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The Aesthetics of Videogames

Ave Randviir-Vellamo (3-4/2011)

Ave Randviir-Vellamo makes an introductory foray into a new field of aesthetics

 
Play has the tendency to be beautiful.
Johan Huizinga
 
In scholarly research, videogames are still a relatively new subject, even if the medium's history goes back more than a half-century – an interactive game Tennis for Two that is often agreed to be a first videogame was engineered by American physicist William Higinbotham in 1958. 
 
There are several explanations why videogames managed to elude scholarly attention for decades. Videogames have traditionally belonged into the realm of popular culture, "low art" that as a whole was not included into academic curricula until recently. In addition to that, videogames were (and to some extent still are) looked down to as something trivial because they are considered to be a "children's medium" that will be "grown out of" (Newman 5). In reality, the average age of a video game player has been growing steadily. According to the most recent data from EAS (Entertainment Software Association) the average game player in U.S. is 34 years old and has been playing games for 12 years. Besides that, videogames are being played also by 26 percent of Americans over the age of 50 ("Industry Facts").  
 
There are still many unanswered questions about the effects and the nature of videogames but it seems to be generally agreed upon that they are capable of creating aesthetic experiences. Acknowledging that, it may be asked: can videogames considered to be a contemporary art form?
 
Are Videogames Art?
 
People who favor the opinion that videogames should be called art usually refer to the history of photography and film as an example of an emerging art forms struggling on a way of acquiring cultural respectability. In his influential essay Art Form for the Digital Age Henry Jenkins cites Gilbert Seldes who wrote a treatise Seven Lively Arts that defended contemporary (American) popular culture in 1925 and writes: 
 
"Readers then were skeptical of Seldes’ claims about cinema in particular for many of the same reasons that contemporary critics dismiss games – they were suspicious of  cinema’s commercial motivations and technological origins, concerned about Hollywood’s appeals to violence and eroticism, and insistent that cinema had not yet produced works of lasting value. Seldes, on the other hand, argued that cinema’s popularity demanded that we reassess its aesthetic qualities." (Jenkins)  
 
Aaron Smuts claims that "video games can be art according to historical, aesthetic, institutional, representational and expressive theories of art" (Smuts). By analyzing multiple videogames and comparing them to other media, especially film he concludes that "thematic continuities tie video games to the history of western literature, and games share expressive goals with other recognized art forms." (Ibid.) He does not think, though, that all videogames correspond to the existing definitions of art and states that even the best games that had been produced at the time of writing the article (Max Payne and Halo) are not great art. 
 
However, even if there are critics that find that there will be a long time, if ever, before the videogame industry produces its first Michelangelo or Picasso, the idea of inviting videogames to the spaces that used to be reserved for "high art only" is not alien to contemporary art institutions anymore – and it seems that at least one thing they do not need to worry about when opening their doors to digital games is finding an audience. Just a recent example: in February 2011 Smithsonian American Art Museum announced that it will be hosting an exhibition The Art of Video Games next year and invited people to vote for the games that will be selected for the exhibition. As soon as the announcement was made, museum's web site collapsed under the "overwhelming enthusiasm" of voters ("The Art of Video Games").
             
Possibly one of the most remarkable aspects about the "videogames and art" discussion is that although the question has been raised by prominent figures in new media theory, institutions, journalists, politicians and others, it actually seems to be mostly irrelevant for majority of the people employed by the game industry as well as for the theoreticians working in the field of game studies. Even Denis Dutton, the author of The Art Instinct, has said: "Video games are good fun, but why do they need the validation of being called "art"? Isn't being fun enough?" (Murphy). 
 
One of the reasons behind not caring if videogames can be art or not could be that the cultural dominance of videogames have diminished the game designers' and players' need to search for cultural approval by trying to "elevate" games from "low art" to "high art", especially in a current intellectual atmosphere when it is often thought that “contemporary culture has already mixed the elite and the popular, the fine and the vulgar, modernism and kitsch, to the point where it is no longer sensible to treat them separately” (Elkins 50) i.e. the borders between popular and legitimized culture are more blurred than ever and the authority of art itself has become somewhat problematic. 
 
