Infiltrating Aesthetics: Videogames, Art, and Distinction

Infiltrating Aesthetics: Videogames, Art, and Distinction

Trevor Strunk

Though scholars of literature and the arts remain skeptical, Strunk explores some of the ways “videogames are making the transition into being objects worthy of artistic attention.”

Despite concentrated critical analysis spanning two decades (or more, depending on who you ask), videogames still have a legitimacy problem.This legitimacy problem should not be mistaken for a lack of critical interest, however. Significant work in games criticism, much, including the following, in Electronic Book Review, has marked the field as one of the most theoretically contested and rich in literary criticism. In fact, “literary criticism” may be too narrow a band, though articles like Janet Murray’s “From Game-Story to Cyberdrama” and Henry Jenkins’ “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” certainly posit a kind of narratological provenance for the genre. Scholars like Espen Aarseth, in his “Genre Trouble” and, more aggressively, Markku Eskelinen in “Towards Computer Game Studies” have argued against this literary position, positing videogames as a kind of expansion on theories of play generally, or “ludology.” In between, scholars like Nick Monfort attempt to balance the radical nature of digital form with the traditional content of narrative, as he does quite well in his article “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star”. Ultimately, my position – as it should become clear through this review/essay – does not quite align with any of these authors, but the history of the debate in EBR and elsewhere is worth tracing. Critics have only in the recent past made the case for videogames as culturally legitimate pieces worthy of academic study, and predictably, the form’s previous stigmas – deserved or otherwise – have carried into the debate over its place in the art world and the academy. For example, an article on the University of Southern California’s videogame design graduate program’s recent influx of women students focuses on the benefits that this demographic shift may have vis-à-vis the ubiquitous expectation of violence in videogames. One of the students, the article tells us, “is not a fan of shooters, the gun based games that have dominated home video game [sic] consoles” and the student adds a few sentences later that she “[doesn’t] know if [she] can get into this sniper business” (Martens). And it seems to me they’re right; it is inarguably good that more women are becoming interested in game design, and their disconnection from the machismo culture of videogames as such might be the cultural break needed to expand the medium. But while this political victory is appealing, it leaves those of us outside of applied game design with more questions than answers.

The most pressing question may be if, and more to the point how videogames are making the transition into being objects worthy of artistic attention. The academy has taken videogame criticism with a grain of salt, but the recent successes of games like Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch have opened up a space for the serious consideration of the medium.This kind of advocacy for videogames as art is distinct from the artistry of game design in the same way that literary criticism is distinct from literary creation. In other words, while game designers are often interested in pushing the boundaries of their art form as well as making money, the impulse of game criticism is often (for better or worse) retrospective, justifying or reifying the form through an ex post facto academic definition. To my mind, this transformation of videogames into art objects, particularly art objects palatable to the academy, primarily takes two forms which are usefully reflected in the recent academic publications I will be covering here. First, some critics attempt to elevate particular genres of videogames to the same status as the novel, as Anastasia Salter does in her What Is Your Quest?: From Adventure Games to Interactive Books. A homology with the novel, Salter suggests, would provide videogames with a position in the academic canon by redefining them as new iterations of an already canonical literary genre. Conversely, the anthology Videogames and Art, edited by Andy Clarke and Grethe Mitchell (now in its second edition; a kind of cultural legitimacy in its own right) collects articles from video game scholars and artists in an attempt to build a distinct canon for videogames that would legitimize them as art in their own right. Salter, therefore is attempting to finesse videogame study into the academic literary canon, whereas Clarke and Mitchell are approaching videogames as a medium already imbricated with the art market, seeking legitimacy for the form through its inclusion in the museum-as-such.

