New year, new NVM: How the National Videogame Museum has evolved after lockdown

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We catch up with director of visitor experience Hannah Bryan to find out how the museum has regained momentum after long periods of closure.

To say that the pandemic has been a brutal ordeal for physically-oriented museum spaces is an understatement, but the National Videogame Museum is one that’s very capably weathered the storm.

Its core mission still very much revolves around game history, historiography, and hardware -- how video games look, feel, and handle, as well as how they’re made. The hands-on component of its curated experiences and collection of 5,000 “heritage” objects -- including a rare Nintendo ocarina and even a bottle of Tomb Raider-branded Lucozade dubbed “Larazade” -- are rarities in an age where original analogue technology is fading out. But in order to grow, the NVM is also looking to the future.

Since Barclays last spoke to the NVM’s Iain Simons last year, the team has continued to adapt to changing public health concerns and social distancing policies; to date, the museum has survived three lockdown-enforced closures and perplexing tier systems-- the most recent shutdown lasted from November 2020 to May 2021.

“Our team was working really hard to change up our experience and make sure it was as COVID-safe as possible,” explains Hannah Bryan, the NVM’s Director of Visitor Experience.

“We introduced, probably unsurprisingly, litres of hand sanitiser. Our museum is very tactile and hands-on, you can’t really experience it without everybody touching the same controllers… We were working really hard to make sure that people could still come in and play the games and experience how they’re meant to be experienced, because [otherwise] what’s the point?”

The NVM persevered, even picking up a couple of awards for its online children’s programming along the way. Through the six-month enforced closure, the museum relied on a culture recovery grant from the Arts Council that Bryan described as “critical” to its survival. It also took part in the 2020 Jingle Jam, the world’s biggest charity gaming event which raised money for workshops for children affected by the pandemic.

“We got £160,000 from that, which we’re working on delivering in terms of a mental health project, so looking at where games intersect with mental health,” says Bryan. “We’ve been running Self-Care Jam and creating from that a toolkit to help children use games to explore how they talk around mental health.”

One of the NVM’s biggest successes in the past year is its Animal Crossing Diaries series, which documents how people have used Animal Crossing New Horizons to express themselves through various stages of lockdown and self-isolation. The game, which launched in March 2020, has become synonymous with the pandemic as an interactive haven for players to socialise and maintain the semblance of a daily routine. According to Bryan, ACNH player submissions have come in all forms, including written pieces, videos, images, thoughts and feelings, and even music.

“It’s a really lovely project, and I’m excited to see what more comes out if we keep updating,” she adds, describing how the NVM’s staff cheerily draw parallels between their own lives with their museum-dwelling islanders in the game.

After reopening in May 2021, the team carefully began to increase their daily visitor capacity, starting with 40 per day. Right now, the NVM has around three different groups of 80 visitors per day. During pre-pandemic times, the museum would see up to 300 visitors a day.

“This October for half term we beat our 2019 numbers, which is amazing,” Bryan says. “We’ve completely changed our ticketing model, so now we have ’windowed’ sessions that let us clean in between, and that’s helped us manage our experience safely so we can get as many people in the doors as possible.”

Taking advantage of the outdoors, the NVM also put on its first festival, GameCity Adventures, which was an treasure-hunt-style trail across Sheffield organised with the City Council and a plethora of cafes, shops, and public spaces.

“That really raised the awareness of the museum,” says Bryan. “We saw a big, really positive trend in terms of people wanting to get back to the city, get back out and do things, meet with people again.”

Moving forward, the NVM’s mission will focus on the transformative possibilities of games, especially their impact on young lives. It’s a rather evergreen message that highlights an inclusive and accessible future for everyone who wants to get involved in games on both a personal and professional level. To extend its work in game preservation and research, the NVM has a “subject specialist” network that offers advice to museum and private collector members; the fact that the general games industry hasn’t taken the most proactive stance to preservation efforts is no secret, which means that more often than not, it’s independent museums and collectors who do the bulk of the work.

One of the NVM’s biggest core components is its educational programming, which has taken on a more meaningful role during the pandemic as people struggled with social restrictions. For kids, this is made up of formal hands-on workshops, the Pixelheads programme in libraries, hospitals, and schools, and naturally, online learning workshops. In October 2020, the NVM even bagged a Kids in Museums Award for “Best Website Activity” for their pixel art character creation guide.

For the coming holiday season, one of its biggest charity projects is a Christmas appeal to help bring hundreds of disadvantaged children from the most deprived neighbourhoods in Sheffield and the surrounding area to the museum, children who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to visit.

Looking to 2022 and beyond, the NVM’s strategy is still very much in line with its goals to provide education and inspiration. For adults, the NVM has a programme for Sheffield locals – specifically, working-class women of colour without prior experience -- to learn how to make games with accessible technology. In March 2021, the museum ran an online festival, Games Careers Week, which serves as a year-round career resource for industry professionals. And on a more permanent ongoing basis, the museum serves as an important place for culturally unique indie games, in order to give visitors a different perspective on how games are made. These include the queer space opera Superlunary, Ep. 1: Pentagon Gate by Freya Campbell, and multiplayer sports-like game Drink More Glurp -- projects that are, more often than not, overlooked by mainstream art institutions.

For now, some things will stay the same, like wearing masks during museum visits. “We have had a mixed response to that, and not everybody is willing to commit to doing that,” Bryan says. “But for the most part it has been positively received because people understand where it’s coming from.”

As it is with countless other institutions around the world, safety is paramount for both visitors and staff especially as the NVM, as an independent entity, can’t afford to lose potential income from shutting down. “It’s interesting that sometimes the economic argument has been far more persuasive than ‘be good to your neighbour’,” says Bryan wryly.

Despite the pandemic’s seemingly endless cycle of challenges, the NVM’s efforts seem to be bearing fruit in bringing more legitimacy to the idea of video games as a part of cultural heritage.

“As we get backing from different organisations, whether it’s Arts Council or Art Fund, we’re starting to really pave the way for [video games] becoming more of an understandable concept,” says Bryan, who says that many of the NVM’s partner cultural organisations see the universal appeal of video games as a way of enriching their own agendas and audiences.

“Everybody engages with games in lots of different ways. If you’re a mainstream theater looking to try and reach out through some programming to reach a younger audience, games are often a really good way to grow.”

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