LONDON — Last week, Marie Foulston stood in the Victoria and Albert Museum trying to explain what was so groundbreaking about a host of recent video games. At the same time, she was trying to play one, controlling a horse onscreen that was, absurdly, driving a taxi cab.
“We have this concept that a game is something where you can die, where you get points, and you win and lose,” she said. “But these show …” She suddenly stopped talking, and instead made a noise of frustration. Her taxi had crashed into a wall.
“We talk about video games as design …” she restarted, but then drove into a swamp. The horse’s customer left the taxi in search of a better ride.
“See,” she said. “I told you I can’t play games and talk at the same time.”
Ms. Foulston, 35, has one of the more unusual jobs in Britain’s museums. Since 2015, she has been the curator of video games at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She has just opened her first exhibition in that role, “Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt,” which runs through Feb. 24.
There have been exhibitions on video games before, most surveying their rise from arcades to virtual reality, or trying to convince audiences that games have artistic merit and deserve to be in museums in the first place. But Ms. Foulston has taken a different approach, showing how, over the past decade, technology has shaped the way games are designed and experienced — and even challenged our idea of what games are. (One in the exhibition, Queers in Love at The End of The World, lasts ten seconds and involves the player choosing what to say, or do, to their partner moments before the apocalypse. No one wins.)
“People still justify video games as having value because of the amount of money they make, but that’s been true for a long time,” Ms. Foulston said. “We don’t talk about what makes them interesting as design. That’s what a museum can do.”
“We say every game in here is groundbreaking and pushing boundaries,” she added. “But what they’re fundamentally doing is pushing at the limits of the definition of games. That’s what’s really exciting.”
Ms. Foulston started playing games around age 10, when her father brought home a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. “He told my mum it was a gift for me and my sister, but I think it was more for himself,” she said.
Whenever she found a game overwhelming, she would let her father take the controller and act as his navigator, shouting at him what to do. “People think of games as isolating or a solitary pursuit,” Ms. Foulston said. “But for me it was always a social activity.”.
She fell away from games in her late teens, but came back to them in her mid-20s, she said, impressed by the increasing imagination and creativity she was seeing in them.
In 2011, Ms. Foulston found a way to get others interested in the games she was enjoying. She helped found The Wild Rumpus, a group that puts on sweaty events — part arcade, part club night — where people can play independent games like Roflpillar, where the players control a caterpillar’s movements by rolling around in a sack.
Being a video games curator is not what people would expect, Ms. Foulston said. “Sadly, my day job’s like many others: doing spreadsheets and sending emails. It’s not that glamorous.”
She has played games all day to understand them as design objects, she added, but, “there is part of me still wrestling with the idea that it’s work to play games.”
Since taking the role, much of her time has been spent obtaining exhibits from designers, such as diaries containing their original ideas or a storyboard outlining a game’s story arc.
“Marie was interested in the process of making the game,” said Jenova Chen, the creative director behind Journey. “To me, that was a very fresh idea. I’ve worked with other museums, and they just wanted the finished product.” The exhibition features some of Mr. Chen’s notebooks, filled with comments on the game mixed with doodles and the occasional shopping list.
On a tour of the exhibition, Ms. Foulston appeared most excited about a room on political games. It begins with Phone Story from 2011, which is about the production of smartphones. Apple removed the game from the App Store just days after its release: It includes scenes with children mining coltan in Africa and of suicidal Chinese factory workers. There are also games that raise issues of sex, race and domestic violence.
Some of those games — and their developers — have been heavily criticized for politicizing games, a trend that started in 2014 with “GamerGate,” when a fight about ethics in games journalism became a culture war. Ms. Foulston said she disagreed with this criticism. “We’re still at the beginning of seeing where games have to go and what subjects they have to cover,” she said.
“When people talk about the future of video games, they often talk about the hardware, the technology — virtual reality, augmented reality,” Ms. Foulston said. “But for me, it’s not that. It’s about the people — new designers, different designers, different perspectives, different voices.”
There are real risks in airing such views, like a deluge of online abuse. “As a woman in games, I have to be very careful with everything I say,” Ms. Foulston said.
Ms. Foulston said she hoped her exhibition — and her job — would show that games are being taken seriously, even by leading museums. The time for questions like “Are video games art?” has long passed, she said.
Some people will always find her job strange, she added, no matter how many exhibitions she puts on. That doesn’t include her family, however.
“I did this talk where I made a joke that the good thing about working at the V&A was my mum now understands what I do,” Ms. Foulston said. “And my mum listened to it and said, ‘How dare you? I’ve always understood your work.’ ”
“I was like, ‘I know, mum. I’m sorry. It just sounds good.’ ”
Though Feb. 24 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; vam.ac.uk.