Art, beauty and video games
Ever since the Romantics repurposed the word “art” as the name for a certain set of human disciplines, creativity has been undergoing an identity crisis. If art is a category, then what fits into it? What doesn’t fit into it? By the end of the 20th century, these problems led to the veneration of dull, irrelevant and uninspired work on the grounds that it is “art”; and to the exile of much high-quality work simply because it is not “art”. Debates over the label’s ambit rage on to this day—most recently in the case of video games. Now, our view is that art does not exist, which makes obvious our response to this newest controversy. A more pressing issue is the continuing dismissal of video games as valueless timesinks, as work without cultural importance. The question must be asked: are video games good? Are they interesting—can they spark the imagination? Are they meaningful? Do they enrich lives and expand horizons?
Put plainly, the answer is “yes”; but a case must be built to support this conclusion. First, a note on method. Modern art theory, based as it is upon false premises, is useless for analyzing the worth of video games. Instead, this writer will leverage pre-modern art theory—or, more properly, aesthetics—, which did not discriminate between mediums. Neither was it affiliated with “self-expression”: we find at the core of ancient aesthetics a focus on depiction, on surfaces, which ignores the artist’s intentions and character. In both the East and West, ancient thinkers believed these “aesthetic structures” (to call them art would be misleading and self-defeating) to have a spiritual end. They were depictions crafted to enrich the lives of their viewers; to elicit near-religious experience. Works in the pre-modern mentality, then, are surface- and viewer-based. The artist vanishes.
These ideas have resurfaced in recent times. During the 1940s, John Cage learned from a Hindu musician that the purpose of aesthetic structures is “to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences”. In 2003, David S. Oderberg advocated a return to pre-modern aesthetics as explicated by the medieval scholastics, particularly Thomas Aquinas. And, last year, G. Christopher Williams leveraged Aristotle—one of ancient aesthetics’ most important theorists—in a PopMatters article, in which he suggests that video games cannot be aesthetic structures. Such structures inspire what he calls the “aesthetic response”, which, in his view, might be precluded by the immediacy and interactivity of video games. Ignoring his absurd remark that “simplicity has some essentially more beautiful composition than that which is baroque”—a topic for another time—, he offers an interesting case.
Williams tells us that the aesthetic response is an experiential feeling, which might also be called “radiance”: Aristotle’s third criterion of beauty. (The other two are wholeness and harmony, words hard to translate and impossible to define without a lengthy digression.) It is the spiritual experience toward which ancient aesthetic structures were directed. Williams correctly notes the futility of describing this feeling in concrete terms, just as one cannot explain “the color red to someone who has never seen the color before”. It is a form of pleasure, but one should heed Oderberg’s warning that the core pleasure of an aesthetic structure is “[n]ot pleasure in the narrow modern sense of carnal satisfaction, sensory thrill, shock or excitement.” Indeed, Williams writes that the pleasure of playing Call of Duty is little different from that of riding a roller coaster; a non-aesthetic thrill, in his view. In the high point of his article, Williams offers this comment:
"In that sense, one way that I like to think of aesthetic response is that it is a feeling of awe (though that is a slightly inaccurate and abstract word) when recognizing a very well arranged object or idea or image or story. It is, maybe, a sense of appreciating something that is well designed."
Williams believes that this feeling occurs during emotionally detached contemplation of a work’s “intellectual components”. He argues from T. S. Eliot that the necessary condition for the aesthetic response is mediacy. Citing Hamlet, Williams writes that it is the very distance between the audience and the events onstage that brings out “all of the [play’s] moral, political, and social implications”. The audience is meant to consider these aspects “in repose and ostensibly in an unemotional or objective way.” He maintains that the happenings of Hamlet are not “in any way my problem”—they are “just a circumstance to ponder.” By contrast, video games place one in an immediate scenario devoid of Williams’ distance. At the end of his piece, he considers the possibility of setting aside the “fleeting, visceral responses” that occur while playing a video game, so that one might reach the Tootsie Roll at the center.
