We speak to the museum’s cultural director Iain Simons about how the institution has survived these turbulent times, and the importance of its mission.
At the beginning of 2020, the team at the National Videogame Museum were busy preparing for a Japan season.
They were going to run an exhibit concurrently with the Olympics that would explore the influence of the Japanese video games canon on Western games, and get developers talking about the kind of influence that the Japanese had on their work.
The NVM even invited Masayuki Uemura, the engineer who designed the iconic Nintendo Entertainment System, to come over from Japan and give a talk. But then came the coronavirus lockdown.
In March, the museum - in its relatively new digs at Sheffield’s Castle House - made the difficult choice to close its doors for the sake of public health. COVID-19 has had a decidedly devastating impact on the entire culture sector, especially on businesses and public institutions that require physical patronage and interaction.
“We were all geared up to do a whole celebration throughout the summer, and then everything ended,” Simons says. “We’re hoping to be able to do those plans again next year, obviously when the Olympics are rolling again and everybody’s able to go back outdoors again.”
The shutdown imperiled the museum’s future and its precarious financial situation. Like any bricks-and-mortar business, the NVM depends heavily on visitors to stay in the black. But for museums, there’s also the matter of being recognised as a significant cultural service in order to receive further support. In many ways, established institutions like the V&A, the British Museum, the Barbican, or even the Design Museum don’t need to spell out exactly why a public lockdown is a threat to their existence – it is generally accepted that these places are vital pillars of the UK’s history and cultural identity.
On the other hand, the National Videogame Museum is young – its first incarnation, the National Videogame Arcade, was only established in 2015; it was the self-described “world’s first cultural center” committed to video games. The NVM is also dedicated to an artform still grappling with its own identity – are games art as we understand it, or something entirely different?
For starters, in the museum world, things are a little more challenging when you’re still ironing out the bureaucratic details to access crucial arts funding. Simons reports that the NVM’s governing charity, the British Games Institute, had just received its first annual account just 24 hours before speaking to us.
“There’s a kind of ‘legacy’ thing that the funders often need,” he says. “But the biggest challenge that we’ve had has been that we’re on the pathway to accreditation. So, that means we’re a museum that is just over the first hurdle of the process to become an accredited museum, which is a kind of arts council quality mark that allows you, then, to access funding specifically for museum activities.”
And so began the NVM’s quest to save itself on JustGiving, asking for a modest £80,000 to keep the lights on in the face of permanent closure. The NVM’s campaign, an earnest plea to help the UK’s only museum for video games, ended up raising a whopping 251% of the original target: £201,156.
The funds, it explained, would be to push its educational programming online for the benefit of disadvantaged children, as well as to continue its work and preserve its current collections of games, consoles, and other gaming ephemera. This is, after all, the ‘new normal’ – a post-coronavirus world where physical interaction and touch can’t be taken for granted, and where the arts are bound to suffer as public health and economic priorities take over.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we started the fundraising campaign at all,” Simons says. “The response was completely positive as far as I’m aware, everyone was incredibly quick to rally.”
Industry heavyweights like Sumo and Rocksteady stepped up to contribute. But it was the regular patrons’ contributions that showed the NVM just how valuable their presence was in the community.
“That was really encouraging and quite moving to be honest, that people cared about this thing that you made, to the extent that they want to keep it alive [in a pandemic],” says Simons.
On the NVM’s JustGiving page, donors and patrons left messages of support, detailing how they’d heard the campaign, and its significance to British games culture and the industry at large. Several donations were the products of smaller fundraisers, including a trampoline bounce challenge. A gift of £10 sits next to a donation of £25,000, the latter being a contribution from Paul Wedgwood, co-founder of Splash Damage.
“This is a great cultural cause – we’re way behind the film industry in this,” Wedgwood wrote in his donation note. “The NVM deserves far more support from those of us that have done so well within the British games industry.”
As to whether the UK government thinks the NVM is historically significant, Simons believes it’s an ongoing evolution, adding: “The kind of bigger question really is, does the cultural establishment think that video games are significant?”
It’s all a work in progress in the museum director’s eyes, as he’s been working in this field for well over a decade, watching different audiences and institutions and industries engage with video games over the years.
“We still have quite a long way from games being just naturally talked about as part of our cultural heritage,” he muses. “I think the reason that it’s changing is because we have politicians now that played games when they were kids. It’s part of who they are. And people that make policies and decide what’s important… can kind of appreciate that.”
However, the point of the NVM isn’t to indulge in senseless nostalgia and sentimentalism - although that’s definitely a byproduct of heading to the museum and seeing a young person experience your favorite childhood game for the first time.
“I think it’s really important to stress that the reason we’re doing this isn’t to enable people in their forties to go misty-eyed over Robotron. I do go misty-eyed over Robotron, but that’s not the point,” laughs Simons.
“The point is to enable us to kind of explore what video games have achieved in order to inspire new people to do something with that and make something new. It feels like an obvious and intuitive thing to assume that a museum and history is about the past, but it really isn’t.”
The point of a games museum is to harness the collective imagination and life’s work of the existing industry to inspire new generations of game makers. And for the NVM, its mission around video game culture is also to expand the conversation around what games are and can be.
“Video games historically, I think, have had this inability as an industry to express their value in anything other than economic terms,” Simons says of mainstream coverage. “So they can talk about having a biggest opening weekend like a comparative thing in movies, but that’s just a story about money.”
At the end of the day, in Simons’ experience, what draws so many people to the NVM is being able to see how the proverbial sausage is made.
“Increasingly, most people’s first encounter with a video game is to just seamlessly download it onto their phone or tablet or whatever, and have absolutely no sense or awareness that there was a person who made this.”
Having developers come in to work on early access games and demos in the museum allows visitors to connect the dots and see what is possible for them - or their kids - in the industry. It creates a much clearer emotional connection to the games, too, and why they should be documented, preserved, and discussed in a greater cultural context.
One might assume that given the technological nature of video games, that the business of documentation and preservation is fairly straightforward. But the importance of preservation in games – at least when it comes to encouraging developers and designers to be more proactive in properly archiving their work – is still an uphill challenge.
For one thing, it’s not just about saving code. Preserving game culture also means learning to value the people and discourse that surround games: magazines, marketing, and design are just a few topics in this vast orbit. Obsolete software can be difficult to parse without context, and hardware deteriorates. It is, as Simons emphasises, very much about adding humanity to how we think of video games.
As for what’s next, Simons remains realistic, but in good spirits – self-isolation might have had an invariably positive impact on the way people interact with games.
“I think that the overall games literacy of the world and consumption has probably gone up quite a lot over the last six months,” he says. “So people’s appetites for understanding more about these things that they have been spending all this time on are hopefully pretty high, and we should be there to feed that, to meet that.”