Yet, as I hope to show, an attempt to legitimize video games using either strategy is insufficient without a clear concept of what a “videogame aesthetic” in art would entail, and this conceptual framework remains unclear in both texts. While Salter, Clarke, and Mitchell provide compelling histories for the form – a strategy that might animate a project like the diversification of the USC videogame development program – all three are unable to transcend a culturally anthropological study of videogames except in their ultimately incomplete approach to the form’s aesthetic constraints. This incomplete vision, however, holds some promise. Salter’s utopian projections for the form as an interactive, “magical” novel and Clarke and Mitchell’s engagement with video game artists suggest a provisional payoff for the legitimization of videogames, one that has less to do with acknowledgement by the academy or the museum and more with what it understanding and curating videogames as works of art on their own terms.

In opposition to this broader goal, Salter’s monograph begins unambiguously with an appeal to the novel as an ultimate, as opposed to provisional, model for videogame canonicity. The epigraph to the introduction of What is Your Quest? is a short quote from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, in which a young girl engages with a responsive, interactive book. The connection Salter intends isn’t especially difficult to guess, and she is quick to make it clear that this “magical” book, an object that was pure speculative invention for Stephenson, has been made manifest in the figure of the iPad and other interactive vehicles for media. Interactivity is the central appeal for these “magical” texts, and Salter explains that the contemporary child who has access to the iPad “may carry her expectations of a touch-responsive interface to other media she encounters, and will respond to stories that respond to her interests and actions” (2). This appeal to an expansive reading practice is what Salter calls, citing Espen Aarseth, “ergodic” literature, which narrows “the distinction between reader, player, and author” in an effort to foster dialogue and co-authorship between the previously distant author and reader (4).Ergodic literature – aligned with Aarseth’s practice of ludology – is a popular but by no means totalizing frame for digital literature and videogames (or cybertexts) in general. Katherine Hayles, in her restrained but powerfully concise response to Markku Eskelinen’s dismissal of hypertext literature, makes it clear that critical reading practices, content analysis, and particularized textual attention does not simply fall out of work that engages its audience differently. Indeed, as the audience becomes more plural, Hayles seems to argue, so too must the critical gaze. Reader participation is the most important quality of interactive media for Salter, and this participation ranges from the relatively recent invention of the iPad to the older innovations of adventure games and interactive storytelling. In fact, Salter suggests that the adventure game might blur the distinction between author and reader into a total ambiguity: the form at once demands reader immersion into the given story while simultaneously offering collaboration with the author on the levels of form, plot, and character. Radically, and in something of a postmodern flourish, Salter insists that the collaborative quality of ergodic literature urges a reconsideration of traditional literature as well, as “the dialogue of book or game is incomplete without [the reader or player], and the same can be said for all the hybrid forms in between” (8). Video games, Salter argues, and particularly adventure games are not just ethnographic oddities or sub-canonical popular culture, but rather an occasion to reconsider our understanding of literary engagement in a moment when interactivity has become ubiquitous.

Much of this interactivity is made possible by the rise of the internet, as well as the emergence of publically available publishing tools for videogames that are not prohibitively expensive.From Adventure Game Maker to the Unity Engine, freeware or very cheap software exists for those people who want to produce their own videogames. Some very popular games like the recent Night in the Woods or Gone Home were made using the Unity engine, and have had quite a bit of commercial and critical success. Salter enthusiastically goes on to say that these means of communication and participation “promise to restore immediacy of connection between writer and reader…on a global scale” and that they promise an end of “the finality of print” (12). The continuity of ergodic literature is bolstered by the extreme identification interactive fiction and adventure games provide for their readers and players. Reading an interactive text, according to Salter, involves rejecting the focal lens of the self in favor of a vicarious identification with a character outside of the reader’s experience: “The focus on character rather than player makes the game ‘about’ someone with specific gender and class traits – which the player may or may not share – and places the player in dialogue with the storyteller’s world and characters” (6). Leaving aside for the moment the omission of race in the above “specificities” – after all, it’s hardly Salter’s fault that the videogame world is largely comprised of white avatars – we can see why Salter is so interested in explaining communal storytelling. In Salter’s account of ergodic literature, it is not only the author who surrenders total autonomy of her text to her reader – her reader surrenders their autonomy as well.

