John O’Shea is the Creative Director and co-CEO of the National Videogame Museum (the NVM), in Sheffield, U.K. John works alongside his co-CEO, Cat Powell, on the strategic and creative development of the museum. His work includes the curation of new exhibitions, the acquisition of new objects for the collection, building new research links, developing educational projects, and enhancing the charity through new partnerships and strategic fundraising in the public and private sector.
What is great about working in the games industry?
Videogames have only been around for 50 years or so – they are a relatively new cultural phenomenon – and therefore nothing is completely set in stone: There are always opportunities for innovation, improvement and thinking differently.
As a museum concerned with videogame culture, I’m always astonished at the creative and cross-disciplinary aspects of games-making – how the music, design, coding & narrative etc all combine to be more than the sum of the parts – especially within the independent and smaller-scale parts of the sector.
We recently had the opportunity to showcase some of this creative work at the museum in The Art of Play – an exhibition working with contemporary games studios State of Play, UsTwo and Humble Grove as well as industry legends the Oliver Twins and Cris Blyth who was the Art Director for Worms 2 (made by Yorkshire’s own Team17.)
I also love the relationship the players have to their favourite games and the way the industry think of players as communities and not just customers. During the pandemic we created a special project to collect players’ experiences of spending time in the videogame Animal Crossing – and in the future we would like the museum to connect much more with players and fans, and the communities that grow around videogames.
What words of advice do you have for people starting out in the games industry?
I’m a relative newcomer myself! Coming from two decades in the art, design and cultural sectors, (having grown up playing games) I gradually found myself having more interaction with videogames professionally, as aspects of the digital sector, experimental art-world, and exhibition design industries started to converge with video games technologies and culture. I’d be reluctant to offer advice – but some thoughts from my own experience would be:
Listen to the quieter voices as well as the loud ones. (It can be useful to think of the videogames sector as an ecosystem, where there are some big players, as well as many, many, smaller teams, creatives, organisations etc who are all contributing together to make up the big picture.)
“Find your own tribe”, rather than simply trying to “fit in”. (It is important to see where your own skills and experiences could fit, and work on what feels right for you. There isn’t one path and its a hugely diverse sector with a massive variety of roles and creative identities.)
Be yourself, and move towards the things you find exciting. (In any young industry there are always new trends and tools emerging, so work hard and follow your instincts.)
Our exhibits focus on everything from how games are made (the stories “behind the screens”), to the changing make-up of who plays games, and the increasing sophistication of their stories and design.
What work have you been doing in the region to support the games industry?
Our museum is totally unique in the U.K. We believe videogames are for everyone, forever, and our mission is to transform lives with games.
Since we opened our doors in Sheffield in 2018, tens of thousands of people per year have come to the museum to experience our playable exhibits, and in doing so they have found out about a whole industry of which they may not have been aware. Our exhibits focus on everything from how games are made (the stories “behind the screens”), to the changing make-up of who plays games, and the increasing sophistication of their stories and design.
Our work as a museum is helping to communicate how games are so much more than simply electronic toys, or entertainment products designed for making money.
In June 2023, in collaboration with Leeds Trinity University, we are hosting a special Symposium on this topic called “Why Video Games Matter” – where we will bring together individuals (including BAFTA winning creative technologist Dan Hett) and representatives from organisations like UKIE and Special Effect to think about how games can change the world! In my view videogames may be the most important technology of our time, because never before has is been possible for thousands of people to creatively problem-solve simultaneously, as they do in environments like Minecraft: In the future I think such approaches could be used to collaborate on solving really complex planetary-scale problems like climate change.
It is this overall sense of teamwork that has always been my career highlight – and I think individuals involved in making games will recognise this: All the parts matter.
What has been a highlight of your career / work so far for the industry?
In July, I’m coming up to one year working with Cat Powell as co-CEO of the National Videogame Museum and the BGI (the charity that owns and governs the museum).
I had joined NVM as Creative Director in January 2022, and Cat came in as Director of Visitor Experience a few months later, joining from arts and health charity Artfelt, and bringing a wealth of knowledge in using art to improve both wellbeing and the built environment.