Katya Mandoki, the author of Everyday Aesthetics, refers to the processes that have been taken place in modernist and postmodernist art and to the position of fine arts in contemporary society in order to explain why the interest of audience as well as part of the focus of aesthetic studies have recently shifted more towards "nonartistic":
 
"If art has traditionally been produced for the sake of providing aesthetic experiences to spectators, now it appears that aesthetic experiences have to be produced to justify art. It     is true that contemporary museumized visual arts wander rather purposelessly and lack significant social grounding, but the public has no difficulty in finding alternative aesthetic delight through many other artistic and nonartistic phenomena like movies, video-games, telenovelas, weekend hobbies, pets, and sports" (34).  
 
 Some chapters later she compares the role of art in earlier societies with its present function and claims, while referring to John Dewey that contemporary art is separated from its audience and unable to communicate with it. Popular culture, on the contrary, offers easily accessible aesthetic experiences readily to everyone:
 
"Medieval communities created the visibilities of the sacred through integration of ritual, music, architecture, incense, lighting, and feast. This does not occur today with the art of the elite, amputated as it is from the collective and everyday. Therefore, for Dewey, there is a greater vitality for the satisfaction of the aesthetic thirst of society in aesthetic manifestations not considered artistic, like movies, jazz, comics, and tabloid papers, than in the fine arts. To this list I would add rock, television, sports, fashion, and video-games." (89) 
 
Another author to express more or less similar ideas is Graeme Kirkpatrick who, drawing on Theodor Adorno, writes how after Holocaust, art has been in crisis, "no longer able to support the kind of theological ‘meaning’ that we look to it to provide" and how computer game has emerged at the end of art in its traditional sense as a new aesthetic form. He resists to the idea that videogames could replace art but expects them "to occupy some of the ground where art once stood" (Kirkpatrick).
 
Videogame Aesthetics
 
Videogames can be perceived as aesthetic objects for several reasons. First, the discipline of aesthetics has a long tradition of studying games and play in general (Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois et al.) that are even seen as the essential elements of aesthetics – this idea can be traced back at least to Immanuel Kant who spoke of "free play of imagination and understanding" when describing aesthetic experiences (Ginsborg). Other researchers, however, who take note of the video games' visual and aural features, will find themselves in the middle of a heated debate that asks a familiar question from a slightly different angle: are videogames art or are they first and foremost games?
 
One of the most discussed questions in contemporary game studies has been, if videogames and their different genres should be defined by game's iconographical and narrative qualities that would place videogames side by side with earlier media like film, photography or literature or should they be rather defined by its gameplay. The dispute has evolved to a complex confrontation between so-called narratologists and ludologists: ludology being "a branch of game studies that approaches the subject through a prism of play" and narrativism being "a branch of game studies that approach the subject through the prism of narrative" (Kremers 6). 
 
The example of a ludological approach from an aesthetician, where gameness is seen as the most valuable aesthetic quality of videogames and everything beyond that is considered less important, is Kirkpatrick's opinion, who writes that: 
 
"It is not because they are visually pleasing or stimulating to the senses that computer games are aesthetic. It is because they facilitate play and have the kind of form that     corresponds to long-standing ideas about aesthetic experience as an autonomous sphere of value." (Kirkpatrick)
 
Numerous authorities in videogame theory like Jesper Juul or Espen Aarseth have pointed out that traditional narrative; genre or visual studies have indeed inadequate means of evaluating videogames and their inherent qualities fully. The similar ideas are expressed in a comprehensive Video Game Theory Reader
 
"Video games may no longer be unproblematically analyzed as simply “texts” that produce “meanings,” as this is only a part of their operation. Video games complicate    ideas of genre that rely on narrative structure (like literary genres) or iconography (like visual genres), by hybridizing narrative and visual iconography, with concerns unique to the video game medium: virtual representation of spaces, movements, and actions, and well as non-representational elements, particularly modes of interaction." 
(Apperley 353-354)
             
However, even if the pleasures of videogames are not primarily narrative or visual but "kinesthetic, functional and cognitive" (Aarseth 52), there are authors like Barry Atkins who do not see the gap between the narratological and ludological approaches as insurmountable and analyze how the modes of interaction unique to videogames create new narrative qualities that are also unique to the media. In his words, videogame aesthetic is: 
 
