by carl wilson

Gaming Aesthetics, Reloaded
(now with Auto-Critique!)

Don'tcha think Supermario looks suspiciously like Gramsci with a fake moustache?

Sorry, I was overtaxed and fuzzy when I wrote last night's post. The line saying "more complex emotional experiences may come along" was off the mark: I'm aware that, as folks in the comments said, they're already out there. Besides, art isn't about your feelings.

The question to me is not whether games can be art - of course they can, altho like nothing else before they flicker between the poles of art and sport. (Particle or wave?) Rather it's that even at their most artful they seem depersonalized, decentred and fragmented - very much in post-death-of-the-author mode - and this seems worth examining especially if you see them becoming the predominant form of art/entertainment, as may not be yet but certainly could happen. On one hand, it's the revenge of theory: Sure, we critiqued auteurism as a way to deligitimate the power it conferred on hegemons, but did we realize how we'd miss the author once it was gone? (The proposal that gaming wholly makes the player the author, while not baseless, seems somewhat wishful thinking on a similar order to the further-out LangPo Marxist claims that negating syntax all but forces the reader to become a revolutionary agent. The distance this falls short of the truth should, I think, also inform the artist's practice.)

Nicholas Rombes recently argued for the "rebirth of the author", which isn't wholly viable, but relates to the concerns I expressed about gaming and "post-expressive" culture, which may have just been an alarmist way of describing our happy, prosperous, hypermediated land of Decentred Subjectville. The value of music as the pivot point of youth culture, if it really ever was so, would never have been so much the content, narrative or otherwise, of the songs (although that's a factor); it was having musicians as alter egos, as delegated representatives, as olympian deity-projections, etc., for people in the process of making up identities (ie. all of us, but adolescents with special intensity). You could argue that in fact with its interfaces and avatars gaming is an even more explicit version of that process, but in some ways by foregrounding that, gaming sets itself at a greater distance from what for simplicity's sake I'll call "the real world," whether that's school, dating, politics, family or doing coke off a hooker's rack. With music, the relationship to "reality" might be mostly playacting, but it seems like a useful fiction.

One hypothesis might be that what gaming lacks compared to music is not art but artists: Not of course that no one is credited or known for making them but that those people are not apotheosized as heroes, villains, human instantiations of creativity. (Is there a game designer people love the way I loved Tom Waits when I was 16?) More importantly, they're not in the game, the way that a pop musician is both actor and director, in a sense both form and content. Almost certainly, gaming needs more and better criticism, discourse that focuses less on technology/sales/'wow' factor than on aesthetics and romance. Some exists, but it seems yet to reach critical mass. Or perhaps the gaming audience wouldn't be interested. Perhaps I'm just hopelessly modernist in a postmodern world, or perhaps there's reason to preserve some of that modernist heroic ideal, within critical limits.

In other words, if the author does not exist, it still may be necessary to invent her.

PS: I know I'm grasping around in an area I don't know much about. Frankly, I haven't got the hand-eye coordination to get much into gaming. But I'm interested, so fill me in where I'm wrong.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 02 at 3:45 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (16)



Thank you Parrishka. The GameStudies website is exactly what I'm looking for.

Posted by Owen on December 6, 2005 1:02 PM



hi carl,

are these the kinds of conversations you're looking for:

there's a relatively newly named area of academic discousre called "ludology" - the study of play, dominated mostly by scandinavians. been along while since i looked into any of it, but i always enjoyed reading jill walker's blog:

Posted by parrishka on December 5, 2005 6:54 AM



Here's a link to the Leland story:

It's short on specifics. The only game he mentions in a more laudatory way is one called Diner Dash by gameLab and an online game called Second Life, and it feels like he's finding out about those second-hand. (I don't mean that snarkily, but it's worth noting.) I gather he likes some of the new games he mentions playing in his opener but he doesn't call them by name. He mostly names games he says are trying too hard to be like movies, or vice-versa.

Posted by zoilus on December 5, 2005 3:33 AM



Carl- for those of us who don't get the times, can you perhaps mention which game he lauded?

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 4, 2005 11:29 PM



I think Greg's last paragraph pinpoints the video-game-artist-vs.-rock-star problem most precisely: Most of them just don't have those kinds of qualities. After all, they aren't performers - they're closer to being visual artists or writers.