In order for adventure games and their co-creative impulses to impact the literary critical landscape in the way Salter intends though, they must not simply be accepted as a “new” genre in the way that, for instance, graphic novels have been accepted as an additional sub-genre of the larger corpus of novel. They must be regarded as a new medium to compete with or supersede our current understanding of the novel. Unfortunately, it is not made entirely clear in What is Your Quest? why adventure games would count as new mediums of art. Salter’s justification for adventure games’ position in the canon appears to come from a series of analogies and comparisons made between older experimental literature and ergodic literature. Most of these comparisons work on a kind of surface historical or anthropological level, as when Salter compares the Oulipo school of poetry – with its strict, game-like rules for composition that both hobbled and empowered its practitioners – with the strangely constraining form of the proto-videogame choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) book. Yet, while the formal similarities of compositional restrictions for author and reader link these two otherwise different forms, Salter’s comparison is less compelling on the level of aesthetics. Oulipo poetry, however randomized its compositional rules may make it, is the product of a fairly unified school – what Salter, quoting Daniel Levin Becker, refers to as a “laboratory” (15) – with a consistent, if not particular, political and aesthetic trajectory or mission in mind. At the very least, Oulipo has an audience, primarily of poets, in mind when it is being composed. CYOA novels do not. Indeed, the only constant in the composition of CYOA novels is that they are composed for the marketplace, and while this does not delegitimize the works by itself, the intentions of the CYOA authors can hardly be considered unified, certainly not in the sense of a literary “school.” Salter deftly historicizes and formalizes CYOA books as a kind of ergodic literature, but she cannot assign them an audience or an aesthetic goal. As such, CYOA only has the constraint of rules in common with the experimentation of Oulipo, but without any philosophical or aesthetic links between those rules, the critical force the comparison is meant to convey becomes harder to discern.

This is not to suggest that Salter is unrigorous in her analogies: her attempts to connect ergodic and traditional literature are careful and considerate. But ultimately and unfortunately, any aesthetic contiguities between these forms boil down to an appeal to reader participation. For Salter, who rejects the artistic claims of twitch-reflex videogames like Pong, as well as first-person shooters like Doom due to the lack of “cocreative input” from the reader (19), this poses a problem regardless of how Salter approaches her object. For if we are to focus on the medium specificity, or formal contents of videogames, then the interactivity of these less narrative games would demand their inclusion in a taxonomy of games criticism. And if, conversely, we are focusing on narrative content, then the simplistic storylines of a series like King’s Quest, one of Salter’s most fascinating case studies, would be fairly underwhelming set against more “traditional” and canonical literature. In other words, if games are to be important pieces of art, they must be not only be compared to the novel form, but made distinct and different from the canonical novel as well. If the endgame of What is Your Quest? is to insist upon the critical potential of videogames, as I have argued that it is, then Salter certainly succeeds in opening the door to this consideration. But while the inclusion of the reader in ergodic literature may indeed signify new methods of writing and reading literature, it does not change literature as such.

The issues Salter brings into focus about the future of literature are compelling, nevertheless, even if not immediately borne out in their urgency in her text. And Salter’s conclusion helpfully draws out a number of these major questions for literary study in the contemporary moment. In its concluding moments, What is Your Quest? asks its reader some difficult questions: is interactivity a component of literature moving forward whether we like it or not? Will medium specificity have to change as cross-platform electronic texts enter into the canon? Will fewer barriers to artistic production promote amateurism or co-authorship?For a helpful account of the entailments and potentialities of co-authorship in videogame literature, see Nick Monfort’s performative essay “Interactive Fiction” as well as Michael Mateas’ game-design influenced “A Preliminary Poetics”, both in Electronic Book Review. Is there even still a difference between the amateur and the artist? And perhaps most importantly, what would an “open” communication between author and reader/player mean? Ultimately, What is Your Quest? provides an engaging history of the adventure game genre with an important provocation folded in. I believe that Salter intends the book to be a shot across the bow to literary criticism, but in practice, it more forcefully poses the problem of interactivity to the literary academy and the digital marketplace. In order to narrow this compelling problematic into a question, a challenge, or a claim, we must add the figure and frame of the artist themselves. Clarke and Mitchell’s Videogames and Art accomplishes, at least in part, this element of the task.