 "generated in a maelstrom of anticipation, speculation, and action […] The focus, always, is not on what is before the player or the “what happens next” of traditionally unfolding narrative but on the “what happens next if I” that places the player at the center of experience as its principle creator, necessarily engaged in an imaginative act, and always orientated toward the future." (130)  
 
Nevertheless, even if Atkins does not reduce videogames to mere narratives or visual aesthetics – approaches that are strongly discouraged by ludologists – he also points out that "image is a central component of so many of the games that we study and play": even the very name of the medium, videogames, implies to the importance of visual in the game experience (130).
 
 Videogame Images
 
"Better graphics", the promise of more life-like and immersive visual experience to the videogame player, has been the major marketing slogan for the game industry throughout its history. This continuous drive to improve the visual image has resulted in a situation where the top of the computer game industry that produces big budget games is dominated by the aesthetic of photorealism. The desire for maximum realism in virtual reality has been well described by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their classic book Remediation
 
The authors quote French film critic and theorist André Bazin, who in a first half of 20th century thought that "photography and the cinema […] are discoveries that satisfy once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism" (26) only to show us that the desire for obliterating the media is still there. In order to describe the phenomenon, they use the term immediacy that "denotes media that aspire to a condition of transparency by attempting to efface all traces of material artifice from the viewer's perception" (6). 
 
Bolter and Grusin claim that "computer users and vast audiences for popular film and television continue to assume that unmediated is the ultimate goal of visual presentation and to believe that the technological progress towards that goal is being made" (30) – the developments during the decade that has passed since their book was published have brought us more and more realistic looking videogames and 3D cinema and prove that this goal is still being relentlessly pursued. Research has shown, that there are certain types of videogames where immediacy and (photo)realism are considered to be defining qualities of the game experience: Nina B. Huntemann who has studied military-themed videogames and their audiences has listed some game attributes that are considered to be important by the players:
 
"Geographically accurate maps of real-world locations, modern weaponry known or assumed to be used by the military, threats and battle scenarios "ripped from the headlines", game mechanics in which the player's avatar could manipulate nearly every aspect of the environment, and a belief in the truthfulness of the representation of  military strategy and operations. Players […] appreciated games that reflect contemporary geopolitical events […] because those narratives add to the "authenticity" of gameplay." (229-230)
 
The aesthetics of photorealism is visible and dominant in the contemporary videogame industry because it is the visual language favored by the large game companies that produce games that have a budget equal to Hollywood blockbusters – games that strive to astonish the players and are extensively discussed and marketed in the media. However, also cartoon aesthetics is used widely by game industry as well as by independent game makers.
 
Cartoon aesthetics is a "historical" aesthetics of early videogames that did not yet have technological capabilities to stun the audiences with photorealism. Chunky texts where pixels were visible to the naked eye and similar-looking videogame characters from the arcade gaming era have now being turned to a nostalgic retro-aesthetics on its own and successfully applied to cutting-edge graphic design, fashion, music videos and so on. In the opinion of some theoreticians, the cartoon aesthetics of early videogames could have been one of the reasons for scholars not taking videogames seriously for a long period of time, "dismissing Super Mario Bros series as childish because of its representational style (bold, primary colors) […] In fact, many players rate Super Mario Kart among their favorite games despite the representational style" (Newman 5).
 
Casual Revolution
 
The creation of Macromedia Flash (now Adobe Flash) multimedia platform that allows to add animation to web pages in 1996 and its later improvements (most notably in years 2003-2005) created a boom of simple web based videogames, many of them being digital versions of classic card and board games, and gave start to websites for free online games like Kongregate that now hosts over 10 million users per month (Alexander). Jesper Juul, the author of A Casual Revolution, describes in his book how casual games (including Flash-games) found a way to the people who were not used to think of themselves as videogame players. Audience, especially older people and female players who had not fitted the player stereotype, embraced them: 
             
"[…] because these new games were not asking players to readjust their busy schedules, […] because one did not have to spend hours to get anywhere in a game, […] because the games fit the social contexts in which people were already spending their time, […] because these new games could fulfill the role of a board game, or any party game. (1)
 
The success of these small, simple puzzle, arcade, hidden object or word games got a new boost when they started to move from the computers to mobile phones or other portable electronic devices like Apple's iPad. In addition to that, new, easy-to-use, and what is most important – cheap – software made it possible for practically everyone to create their own game that gave rise to indie game developers and digital game activists. Another rising trend was to use videogames for advertising purposes. 
 
