I have been to a handful of events where video games are exhibited free to the public: indie arcades, gallery exhibits, end of year shows, demos, etc. Although seemingly a great way of getting games into the hands of potentially new audiences there are a few potential problems with the way things are commonly setup.
Whose Turn is it?
When ‘static’ art/design (paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures, objects) is exhibited it is easy for multiple people to appreciate it at the same time. Those that want to stay and linger can whilst not obstructing other viewers enjoyment to greatly. With ‘dynamic’ art/design (videos, sounds, music, theatre, dance) there is commonly a start and finish to the piece. The audience of these mediums are given a set amount of time in which they can experience the whole piece. There are exceptions to these generalisations but as an overview I would say this is a fare assessment.
The participation of the audience starts to change when you have ‘interactive’ art/design (games, interactive design, interactive art) here there is an idea of exploration and play. The audiences understanding becomes clear through their and the objects responses to each other. Unlike a collection of other cultural design objects there is an expectation to ‘physically’ experience these types of pieces for yourself. This is not necessarily what would be assumed with a vacuum cleaner or a chair, neither which would seem out of place on a plinth with “Do not touch” and “Do not sit” written next to them.
Interactive pieces are normally made to exist in this exhibited space, where within the design there is at least some notion of how long it takes to ‘understand’ how the piece works. Their purpose fit the needs of the space in which they exist. This is not true of video games, at least where what could be considered traditional video games are transposed into an exhibition space.
The amount of time it takes to play a game can vary greatly there are of course many relatively short indie games clocking in at around 3-5 hours: Brothers a Tale of Two Sons; Limbo; Hotline Miami; Gone Home; Papa & Yo; Thomas Was Alone and Papers, Please. There are of course even shorted games which can take a matter of minutes: Nidhogg and There Shall Be Lancing, but I would say these are even rarer and often require multiple replays to really grasp.
Here lies the first conflict, when playing a game at home a person can take as much time as they want to experience the full piece as designed. This is just not possible in a public space where other people are waiting to play. The audience is either restricted by a time marshal for how long they can play the game, or self controlled by common curtesy knowing other people would like to play. There is simply not enough time for a game to be truly appreciated and understood. Which is fine were demos are concerned as they leave you wanting more and you become a potential customer. However, it should not be the case that a museum or a gallery become a place for advertising games, they should be there to inform, and allow reflection.
There is no solution to this, time restriction, when the games are hosted in a physical space other than having more machines to play on or longer opening, but just like roads that are made wider to reduce congestion, the demand would outstrip the current availability. Perhaps there is a solution in a online museum where for periods of time games can be played for free. This choice has the downside of removing the capability of using original hardware to display older games in their true format it also takes the framing of the exhibition space away and changes the game from a cultural item for consideration to simply a game that is being played.
Also, this limitation begs the question of can an exhibition show any artefacts as in their true habitat other than items created for that specific space, which is something that is not often done in the gaming community. The only example that currently comes to mind is the ‘Two Big Screens’ installation at Game City 2013 in Nottingham. This is the direction I think games should be moving in, created for specific spaces and times.
Am I Being Watched?
It has been a while since the arcade was the home of the video game, its home is now our home. It was the case that the best players in the arcades would draw crowds of spectators and this is still true now, but with people watching videos of speed runs, perfect runs and competitive games online. However, not everyone wants to draw a crowd, sometimes its nice to have space to make mistakes and learn by yourself. Although this is not necessarily completely rational, failing in front of other people can put players off. As a space for coming into contact with games, judgement (perceived or real) should not be welcome.
You could argue that this is a positive in terms of the previous issue of time management, those that may feel embarrassed by their lack of skill may move on quicker, but I would rather they had the time to enjoy and experience the games at their own leisure.
Simply putting people into private spaces for playing would not be the solution. We learn through observation as well as participation. Having a social and caring atmosphere is as important as peoples freedom from unwanted scrutiny.
There is another custom that comes into play here, the notion that once you fail your turn is over. This practice is something I do not enjoy, its result is that the best players get to play the game longer thus getting better, and those that do not do well do not get the time to get better. I felt this old rule kick in when I was at the Digital Revolution exhibit at the Barbican, when playing Super Mario Bros. and Pac Man, I personally wasn’t too fussed as I have played these games many times but I wonder if this practice is instinctual for those that have not grown up playing video games.
Perhaps the solution lies in the layout of the gaming equipment, with a mixture of open spaces where observation is encourage and more private spaces where people can feel free to make mistakes and understand how to play before moving on.
Where/When am I?
The final issue is a minor gripe but it has a large affect on how games are perceived. Where there has been a looser approach to the exhibition with the audience coming and going as they please, games are often left partway through, and often they are left where people are confused or stuck on what to do next. This means that the next person to try the game jumps in in the middle of a situation for which they have little or no context for. The solution to this is clearly to return to the main menu and start from a new file. Is this really clear though, should the audience have to restart the piece? Would this happen for any other type of exhibition, would the audience have to hit rewind on the video.
In the realm of large demos this is not an issue, the demo will often be designed to time out and restart. This is the experience I had when I first tried part of Skyward Sword at Game City a couple of years ago. The issue with demos in an exhibition is that this is not what the game experience is really like, distorting how they are viewed.
The solution here is gallery assistance, where the game can be reset. With a bit of effort a start again button could be installed, allowing the user the restart the experience themselves. This would completely eradicate this problem.
Playing video games at a public exhibit is similar to the experience eating half ingested morsels of food, whilst knowing that the person behind you can not get their taste until you have swallowed and left the table. Leaving you the metaphorical choices of appearing inconsiderate or not chewing properly.
but at least it is a start.