Clarke and Mitchell’s co-edited anthology of essays is not burdened, as Salter’s monograph is, with any appeal to canonical literary or academic study: the book’s articles are strictly about and by videogame artists – though many of the artists themselves problematize the stability of that category. So while, like Salter, Clarke and Mitchell are interested in producing a text that argues for the acceptance of videogames into an art-critical consciousness, they are also often in direct conversation with artists. These artists are presented in their own words, in lengthy articles and interviews, and, unsurprisingly, they have a different relationship to their own work than do the critics included in Videogames and Art. While the critical contributions to Clarke and Mitchell’s anthology perform much of the same labor as Salter, historicizing and theorizing videogames within accepted aesthetic frames, the artists themselves present a more provisional and shifting perspective on what is artistic about “videogame art.”

The artists that write or are interviewed in Videogames and Art are prone to derailing the immediate endgame of canon creation, often in surprising and productive ways for critics who might be receptive to their work. We begin to see this in the text’s “Introduction,” where Clarke and Mitchell discuss the often fraught distinction between an interest in videogames and an interest in art, both for the artists they consider and the museum spaces that put these artists on display. Ventriloquizing complaints of artists pigeon-holed as “videogame artists,” Clarke and Mitchell explain that galleries interested in riding the trend of videogame art were historically less likely to provide serious “critical contextualization and analysis,” and instead presented the artworks “in terms of their lowest common denominator – that they used videogames” (8). Instead of exhibits brought together by a shared aesthetic or political commitment, the artistic goals of these artists were conflated with their medium of choice. What this curatorial conflation leaves out for Clarke and Mitchell are the thematic and formal differences in the artworks under the videogame rubric. Part of the importance of differentiating these artworks is the effort – made consistently through the anthology – to distinguish hobbyists who “mainly make straight copies” of their videogame inspirations, and artists who “add something [different]” (12).

In order to make a salient addition to the artistic canon – as well as a salient anthology – Clarke and Mitchell have to determine the standard under which a creator can make a claim to artistry as opposed to fandom. This standard seems, at least primarily, to be self-reflexivity: videogame art, they assert, exists “in a symbiotic relationship with the videogames themselves – not only appropriating their technology and iconography, but also commenting critically on the issues that the act of playing games raises” (25). On one hand, this leaves Clarke and Mitchell open to the classical dilemma of art and pornography – ‘I know the difference when I see it’ – and they acknowledge as much, speculating that videogame art might be “easy to recognize…[if] difficult to define formally” (26). This condition for legitimacy, howsoever imprecise, allows Videogames and Art to pursue an aesthetic definition for videogame art, from the openly political implications of self-reflexive, audience directed gaming to more artistically ambitious “framed” videogame art – in hardware, in physical space (22).

Yet while examples of medium-specific, even framed digital art are provided in Videogames and Art, much of the criticism in the anthology does not represent the rigorous problematic established in Clarke and Mitchell’s introduction. Rebecca Cannon’s “Meltdown,” for instance, is a fairly compelling account of the history of first person shooter modifications (mods) designed to replicate museum spaces, but this history is distilled by Cannon to the uncomplicated political commentary these mods can convey to or about their audience. The examples of artist-modified videogames given by Cannon either reveal sociological qualities of gameplay – as in Tekken Torture Tournament, a game that shocked players as their avatars took physical damage – or employ “deconstructive techniques [to expose] the greater functioning of game mechanics and their true, or hidden, power over players” (Cannon 56). Cannon’s reading of videogame art as politically defamiliarizing is certainly fair, but this explanation does little to distinguish these works as art from, say, propaganda, pedagogy, or the kind of design manifesto in a program like USC’s. While we may agree or disagree with the videogames’ politics, we are given no sense of the ways in which these politics might inform their aesthetics.