Digital game activism is based on a belief that games about social or political issues can reach people who might not normally be receptive to political messages and that games are, by their very nature, especially suitable for representing and simulating complex systems like economic or social ones. Mary Flanagan points out, that the concept of "critical play" has been used for creative expression, instrument of conceptual thinking and social tool in 20-century art movements like Dada, Viennese Actionists etc. (Flanagan). Digital activists who have chosen games to be their platforms can create their own "games with agenda" (Gonzalo Frasca's term) or use an existing game environments for distributing their message. The activist games that are created from the scratch are mostly small-budget browser games, executed in Flash like Molleindustria's The McDonalds Video Game that puts the player in the role of a McDonald's CEO and makes him to realize that the only way to make profit in the game is through questionable or unethical decisions: feeding the cows with genetically modified grain, cutting down rainforests, bribing the officials and so on. 
 
Even if these cheap and simple web games have many advantages compared to the large studios' gigantic game projects, there are disadvantages as well: their gameplay options are considerably more limited than in immersive 3D game environments and the cartoon-like games may find it hard to compete for the audience who is being spoiled by the commercial game's visual spectacles. The critics who say that playing most of these game feels like "going back in time fifteen years or twenty years" (Chatfield 186) have their point, it is also true that there is little innovation in the genre – many activist games, as well as (paradoxically) advertising games are nothing more than "reskinned classic arcade games" (Bogost).
           
In-Game Activism
 
The other type of digital activism, in-game protest, uses the techniques of culture jamming and is occasionally similar to the disruptive practices of contemporary street artists. Notably, the most well known examples of in-game protests have chosen the same type of realist aesthetics appraising military-themed games for their targets as were described earlier. The project The VelvetStrike (2002) by Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre and Brody Condon enabled players to spray graffiti tags of counter-military messages onto the various environments of multiplayer shooter game Counter-Strike. One of their aims was to show the unreality of the "realistic" male-dominated military fantasy that had excluded women and children, civilian casualties and refugees from their war simulation. American Joseph DeLappe started a "memorial to dead soldiers and a war protest" (Chan 272) in 2006 by logging into U.S. Army's online game America’s Army and beginning to type the names of U.S. soldiers that have died in Iraq into the in-game text messaging system all players could see. 
 
The interesting aspect here is that if the art status of videogames is not agreed on or maybe even irrelevant, then agents inside the game worlds sabotaging their original purpose definitely define themselves and are defined by others as artists. This, once again raises couple of questions about art and being artist, especially as there are similar agents acting in the virtual worlds who do not demand such laurels for themselves. Could it be that the performers who already have a history in media arts get the attention of the digital culture researchers more easily than anonymous activists whose actions have gone unnoticed and undocumented? Is in-game activism "art" because the researchers who study it themselves have background in arts? Or is in-game activism just something that rare and exclusive? The fact is that all well-researched cases of in-game protests can indeed successfully be compared to the interventionist tactics of the street artist Banksy, for example, and therefore placed in the historical contexts of the disruptive artist practices. Protests in virtual worlds that resemble real-life (mass) demonstrations about public issues exists as well but for some reasons have not received similar attention from the theorists. Are they considered to have a lesser value or impact as the people participating in them do not have the ambitions of an artist even if the effects of their actions in the virtual world can be very similar to the effects of the "artist's" performances[1]
 
 The other interesting aspect about the in-game protests are player reactions: the response of the players of online games that The VelvetStrike team and DeLappe have been using as an environment for the digital protest (Counter-Strike and America's Army) has been mostly negative and even hostile towards the protesters. DeLappe is regularly voted off the game, The Velvet Strike initiators receive hate mail, etc. Both, their anti-war and -violence message inside the militaristic fantasy worlds and their tactics are perceived as "illegitimate" and disruptive towards the game experience (Poremba 6). One way to explain these player reactions is through the writings Johan Huizinga and his ideas of a "magic circle". He wrote: 
 
