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Managing Football Manager

Iain Simons of the National Videogame Foundation discusses his team's latest exhibition and its partnership with Sports Interactive

It's been over a decade now since the epoch-busting Game On show at the Barbican (videogames? In a gallery?!) and whilst that show provides a vital reference point and is still lucratively trundling around the world in its 2.0 iteration, game curation is ever-developing.

You see, videogames shift, change, and were generally not designed to be experienced in a gallery. The ones that work most effectively are usually the same ones that were custom designed to explain themselves efficiently in public. Co-op arcade machines, with their in-built attract mode (or, explain mode, as gallery folks call it). Pong as a videogame doesn't demand that much explanation.

Iain Simons, National Videogame Foundation

The complexities of Zork can't be adequately interpreted by simply putting Zork on a PC and inviting people to try and play it for a few minutes. You can't explain what Minecraft means by sitting someone down in front of it and just hoping they can craft. You can't explain what's great about the Green Hill Zone by handing them a controller and hoping that they're not crap at Sonic. They might never see most of the level.

It's a question that we've been trying to confront at the National Videogame Arcade since we started a couple of years ago: how important is it to actually play a game in order to understand it?

Earlier this year, we launched an exhibition about the Oliver Twins' Dizzy series. We're really happy with it, audiences love it, we had a great time making it - but we know we were spoilt. Philip and Andrew have kept boxes and boxes of original materials from their professional lives. They raided their family lofts for pencil drawn design maps, scripts, plaster of paris egg models, their original bedroom curtains - all of these were available for the show, and all have been included.

"How important is it to actually play a game in order to understand it?"

Those riches, combined with their in-built enthusiasm, generosity and verbosity meant that creating a Dizzy exhibition was a relatively easy proposition. The Twins are an apparently bottomless well of brilliant anecdotes and at least two-thirds of them made it through legal and into the exhibition.

Of course, we were also helped by Dizzy itself. It's an easy game to understand, an easy game to explain and an easy game to parse as a spectator.

The design documents that they supplied beautifully illustrate for visitors how the game was made. You can literally see how their graph paper drawings were transformed into sprites, into a living game. It's magical, but crucially it's also tangible and people love seeing that connection. 
We've found that giving the public a glimpse inside the game production kitchen is something they find endlessly fascinating and inspiring. Granted they don't always see exactly how the sausage gets made, but they all agree it tastes great.

For our next show, something very different.

The NVA's Dizzy exhibition was put together with materials preserved by creators the Oliver twins - and a similar partnership has been arranged for Football Manager

We're working with Miles Jacobson and the amazing team at Sports Interactive to create a new exhibition about Football Manager. Pretty much the opposite of Pong.

Football Manager is blessed with a rich and complex history, full of personalities, emotion, conflict, drama - and that's before we move on to looking at the fans. It's uniquely deep, both as a simulation and in the level of dedication it inspires in its players. 'An alternative reality' is the name of the FM documentary. It's not hyperbole.

"Football Manager is blessed with a rich and complex history, full of personalities, emotion, conflict, drama - and that's before we move on to looking at the fans"

The thing is, we're running the National Videogame Arcade. Our audience aren't all hardened gamers, they're mostly people who are interested in interesting things, on a day out.

In our very first meeting Miles reassured me: "It's okay. We don't make videogames and FM players aren't playing one." What we're trying to do is interpret what Football Manager is, how it's created and how it works, to a general audience.

Often with studios, one discovers that they don't have a lot of 'things' preserved. At the time, a lot of developers don't realise that they're doing something worth preserving. (The original National Videogame Archive project was prompted by a very senior executive producing a cardboard box from under his desk when asked if they had a corporate archive...)

There's so much Football Manager to wade through, once again we're blessed with a surfeit of material. We've already spent hours with Miles and members of the team. Interviewing them, looking through their vast collection of objects, being walked through their development structure, learning how the studio works, learning about the fan culture.

"How do you explain a working model of AI to your Nan? Or a school trip of nine-year-olds?"

But we're the NVA. We want to make things for our audience to do as well as look at. The story of the obsession that the game inspires has already been really well trod by books, documentaries, divorce proceedings and a brilliant stand-up show. We're going to talk about that, for sure, but we also want to confront the bigger problems. How does Football Manager work? How do you explain the principles of the match engine to a general audience? How do you explain a working model of AI to your Nan? Or a school trip of nine-year-olds? Or people like me, who aren't interested in football?

The challenge is like mixing music. You can't hear everything all at once, so you spend a lot of time at first working out what's most important and interesting, then dialling different elements up and down to bring to the audience's attention. From that, we arrive at a design that makes sense as a whole. As I write this, we're cataloguing objects, working out what data streams we can accommodate in the show and discussing what software we're going to need to build to explain some of the core concepts in how the game works. Making games, interactives about games is a key area of interest for us.

The point of having a National Videogame Foundation is to work this stuff out. The point of having a National Videogame Arcade is to interpret and preserve videogames for the broadest audience possible.

Because of that, there is one thing we can promise you: you definitely won't be able to play Football Manager in our Football Manager exhibition.

Football Manager: The Beautiful Exhibition opens September 8th, 2017 at the National Videogame Arcade. 
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