth mentioning, actually. It's an entirely linear path through the exhibit, with free exploration prohibited. Whether this is a witty remark about the nature of the medium or just a happy coincidence, it made me smile.)
Big news stories, important breakthroughs, legal battles, health worries and more - they're all here, and all discussed with refreshing frankness and impartiality.
Initially, I considered this the main strength of Videogame Nation. I'd been worried that the exhibit would fail to go further than being a straightforward 'Hall of Games', but it seemed the numerous playable games from across the ages were merely a tactic to draw people in, and a quick opportunity to put the commentary in context. Yet the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that their role here is absolutely key.
The first thing I saw at Videogame Nation was a Chinese family who spoke in broken English and evidently knew nothing about video games. They hovered around the entrance for a while, then paid five pounds each to enter.
"40% of gamers are thought to be female," one wall-quote informs the public. My estimate would be that, on this particular day, 60% of Videogame Nation attendees were of the fairer sex.
Children. Adults. The elderly. People from all walks of life, from all over the globe, were drawn in by the accessibility and intrigue of the exhibit. Superficially, Videogame Nation is about video games. Really, it's about the people who play them.
The presence of these playable games makes this so. Sure, it's a hook, but it's one that's absolutely delightful to experience. A few moments stood out. A middle-aged couple entered cynically with their teenage son. While he wandered off on his own to explore the exhibit, his parents tried their hand at one of the two-player games. They began suspiciously. When I looked back a few minutes later, they were engaged in a ferocious battle for victory.
Another young man, who had just spent a few minutes wreaking havoc in Grand Theft Auto IV, walked up to Darwinia. To begin with, he looked confused and lost in its unfamiliar, budget-restricted world. A couple of minutes later, I heard him remark, "this is actually really interesting."
The most stirring sight was that of a young couple sitting in front of LittleBigPlanet. They played a level in co-op mode, carefully hopping across fiery pits and working together to solve the puzzle sections. At the end, as Sackboy and Sackgirl jumped for joy, their real-world counterparts shared a celebratory hug and kiss.
I haven't seen an event bring people together this magically for a long time. That it would be a collection of video games to do this is simply marvelous.
It says a lot about the nature of both games and humanity that Videogame Nation gels so well with such a diverse range of people. Interaction is what keeps our society ticking over, and the interaction inherent to video games - the way in which we are forced to engage with another reality for a given amount of time - seems to spark some passionate reactions. It's a wonderful thing to see.
So my worry that Videogame Nation would simply be a room full of video games was kind of founded. At heart, despite all the peripheral stuff, that's what it's about. But that's by no means a criticism. It's simply the only logical way to present the exhibit.
Playful but intelligent, walled but inclusive, it completely encapsulates what makes games such fascinating things in the first place. You can read into it as much as you like, searching for your desired depth of story - but for those who just want to grab a controller and jump into the pool of fun, there are few better ways to do so.
[Lewis Denby is general editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Wander over to his website for more information and contact details.]