"All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart." (10)
 
Therefore, as play takes place in "a sanctioned time and space for such activity" and "constitutes an unspoken social contract among players" (Chan 282) and VelvetStrike together with DeLappe are deliberately intruding the "magic circle", they are determined to receive controversial feedback to their actions. Laetitia Wilson has described this type of interventions and their relevance as follows:
 
"They comprise a valuable counter-aesthetic to the dominant ideological drive of the mass-market gaming industry. Successful or not, they provide an antidote to this ideology, as well as an alternate means of communicating serious issues and provoking thought and debate at the nexus between the real-world and the language of play." (2)
 
In conclusion
 
The purpose of this essay was to scratch the surface of videogame aesthetics, to call attention to some of its different aspects and problems. Videogames suit for aesthetical analysis because of their "playful" essence but they are also affecting player's sensory system and are capable of arousing emotions. As some of the examples have shown, videogames are not just aesthetical artifacts by themselves but can be used as environments for totally different kind of aesthetical interventions, counter-aesthetic and deconstruction of fantasy realms they are originally created to be.
 
Ave Randviir-Vellamo is doing her MA on digital culture at Jyväskylä University.
 
Works Cited
 
Aarseth, Espen. "Genre Trouble." First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Harrigan, Pat and Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004. Print.
Alexander, Leigh. "GameStop Buys Social Gaming Hub Kongregate." Gamasutra, 27 July 2010. Web. 28. Feb. 2011.
Apperley, H. Thomas. "Genre Studies." The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Ed. Perron, Bernard, and Wolf, J.P. Mark. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Atkins, Barry. "What Are We Really Looking At? : The Future-Orientation of Video Game Play." Games and Culture 1:127, 2006. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.
Bogost, Ian. "Persuasive Games: The Birth and Death of the Election Game." Gamasutra, 30 Oct. 2008. Web. 28. Feb. 2011.
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge,  Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.
Chan, Dean. "Dead-in-Iraq: The Spatial Politics of Digital Game Art Activism and the In-Game Protest." Joystick Soldiers. Ed. Huntemann, Nina B. and Payne, Matthew  Thomas. New York and London: Routledge, 2010. Print. 
Chatfield, Tom. Fun Inc. London: Virgin Books, 2010. Print.
Elkins, James. Visual Studies: Skeptical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 2009. Print.
Ginsborg, Hannah. "Kant's Aesthetics and Teleology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Web. 17 Feb. 2011
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of a Play Element in Culture. London, Boston and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980. Print.
Huntemann, Nina B. "Playing with Fear. Catharsis and Resistance in Military-Themed Video Games." Joystick Soldiers. Ed. Huntemann, Nina B. and Payne, Matthew Thomas. New York and London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
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Jenkins, Henry. "Art Form for the Digital Age." Techreview.com. 1 Feb. 2002. Web. 15 Feb.     2011.
Juul, Jesper. A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 2010. Print.
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Kremers, Rudolf. Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice. United States: AK Peters, 2009. Print.
Wilson, Laetitia. Serious Play:Counter-actions and Interventional Dissentin the Game  Space. Presentation in ISEA, 2008. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Mandoki, Katya. Everyday Aesthetics. Prosaics, the Play of Culture and Social Identities. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007. Print.
Murphy, Samantha. "Can Videogames Be Art?" CultureLab. 20 Sept. 2010. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.
Newman, James. Videogames. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Poremba, Cindy. Patches of Peace: Tiny Signs of Agency in Digital Games. Paper based on a Master Thesis in Simon Fraser University, 2003. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.
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[1] The virtual world of Second Life seems to be especially suitable place for staging virtual protests: probably also for a reason of not being so much a "game" but a simulation of the "real" life. In September 2007, Italian IBM workers used Second Life to protest a pay cut (Money); also in 2007, the same virtual space saw a "peaceful-turned-violent" protest against a far-right, anti-immigrant French political party Front national (Au), etc.
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