If we get past the constant flogging of the word “disruption,” the V&A—that most hallowed and apparently traditional London institution—has really shown its chops when it comes to contemporary gaming. Rather than offering a chiptune soundtracked nostalgia trip, the exhibition Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt starts in the mid-00s, tracing a very recent history of what’s exciting, bold, different and—ok—disruptive when it comes to the expansive world of gaming. What it proves, more than anything, is that this discipline is the true Gesamtkunstwerk for our times: sound design, art, scenography, writing—all that makes up human life is there. What’s great about this show is that it makes those connections. Video games are, as they should be, placed in the context of their roots; everything from classic fiction to classic draftsmanship to Hollywood’s golden age to Gudetama the sad egg.
The striking show graphics and texts by Julia are applied to huge cubes that shimmer like screens dotted around the space; while the exhibition design by Pernilla Ohrstedt Studio works with, rather than against, the content, holding back where appropriate and going gorgeously bananas when the games’ aesthetic urges it to. Crucially, Design/Play/Disrupt doesn’t shy away from the less celebratory aspects of contemporary gaming: the corners of sexism, the lack of diversity (except when it comes to “orks and elves and dwarves,” as games writer Meg Jayant puts it.)
But according to the V&A, “disruption has begun” in the shape of writers, designers, players and commentators challenging and bringing nuance to how we talk about video games and how and why we play them, too. While there’s a lot on offer here from bigger studios—shoutout to the delightful Nintendo romp Splatoon (namely its superb choice of virtual brothel creeper shoes for players)—we’ve picked five smaller games from lesser known developers to highlight, each of which is pushing gaming into new or strange territories, the likes of which we’ve certainly never seen before.