This blindness to aesthetic distinction in videogame art often crosses over into the artists who are interviewed as well. The artist Katherine Neil in conversation with Melanie Swalwell describes her Half-Life mod, Escape from Woomera, as a “first-person adventure/role-playing game, based in the confines of the [Woomera] detention centre [in Australia], as a sort of classic game-dungeon scenario” (307). And Neil is indeed following through on the promise that Cannon ascribes to videogame art, creating a disruptive game-experience, merging the first person shooter with a simulation of a real world political struggle in an effort to shock the viewer out of their ideological safety into a critique of violence in the world. But as laudatory as Neil’s project may be politically, educating on the difficulties of refugee populations through immersion does not justify videogames’ place in the museum, even if it justifies their place in wider cultural critique. Videogames, like any serious discourse, often convey important political or sociological messages to their playing audience, as Neil does with Woomera. But, we must then ask, what precisely do these messages have to do with the artistic discourse of the museum?

Videogames and Art goes a long way toward answering this question – a question that echoes Salter’s concerns with interactivity – and many of these answers come in the interviews and short pieces by videogame artists in its “Artists on Art” section. Neil’s account of her Woomera work is in this section, and this section is also deeply concerned with the political efficacy of videogames. But Clarke and Mitchell also include interviews with artists who have no tangible political motives to their art. For instance, JODI (the collaborative pairing of Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans) commit to aesthetic form over political appeal when they say that videogame (or as they call it, “digital”) art will truly arrive when it makes “its own criteria and standards, which is [sic] not about technology or interaction with the public and also not about being viewed as a subdirectory of fine arts” (290). JODI here distinguish their glitch modifications of first person shooters from works like Joseph Delappe’s dead-in-iraq. Delappe pursues many of the same claims as Neil in dead-in-iraq, as he spent time typing the names of dead Iraqi War veterans’ into the multiplayer chat of the propaganda game America’s Army. Provocative as it may be, awareness of the lived cost of war is a political project that does not necessarily need the videogame form to land; glitch work, on the other hand, cannot be accomplished without the videogame form. In other words, while Delappe’s work – and his interview – is important as political commentary on media ideology, JODI’s glitch mods ask the question of all seriously self-reflexive videogame art: what is the distinction between a game and an art object?Aarseth, Eskelinen, and others would have a number of answers to this question, many of which might boil down to “what difference?” For my purposes, somewhere in-between narratology and ludology, I have to confess to seeing these as distinct. Chess or football don’t have an aesthetic, per se, but Myst or even America’s Army does. The question that I think these texts attempt to answer can be boiled down to “how come?”

Unsurprisingly given the ambition of the question, Videogames and Art cannot work out a complete account of the formal distinctiveness of videogame art. But the anthology’s great strength is that it provides many provocative approaches to the issue of videogame aesthetics. Interviews with artists like igloo, JODI, and Brody Condon all provide important contributions toward a fuller definition of what counts as “videogame art” and what does not. Condon, in an interview with Andy Clarke, comes closest to defining videogame art with respect to the game/non-game binary when he defends his choice – as in his Waco Resurrection, which used a sensory-mask of pixelized David Koresh, as a game-input – to use specifically customized hardware for his games:

Only as software, pieces often rot on my hard drive. However, when embedded in hardware they are framed by a very specific time, tech, and dissemination method, and a clear statement is made concerning their intended purpose (122, emphasis mine).