But I'm not convinced the big-business, big-team nature of gaming has much to do with it, nor the fact that hardcore gamers are only a small part of a huge market of casual users. Both those models also apply to the music industry, more or less - it might not take that many people to make an album (though sometimes it does), but when you add in marketing and radio and so on, it's an equally commercial business.

I still think the difference has to do with the lack of a point of identification, and the fact that to interact with the art form at all, in the case of gaming, is in a way to 'disperse' yourself into the game play; listening to music may include some of that effect, but that's less dominant than the I-Thou relationship involved.

There's an are-games-art feature by John Leland in the Times today, incidentally, which I think gets the answer right - that the most artistic games are those that expand the form on its own terms, not those that mimic movies or books, and the "can it make you cry?" test is properly disdained - but still isn't asking the more interesting question: *Presuming*, as I generally do, that games are an art form, how does the burgeoning popularity of this new art form change the culture/our lives? The only part of it that gets talked about is the vicarious-violence issue - which is typical, right? New forms are usually greeted with moral panics. But in retrospect the advent & popularization of movies, tv, pop music, videos, etc., all had broader and subtler effects.

One thing apparent to me from Leland's piece was that Douglas Rushkoff might have some insight there. I'll have to check out his book.

Posted by zoilus on December 4, 2005 9:22 PM




I do agree with what Carl is saying, but to someone inside the industry, the reasons behind it are patently obvious, and - as far as the game development juggernaut goes - they are not going to change.

Reading an article on 1UP is not the same as reading an article on Pitchfork; the readership for 1UP will, for the most part, understand and appreciate the importance of a figure like Kojima. However, this understanding does not translate out into the world at large. It's such a niche thing; videogaming is a huge industry, but hardcore videogame nerds are only a small part of it. Reverence for artists like Kojima just won't be part of mainstream culture here.

Microsoft put all that money into developing J Allard's image, and he is still a nerd in screen-printed blazers.

Posted by G on December 4, 2005 3:25 PM



It sounds more like you're hopelessly modernist in a world that still hasn't reached modernity ...

In terms of the value of music as mythology, musicians as "olympian deity-projections" seem to me the best possible way to describe it. We admire a feat that resonantes with our soul, and then proceed to invest our resources and faith in the hero who has accomplished that feat. Hopefully he or she goes on to reinvest those resources and bring even greater boons back for us to pour over ...

The difference I see with gaming (and I'll disclose ignorance here as well) , is that the acts of heroism (if they even exist) don't occur in human terms. They aren't made in the face of life, suffering, decay, death, rebirth, etc. They're made in relation to the world that's been built in the game. Essentially, we're asked to be our own heroes.

The narratives gamers create for themselves are invested with meaning and emotion, surely. But is that emotion at all transferrable to our human lives? Or does this new kind of mythology ask us to leave our human lives behind altogether?

Posted by Andrew Rose on December 4, 2005 2:48 PM



Greg- it actually seems to me like you're agreeing with everything Carl said. What you deny the existence of is pretty much exactly the thing his post laments the lack of.

About the Japanese gaming rock-stars, though - I think it actually does translate in a sense. Though there is no western parallel, Kojima or Ueda are revered as artists and creative visionaries in the west too. Really reading a 1up interview with Ueda and with, I don't know, Peter Molyneux makes manifest that the interviewers don't even think of these people in remotely the same terms.

What I'm getting at is, the game-designers revered as an artists, intellectual and inspirational figure is obviously a concept that western audience can get excited about- the question is why is it we have no good candidates for it at all.

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 4, 2005 6:30 AM




As someone who has lived in both worlds for the last ten years, I can only say that your suggestions lack perspective and intimate knowledge of the game creation process. I make video games for a living, and I am involved in music outside of that.

The context in which both art forms exist is so completely different as to be incomparable.

In today's age of multi-million dollar projects involving hundreds (yes HUNDREDS) of artists, tens of producers, fully-fledged marketing departments, and share-holders, the gaming business is just that: BIG BUSINESS. Your article seems to be based on an over-romanticized image of game development as it was outlined back in the mid '90s, when we could still get away with small teams and a single guy with a vision.

I am deep in development with a team of 45 people; we barely scrape through this process -- our competitors are running at 100+ bodies in-office, with who knows how many employed via outsourcing of assets. It is next to impossible for any one of us to claim responsibility for our project, as it is entirely a team effort. Hell, even when I was at Nintendo and Miyamoto rolled in, he wasn't there to call all the shots: the guy is a figurehead, but to compare him to a rockstar -- well, I don't think that would be accurate.

