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Towards Videogame Aesthetics III: Against Interpretation

Sontag Why is game aesthetics essential to establishing the status of games as art? The answer lies in the reasons why critical interpretation of art cannot be allowed to dominate discussions of any medium.

In 1964, literary theorist Susan Sontag (pictured) published an influential essay entitled 'Against Interpretation', which argued that the twentieth century was suffocating the power of art beneath an obsession with interpretation. Sontag suggested that art criticism had reached a situation whereby its process "excavates" an artwork in order to uncover meaning, and in doing so destroyed what was of value about the artwork. She called interpretation "the revenge of the intellect upon art", and sited the problem most firmly in literary criticism (her own field). It was her view that criticism undermined the capacity "real art has… to make us nervous", making it manageable. She stated: "By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art", and asserted that "the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their 'meanings'."

Although she was certainly not thinking about games as part of her criticism, it carries forward comfortably into that arena. The limp reviews that pass as standard in the context of digital games really do reduce these art works to content – namely feature lists and basic descriptions of play. Of course, many of the games being reviewed are also radically short of the high standards a critic like Sontag would require of "real art", but it certainly doesn't help our medium advance that we primarily treat digital games the same way we treat consumer electronics – in terms of the bells and whistles. Elegance in design is seldom if ever noticed, let alone encouraged. The absence of game aesthetics leads to an assessment of individual titles in terms of their most superficial features – it judges them in the way a teenager appraises an action movie, or a theme park ride. "That was fun! Let's do it again!" From the point of view of games as commercial objects, this is adequate. From the point of view of games as art, this is radically deficient.

Bogost's unit operations, as we saw last week, move past this shallow end of the pool by taking us into the possibility of applying an expanded version of literary theory to digital games – one small step for art criticism, one giant leap for the medium of games. But his approach is antithetical to Sontag's stance in 'Against Interpretation', which denies the supremacy of interpretation and baulks at its dominance in discussions of art. Bogost takes us a step closer to treating digital games as relevant cultural artefacts, but this is not enough to secure the status of digital games as art. We need a lot more, and in particular, we need at least one coherent account of game aesthetics. At the moment, we don't have any.

There is at least one thread of contemporary philosophy that might be used against such an argument. French philosopher Alain Badiou contends in Handbook of Inaesthetics that aesthetics is tied to what he called the 'classical schema' of art, and savages this approach by dismissing aesthetics as "the rules of liking". Certainly, this is a neat characterisation of what is involved in aesthetics, but Badiou's dismissive attitude in this regard is misguided. The exploration of the "rules of liking" is a perfectly valid philosophical activity, and to exclude it from consideration is to impoverish philosophy unnecessarily. Badiou's inaesthetics (which he claims is the only true connection there can be between philosophy and art) is intended to serve the purpose of keeping the truth of art in art itself, limiting philosophy of art to the sole goal of proclaiming the truth of art and to help in remaining faithful to those truths.

Badiou's 'truth', however, is very different from what most of us would consider 'truth' – I have great sympathy with his account, but it does need some debugging (although this is something to be pursued elsewhere and elsewhen). Badiou considers everything that takes place in ordinary life to be merely "opinion", and sees truth as something that pierces the circumstances (the state) of a situation via a specific event. Like Plato, Badiou prioritises an absolute truth, and risks dismissing anything less than this as irrelevant, and certainly as unimportant for philosophy. But this is to condemn philosophy to a permanent divorce from the everyday world. Like Mary Midgley before me, I see these kinds of attitudes as something of a betrayal of the potential of philosophy, which in its role of sorting out the "conceptual plumbing" (to use Midgley's memorable phrase) can help resolve confusions and disputes in the world at large. There is a place for the kind of philosophy Badiou proposes – but it cannot be allowed to destroy the utility of philosophy for life, nor can it be permitted to monopolise philosophical discourse.

But if Badiou is right that aesthetics is the "rules of liking", does this mean that it is a topic for science and not philosophy? I do not believe this approach can be correct either. Empirical science is concerned with testable models, drawing upon measurable data. While a science of aesthetics is certainly possible it will risk on the one hand bleaching out the diversity of aesthetic responses (which is a risk whenever statistics are deployed as a tool) and on the other falling into another kind of interpretation. We can imagine a statement such as "this painting is beautiful because these dimensions release endomorphins" – but really such a sentence describes the biology of aesthetic response. That certainly is a subject for science. But aesthetics in philosophy is the exploration of the space supported by such biology, and this is barely a topic for science at all. My own work investigating how and why we play games from a neurobiological perspective provides a foundation from which analytic philosophy could branch out into game aesthetics, but there must be a transition at some point from the empirical perspective to the reflective perspective of philosophy.

Yet for all his disdain for 'classical' philosophy of art, Badiou is not on an entirely different page from Sontag. Badiou wants his inaesthetics to show art 'as it is'. Sontag, similarly, states: "The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." This goal – showing art as what it is – is one which is supported by aesthetic discussions in philosophy of art, although it certainly shouldn't be assumed that this reflective process has any priority over art itself: it is and must be subordinate to art. This, perhaps, is precisely Badiou's claim. But he could not reach his conclusions concerning inaesthetics if he did not have the work of two millennia of philosophy of art to push against.

In the case of videogames, we do not have two thousand years of art philosophy to draw against – in fact, what we have is a widespread prejudice emerging from our philosophical, critical and cultural traditions that seeks to dismiss games as artistically significant. However, as I have continued to argue, if Kendall Walton's prop theory demonstrates that all art is a kind of game, this kind of exclusion must come to an end. We can hardly recognise that our great paintings, movies and symphonies can be seen as games of make-believe without acknowledging that games of all kinds are part of a continuum of artistic expression. If we are to show games as artworks in terms of being what they are (following Sontag and Badiou's arguments) we absolutely need an aesthetics of games that can extend the existing discourse concerning art to the aesthetic experiences of playing a game. This is what game aesthetics can and must do if we are to finally demolish Ebert's fence and secure the status of digital games as a viable, valuable and vibrant form of art.

More game aesthetics later this year!


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