The idea that detachment and rationalism create the aesthetic response is hardly unique to Williams: it is an atrocity common to modern thought. Beneath the façade of enlightened intellectualism, though, we find what Saul Bellow pinpointed as the elevation of meaning over feeling. It is a way of escaping the intense “passion and death” of an immediate surface experience; it is a way of taking control. Williams is merely continuing the modern and post-modern tradition of stripping away the immediate, of ushering out every particular, so that one may watch from a comfortable (ironic) distance. In essence, we are told that truth appears only after all tangible content has been evacuated, and after surface has been forsaken in favor of subtext. For Williams, as for so many before him, the aesthetic response is not an explosive immediacy in which the viewer and surface connect, but a closed, distant, cold and hollow dissection.
Breaking with this false narrative, it must be said that the aesthetic response—the experience of beauty—occurs while one is in the trenches. It begins and ends with the tangible, “fleeting” and particular experiences of the surface, to which beauty is hopelessly conjoined. Every manifestation of beauty is this particular manifestation; and to abstract beauty from the particular in which it inheres is to annihilate it. To experience beauty, then, we must rely on what Bellow terms “naïve” reading: we must take a child’s view. Amid the “passion and death” of the surface, the “feeling of awe” brought on by the perception of beauty arrives without mediation, like the recognition of an old friend. That is, it is known even before it is known, a sudden realization of something that has always already been realized, prior to any mediation. The further one gets from this immediate experience, the further one gets from an aesthetic response. Williams’ holding cell of ironic distance, then, is completely empty.
With that out of the way, it is clear that the immediacy of video games does not disqualify them as aesthetic structures. In fact, we should be grateful that modern art theory has yet to diminish that immediacy; and we should hope that other forms one day return to the same. Yet, Williams is correct that “thrill” and “awe” are different. Although both appear on the surface, one does not entail the other. In order to analyze video games as aesthetic structures, it is not enough merely to study their thrills: we must know their beauty as well. (Careful examination, far from being ruled out by “naïve” reading, is often integral to experiencing surface content, as when one looks closely at a page of the Book of Kells.) Since beauty is always the beauty of a particular, the central beauty of video games must be located in the particularity that defines the medium: the balance between authorship and player involvement.
In less abstract terms, authorship is the “script” and mechanics and visual-aural world created by the developer; and player involvement is “agency” and “immersion”, as well as the thoughts and reactions that occur outside of the game. Too much authorship reduces a game to a long film, and too much player involvement dissolves all structure. Neither extreme is a video game. Between the two poles, we find everything from The Portopia Serial Murder Case to Super Mario Bros. to Thief: The Dark Project. Every great game, down to its most basic components, strikes a unique balance between authorship and player involvement. Some, like Thief, use authored systems to generate an immersive, “emergent” environment for the player; others, like Portopia, create player involvement through puzzle-solving and logic, which occur in reaction to a tightly-scripted game world; and still others, like Mario, require the player to use skill to overcome challenges built by the developer. And so on.
This balance, when achieved, is as beautiful as well-sculpted marble; and experiencing it gives rise to an aesthetic response. It is the happiness of manipulating water in Fluidity, and the awe experienced by a player of Thief when she witnesses a complex emergent event. It is the ethereal sensation of wandering through the Phendrana Drifts in Metroid Prime. The great designer Shigeru Miyamoto often refers to such feelings as “fun”, but he is incorrect. They are, without a doubt, aesthetic responses. (Perhaps his confusion arises from the devalued, modern definition of beauty: the term in its proper use stretches from Hieronymus Bosch to Titian to Cy Twombly; from the Taj Mahal to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.) In any case, video games are capable of being beautiful and of generating an aesthetic response. If this in itself renders a work meaningful and life-enriching—and it does—, then we must conclude that video games fall under those labels. The consequences of this realization will be fleshed out at a later date.
Still Eating Oranges