We were both relatively new to the organisation, and we had arrived at a time of significant change and challenge. (Like many other cultural venues the NVM was closed for long periods during the pandemic meaning it could not generate any revenue, and many aspects of the business were in need of an overhaul.)
When we approached the Board with an alternative leadership model – sharing the CEO responsibility and combining our respective experience – they were very receptive.
Since then we have been sharing the overall responsibility for driving forward the National Videogame Museum’s mission. The work of daily problem-solving (and fire-fighting!) to get the museum back on its feet after the pandemic has been at points extremely challenging – and there is a long way still to go – but when we have a win together, it is very rewarding.
It is this overall sense of teamwork that has always been my career highlight – and I think individuals involved in making games will recognise this: All the parts matter. The good work done so far would not have been possible if it were not for such a strong working relationship with Cat, the support of all the NVM team – and of course the hidden work behind the scenes of the BGI Charity’s voluntary Board of Trustees.
What influence do you think your museum and similar types of organisation can have on the sector?
I hope, as a museum, we are helping to communicate and celebrate everything that is exciting and important about videogames as a new cultural form.
Back in the museum’s earlier iterations in Nottingham in the 2000’s, (through the Game City Festival, and the National Videogame Arcade, both of which are precursors to the museum), the aim was to break out of videogames simply being seen as entertainment and connect everything that is best about games to wider cultural activity – cinema, art, music, performance, sport.
It is this interconnectedness that I think continues to be the sector’s greatest strength.
In 2023 , through blockbuster productions such as the televised adaptation of The Last of Us, the pathways between gaming and wider culture are now much clearer for all to see.
Festivals like Now Play This at Somerset House are doing great work bringing gaming and art together. And the major London-based institutions like the V&A, Science Museum, Design Museum etc are all making links between their respective subject matters and videogames through major exhibitions.
I think NVM’s location in the North of England allows us (with collaborators like Yorkshire Games Festival, local councils and Universities, the industry and of course Games Republic) to bring a different perspective to the table. The North has been the birthplace of many important cultural moments – I grew up in Huddersfield, and have lived and worked in most of the cities in the North, so I’m perhaps biased – but I believe there is huge potential here.
What do you think of the role of Game Republic?
Exactly as above, Game Republic, through its function as a convenor of networks amplifies and communicates the strength and diversity of the video games sector across the North.
Why is the region a good place to do business?
The National Videogame Museum is based in Sheffield, in South Yorkshire – and quite simply this is a fantastic place to be, full stop. We have the Peak District on our doorstep and vibrant cultures of music, cinema, art and design spilling out across the city with a huge student population, and burgeoning digital and tech industries.
As a young museum, which is first and foremost a visitor attraction, our job is to attract new audiences into the city, and through our exhibition, education and events offer we contribute to a rich mix of economies including tourism, hospitality, digital industries and education.
Yorkshire is of course a region with a rich videogaming heritage. Major players (like Sumo and Team17) offer employment to 1000’s of people locally – and smaller “boutique” studios like Boneloaf offer inspiration to the next generation through their international DIY success Gang Beasts.
We’re lucky in that it seems to be Sheffield’s time: Sheffield City Council have been making great strides to improve the city after the pandemic with the renewed Heart of the City, and Level Up Fund supported Castlegate developments, and the new Mayor for South Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard, seems to have a good understanding of how digital and creative industries, and culture, play a key role in the making of 21st century cities and regional economies.
What projects are coming up?
Games Careers Week is a really important initiative the National Videogame Museum has led on which celebrated everything that is best about careers in videogames.
We’re working with partners across the sector to provide a platform and focus for the celebration of the diversity of careers in games, and to offer young people from all backgrounds year-round opportunities and resources to start their own career journey.
There are still opportunities for everyone to get involved in their own way using #GamesCareersWeek2023 and the online platform and participation can be as simple as sharing photos of a day in the life in the industry, creating a twitter thread with career pathway information or hosting a social media Q&A session for young people to take part in.
From the museum’s perspective we want to help to demystify games careers for families, parents, teachers and young people so that the next generation of games-makers can flourish. And we want the museum to be a space for the games industry to showcase gaming as a diverse, welcoming and fruitful sector to work within.