The game-developer-as-rockstar concept is a very Japanese thing; we may have created our John Carmacks, but they are still - clearly - huge nerds. Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) has a totally different image over in Japan... something I am not convinced would ever translate into our culture.

The way in which you are proposing to critique games is interesting, but I think it would require a good deal of insider knowledge. Go check out the early editions of Edge Magazine out of the UK. Those guys had it right... and it almost carried over into Next-Gen when they formed in the States, but they quickly devolved into the same crap you see everywhere else.

I like this discussion. I wish I had more time to take in what you've written, and write a more cohesive response.

Posted by Greg on December 3, 2005 7:39 PM



For the sake of accuracy, I did play the 'rockism' card in my first comment (two video-game posts back)...

And I agree with Peli that there are several noteworthy video-game auteurs, lauded for their vision/imprimatur. (Shigeru Miyamoto, Peter Moyneux, Sid Meier, Hironobu Sakaguchi...) I'm not really into video games either, but I can recognise their aesthetic as something really individual.

Posted by Sean on December 3, 2005 11:01 AM



I thought about adding an explication, but if I may, before I lay low and stop hogging the comment box, I'd like to offer another aphorism in tangenty priase of Tim Roger's Down-Up approach into the conceptual territory through gameplay atomism:

"But my dear Degas, poems are made of words, not ideas."


Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 2, 2005 7:14 PM



Well, that was tangenty, but intriguing, Peli.

I'm surprised nobody yet has accused me of being rockist about this whole thing. It's certainly what I'm accusing myself of.

Posted by zoilus on December 2, 2005 6:36 PM



I think you're actually missing the brilliance of Tim Rogers- He invented the only possible honest discourse on videogames as art, one that flashes out the experiential, complex, conceptual properties of games down-up, rather than by paraphrasing games into abstract concepts.
There is a very strong ideological undercurrent to his style of writing, which both attempts to capture the way great games transcend mere entertainment into a rich, striking experience, to make manifest the concrete way in which the conceptual properties rise out of the prosaic facts about the gameplay, the graphics, the design, and to keep in mind the lesson from the old jewish sotry ( and here one might get another taste to further understand the groover of his writing):

"Though Catribalca was a very righteous community, its men were not well versed enough in manners. The townsmen sent two emissaries to a renowned scholar to ask: How many uses are there to a handkerchief?

The great scholar welcomed the emissaries, set them before him and told: In the ways of Israel, a Handkerchief may be used for fifteen things; A girder for prayer; A sash for the Shabbat; A bathing sponge for Sabbath night; A wine filter for Kiddush; A shelter for rain; A fan for heat; A pants belt; A
table cloth; A towel for hand-washing; A pillow for synagogue; A sweater; A buffer between male and female for dancing; A ballot-box; A belt replacement for punishing children...

The emissaries scrutinized and counted the uses by their fingers and asked : 'But these are fourteen, and you said fifteen'?

The renowned scholar replied- Occasionally,if one absolutely must, it may be used as a handkerchief."

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 2, 2005 5:03 PM



Thanks, Peli. Parts of that link are interesting, but a lot of it reads like this: "When you shoot an animal, it doesn't fall over dead. (PETA would probably have some issue with that.) Rather, it dissolves into smoky polygons and then plinks into a military ration icon. You pick this up, and then eat it later by going into the food menu. Eating food recovers Snake's stamina. His health then recovers slowly, with time. As a means of leaving the proverbial door unlocked for realism, to see if it'll come in, the game offers the player no means to instantly heal. This is interesting, yet also kind of pedantic."

Most gaming discussion seems to be in that I-like-this-but-I-don't-like-that vein, and that's not what I mean - although to be fair, a lot of talk about music is in the vein of "what a bitchin' guitar solo!" so you can't entirely judge by the paper trail.

But I do enjoy it when the reviewer writes, "I do believe Metal Gear Solid 3 is the first time I've played a videogame I would say 'behaves' rather than 'unfolds.' "

Posted by zoilus on December 2, 2005 4:38 PM



Or just take a look at this:

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 2, 2005 4:24 PM



Re: Authors-
Just try googling the name s"Hideo Kojima" or "Fumito Ueda ", man. You'd be amazed at the discourse you'll find.

Posted by Peli Grietzer on December 2, 2005 4:20 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson