One of my philosophy projects this year is the adaptation and development of resources in philosophy of art to provide the foundation for game aesthetics. Let me be clear: I do not mean aesthetics of the art resources used in games, but an aesthetics of games as games. This will certainly involve the representational elements, such as the graphics in a videogame, or the design of pieces in a board game, but it must involve much more. There is an aesthetic experience within any game that relates to its functional elements, and it is this for which no theory currently exists.
While I expect this aesthetic theory will be most useful in the context of videogames, it is my claim that any theory of game aesthetics that does not apply to other kinds of games is inherently inadequate since (as I lured Miguel Sicart into admitting) there are no fundamentally insurmountable differences between digital games and other forms. Therefore, whatever this new theory is, it must work for board games, card games, tabletop role-playing games, and even children’s games of make-believe as well as for digital games. But the question of how to construct such an aesthetic theory is not an easy problem to crack – in part because, until the mid-twentieth century, aesthetics was overly focussed on the question of 'beauty'.
It was Frank Sibley in his 1964 paper 'Aesthetic Concepts' who set the stage for a new approach to philosophy of art, one that would be taken up by Kendall Walton and others and developed in new directions. Sibley suggested that the focus on 'beauty' as the sine qua non of aesthetics was too narrow, and that there were many other aesthetic dimensions of art that could be discussed – as indicated by terms such as 'unified', 'balanced', 'pretty' or 'dynamic'. Sibley suggested that aesthetic properties supervened on (i.e. depended upon) non-aesthetic properties. The latter could be determined by anyone – the position of features in a painting, the exact colour of a pigment, the frame rate of an animation – but the former required a "special sensitivity". This latter point has been disputed – but Sibley's general observation that aesthetic qualities are different in kind to non-aesthetic properties yet are intimately connected to them remains relevant.
Sibley's work has bearing on attempts to construct an aesthetics of games, because it points (in a manner relating to Wittgenstein's later philosophy) toward the connection between the words we use to express aesthetic ideas and the qualities we are noting that are of interest. It is my claim that because we can talk of a particular game being "well-paced", "frantic" or a "grind"; because we can describe a particular synthetic world as "immersive", "non-linear" or "dynamic"; because we can consider particular mechanics as "unbalanced", "forgiving" or "harsh" we already have the sign that a concept of game aesthetics is viable. Indeed, an informal aesthetic conception of play must already be at use in the popular following for games
In a ground-breaking paper entitled 'The Aesthetics of Gameplay: A Lexical Approach', Jose Zagal and Noriko Tomuro provide an account of a "popular aesthetics of gameplay" based on lexical analysis of amateur game reviews that clearly demonstrates aesthetic concepts in connection with gameplay – specifically, in the case of this study, in the contexts of pacing, complexity, scope, demand and impact. Zagal and Tomuro show that the players at large already have aesthetic conceptions that they use to interpret games, albeit without the sophistication one might expect from critics working in other media. What we lack, and what I claim we need, is an aesthetic theory that will bear the weight of the terms we already use, that explain their relation and interrelation, and that will connect their usage to other art forms.
It would be easy to wonder what the point of this might be – after all, if we're already talking about game aesthetics, what do we need a theory for? There are at least three good answers to this question. Firstly, we need it for ourselves in order to ground the discourse that we are already having about games. In the absence of a firm (or at least viscous) foundation we risk talking past each other, or arguing about things that upon reflection might not be that important in the wider scheme of things. Secondly, we need it for our medium, in order to better understand what it is we do, how and why it works, and how it could be done better. Continuing to borrow from movie aesthetics and criticism will not help the artistic status of our medium, for to do so is to admit the insignificance of games as games. Lastly, and relatedly, we need it to validate out medium by positioning it in the wider discussions of art – to secure games as art in a manner that can no longer be argued against. I have already made a start on this epic task with my new book Imaginary Games, which is out early 2012, but there is still a great deal to be done.
At the moment, "videogame journalism" – except in very rare cases – does not rise to the level of art criticism. Hell, it doesn't even rise to the level of most film review. It is a tacky hodge-podge of consumer evaluations, feature lists and strident opinions in which videogame addicts bitch to one another about how things aren't exactly how they want them to be – despite the fact that the entire videogame industry is largely constructed to service precisely those self-absorbed narcissistic players who complain when games aren't exactly what they want them to be. Because of this, games which manage to reach a little bit further into interesting directions (or that reach out to a wider audience) rarely get a fair shake in videogame reviews. If your game isn't designed to push the buttons of gamers, good luck in review. Other than Kelly Heckman (who amongst her other talents is capable of reviewing children's games), I have met few game reviewers capable of serving the important community role of a reviewer – that is, a person who considers who might enjoy a particular game. Most game reviews begin with the assumption of an objective standard for evaluation, one that happens to correpond to the reviewers tastes.
So it seems we are not doing very well in the context of videogame reviews, let along videogame criticism. Possibly this points to the unlikelihood of ever getting to a better state of affairs, but I think perhaps it is merely a symptom of a medium which has skipped too rapidly up the commercial dimension and too slowly up the artistic dimensions. When videogames hit the mainstream – which, I might add, was almost instantly with early titles such as Pong (Atari 1972), Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) and Pac-man (Namco, 1980) – there was already a well established economic establishment driven by marketing concerns and saturating popular culture via television. We did not have the grace period that other media enjoyed to explore our artistry outside of the harsh lens of commercial concerns. What little improvement can be reported thus far can primarily be attributed to a stubborn guerrilla mentality in the indie "art games" community, and a tiny cadre of commercial developers being granted some freedom to explore the artistic potential of the medium.
An art criticism expressly intended for videogames – or a theory or theories of game aesthetics – is much more than we need to fix the problem with videogame reviews. But then, the problem with the poor quality of videogame reviews is a symptom of the low esteem paid to the form and its slavery to market economics, not a problem with the medium itself. This, I suspect, might fix itself the more that games move beyond the testosterone-dominated cul-de-sac that our commercial history has led us into. But perhaps even this problem could be expeditiously resolved if we had some help from philosophy of art to establish a framework for critical thinking in the context of play experiences. This process, as I hope to show in the weeks to come, has already begun. But we still have a long way to go. At the end of this road we should be able to talk about what is artistically interesting about games in many different contexts – which will certainly include the violent-competitive and strategic-calculative forms that currently dominate, but which might hopefully also include other aesthetic forms of play, the genesis of which may already have begun.
Next week: Unit Operations