For Condon, the aestheticized and historicized frame of the computer itself does not obviate the need for the artistry of software, but instead folds the software into a historically and materially determined form. It is not enough to have the fleeting interactive impact a purely ephemeral videogame world might have on a videogame audience; it isn’t about, in other words, playing the game. Instead, the sentiment behind the game must persist and be locatable. It seems to me that in Condon’s vision of fixity, videogame art comes closest carving out a space for the appreciation of videogames on the basis of aesthetic merit, and not merely profit or novelty.In this way, I come closer to Aarseth’s demands to study games as such, as opposed to under a particular disciplinary schema. While I expect I would still fail to check all of the boxes for a committed ludologist, I find that imagining videogames as a sort of next-step-evolution of literature or the novel – as Janet Murray does at least in part in her response to Aarseth’s critique of her own article – is not particularly plausible. The videogame, in other words, is both something deeply familiar and deeply alien, and that’s why it’s compelling as an aesthetic object.

And perhaps we can follow Condon’s vision to spiritual successors in the contemporary games marketplace that come even closer, and potentially achieve the sort of aesthetic identity we have been looking for. The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther and Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture reflect a sort of experiential fixity, closing off the experience of their player to that of a flaneur or observer. These games – which, along with Fullbright’s Gone Home and others – have earned the genre moniker of “walking simulator,” as they present a space in which a player simply observes and is forced to engage with the world of the game on the game’s very limiting terms. Furthermore, games like Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch frame videogames as heuristic devices by which we can understand complex, psychological elements of ourselves – in the case of Edith Finch, our grief and relationship to familial death and legacy. And this utilization of videogames continues in games like Infinite Fall’s remarkable Night in the Woods, in which narratives of poverty, fear, anxiety, and maturity, among many others, are woven together through the use and interrogation of traditional videogame mechanics. Materiality and framing techniques may not be the only way forward for videogame art, but the productive limitations the games above use to tell their stories and disseminate their aesthetic claims may be a place to start thinking seriously about the – possibly multimodal, post- or contra-novelistic – medium specifity of videogames as such.

In the end, then, Clarke and Mitchell’s anthology and Salter’s monograph are works that are marked by passionate but incomplete critical defenses of videogames. But, this lack of completion is hardly the fault of the authors themselves. Part historians, part critics, part aestheticians, Salter, Clarke, and Mitchell must make the case for videogames as acceptable as well as aesthetically important art. Both texts succeed at making a case for videogames’ “acceptability” as art or literature, but this is a relatively low bar to clear in the contemporary, relatively open academy. That these two texts attempt to go farther and put a name and a form to an ambiguous and challenging field is what is remarkable about them. Neither text succeeds exactly in describing or codifying videogame aesthetics. But both challenge the immediacy of experience in the medium specificity of the videogame and attempt to locate a fixity to the form itself. The effort to define a disciplinary focus – missteps and useful moments both – makes these texts inarguably important in the infancy of videogame criticism and videogame aesthetics.

Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen. “Genre Trouble.” Electronic Book Review (21 May 2004): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Clarke, Andy and Grethe Mitchell, eds. Videogames and Art. Second edition. Chicago: Intellect, the University of Chicago Press, 2013. Print.

Eskelinen, Markku. “Towards Computer Game Studies.” Electronic Book Review (22 May 2004): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. H

ayles, Katherine. “What Cybertext Theory Can’t Do.” Electronic Book Review (15 Feb. 2015): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” Electronic Book Review (10 July 2004): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Martens, Todd. “Super Mario Sisters? At USC, women now outnumber men in video game design graduate program.” Los Angeles Times (21 Jan. 2016): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Mateas, Michael. “A Preliminary Poetics.” Electronic Book Review (1 May 2004): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Monfort, Nick. “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star.” Electronic Book Review (30 Dec. 2000): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

—. “Interactive Fiction.” Electronic Book Review (17 Apr. 2005): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Murray, Janet. “From Game-Story to Cyberdrama.” Electronic Book Review (1 May 2004): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

—. “Janet Murray responds in turn.” Electronic Book Review (2 May 2004): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Salter, Anastasia. What is Your Quest?: From Adventure Games to Interactive Books. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014. Print.