The Aesthetics of the Video Game

Space Invaders: the early origins of video games.

Tonight is the night of the 7th British Academy Video Games Awards, a ceremony which since 2003 has rewarded the creators of virtual environments that have had men, women and children alike frantically throwing their thumbs around all year. The host of the event, comedian Dara O’Briain, defended the right of the video game genre to be considered a form of art in an interview this morning for the BBC’s breakfast show, against the initial (and perhaps persisting) incredulity of his hosts.

The problem facing O’Briain is not one that has eluded treatment in the field of contemporary aesthetics and the philosophy of art. As surveyed by Grant Tavinor for Philosophy Compass, some interesting questions begin to emerge when the conceptual analyses of traditional philosophical aesthetics are applied to the increasingly sophisticated worlds of computer games. He notes, for example, the attempts by Aaron Smuts to relate Noël Carroll’s historical theory of art to video games, insofar as the genre is apt to be given a historical narrative charting its reactions to artistic concerns, such as the problem of involving an audience in the artwork. Tavinor also records his own contribution to this recent research avenue, which is to show that video games meet a significant number of the criteria stipulated in the ‘cluster’ accounts of art offered by eminent philosophers Denis Dutton and Berys Gaut. The criteria of representation, imaginative experience, emotional saturation and direct pleasure are, according to Tavinor, just some examples which are more or less met by the complexities of the modern video game.

Another interesting problem that the philosophy of video games occasions is the question of their ontological status, that is, what form their existence takes. A distinction with inestimable explanatory power in philosophical aesthetics, and elsewhere, is the type/token distinction. Artworks that are multiply reproduced, such as the numerous copies of poems, photographs and films, are quite comfortably categorised as particular tokens of a universal type, the type being the abstract artistic structure shared between all of these concrete instances. Things, however, become more complex with video games, Tavinor notes. Unlike films, for example, the sophistications of the modern video game allow for dovetailing narratives that create a unique gaming experience for each and every gamer, the minute details of which are determined by his or her decisions during gameplay. Rather than the artistic structure then, which is clearly malleable by design, a new candidate must be found that can be counted as the type for which each instance of a given game is a token. One suggestion is that the very computational algorithms that allow for such a broad range of possibilities within the game count as the type, in the way that all games of chess are united not by what transpires in the game but the rules of movements and procedures that are available, or, to reign ourselves back into the arts, the variations a jazz musician can conjure out of a basic melody without creating a new piece altogether.

It may be because of the relative youth of the video game that as an art form it is treated with suspicion, a point which O’Briain mentioned in his interview. This is perhaps also attributable to a snobbishness on the part of the guardians, puritans and fetishists of Art, a point which O’Briain was perhaps too polite to mention. Philosophy, at least, is beginning to realise the emerging artistic potential of this genre, and some philosophers appear to be looking forward to a fresh supply of new problems.

Related Articles

Videogames and Aesthetics
Grant Tavinor

Debates about the Ontology of Art: What are We Doing Here? (p 245-255)
Amie L. Thomasson

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