Blog Post

Interface Seminar: The Aesthetics of Gaming

I'll skip over the Seminar that myself and Julian and Marilyn Lombardi ran, for my slides on the history of object-oriented programming are on the Web and to be honest, you have to simply see OpenCroquet yourself. To return to gaming from object-oriented programming, We more or less had to turn off the left side of our brains to understand aesthetics in games. In what might on the surface appear to be a backwards step, but one that in reality led our discussion forward!), we began our exploration of aesthetics in games by viewing Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. In particular, Matthew Barney's lush visuals and focus on action do share much with video games, despite being in the medium of film. For our reading, we investigated first Vivian Sobchack's "The Passion of the Material: Toward a Phenomenology of Interobjectivity". This heady philosophical work basically is trying to ground out ethics in ideas of embodiment as opposed to some objective notion of moral value by studying how Maurice Merlau-Ponty in the "Visible and the Invisible" defines the concept of the "the limit between the body and the world"This turns us back away from the virtuality of Second Life back, to all things, the good old skin and bones - or "flesh" of embodiment. Elena del Rio summarizes the idea of the "flesh" is "the manner in which subject and object inhabit each other." The flesh seems to take the place of the machine in many of our other readings. Despite my general feeling that the important part of this age is our increasingly fluid sense of embodiment, the focus of Sobchack makes sense in terms of an immanent ethics: "In this sense of passion as suffering the agency and the power of external forces on our lived bodies that provides us the material foundations that primordially grounds the possibility of our ethical behavior towards others and the world" (p288)Futhermore, "Material objects in the world are not only sensible to our own flesh but how they also can make us devoted and responsible to the flesh of the world and others." (295)Going in a similar direction to the work in intersubjectivity, in order to ground out ethics we can define interobjective is the subjective way of perceiving objectivity, grounded in our material beings" and so "interobjectivity names the condition of a deep and passionate recognition of ourselves and the objective world filled with "things and "others" as immanently together in the flesh" (318). Absoluting thrilling - and this definition of flesh is so loose it may let in our technological constructs as well as our all-too-human flesh as well. Torben Grudal in the work Stories for Eye, Ear, and Muscles makes the main point is to look at how the development of narration is motivated by our biological bodies: "The story is a collection of events that focus on a few living being....the story-mechanisms in the brain provide the superior framework for our experience of events by integrating perceptions, emotions, cognitions, and actions."As someone who did their master thesis on computational models of stories, I find the idea that stories are fundamentally not computational but based our biology to make sense, as "stories" are neurally embodied and take advantage of our neural structure. However, my question is what in the brain activates to structure our narrative experience? Some sort of narrative analog to the dorsal and ventral must exist in the brain somewhere...Grudal makes the distinction between stories as l'enonce (the story as such) vs. l'enunciation,the story as discourse. L'enonce focuses on the actual physical act of "telling story" instead of "retelling" or "representation", since the story is "a progressing present."(134)Some theoreticians think that empathic emotions are more valuable than first-person emotions...thus Marie-Laure Ryan uses such an emotion valorization as an argument against video game stories and possible VR stories because such stories are better at presenting first-person emotions than, for instance, novels that excel in evoking empathic involvement. (136)Films made it possible to cue and simulate an experience that is close to first person perception. (138) and so by providing an "interactive" motor dimension to story experience the computer adds a powerful new dimension to the possibility of simulating first person experience. (138)Our experience of our interactive capabilitiees are, however, not constant over time. When beginning a new behavior and/or learning an new environment, we may feel that we have many options that depends on our choices.(144)One main difference between video-games, and say film, is their non-linearity: "We may conclude that stories are essential linear in their realization..the story as a sequence of significant events is linear because a significant story realizes on causalites...freedom is the transient feeling that precedes a choice. (146)And so in essence a video game is a non-linear story dependent on the motor action of the player(s). Quite a nice summing up. Our discussion of Cremaster ranged widely. Cremaster refers to the muscle used to lower the penis, and as such is a blantatly gendered and fleshy term, which reminds me of Lyotard's final work on gender as the essential differend.Cremaster doesn't follow a linear narrative much like a "game" and the story is directed often by Barney's actions and his stumbling upon the object and puzzles. Given the notion of Barney as a "player of a game", is Barney narcissistic, or is he really engaging them as subjects? It appears he's not "obsessing" about himself but trying to convey some experience for the sake of its sheer beauty.Both Tim Lenoir and Rob Mitchell discussed the notion of narrative as based on rules, and that there was clearly some sort of narrative going on in Cremaster, although it was quite hard to detect whether a particular scene was symbolic or not. Kristine Stiles noted that there was some level of repetition in Barney, and so is repetition essential to games and modern art? Furthermore, how do we relate to hybrid human/animal, as exemplfied in Cremaster by the (rather gruesome!) exiting tooth from anus. Mitali then noted that color and other materialities represent the rules, an unfolding process, which only Barney has the "key" to and our work is to find "the rules." Jennifer Rhee commented that Barney provides a material bridge between games and movies, and so concretely explains by example how ethics can arise from what appears to be a shallow amount of violence. So maybe there is some hope for an ethics of immanence emerging from the digital violence of video games! And perhaps a notion of beauty and structure to replace the worn notions of the industrial and pre-industrial ages.


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