Video Game Culture: Artform or Facade?

(10-Minute Read)

In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin criticizes film as a new art form due to its underlying political nature that aimed to control society. While he saw that the new art forms had an aesthetic experience about them he calls exhibition value, he eventually concluded that their underlying, negative political influence far outweighed any positive social impact that they might cause. Currently, there is a new focused placed on video games as they classify an age of interactive digital media. Benjamin would call video games a fallen form of art, whose aesthetic features do not meet the cult value of authenticity, but rather a function constricting the perceptions and experiences of those who interact with them. In response to Benjamin’s essay, one might consider that politics has always classified the art forms and that his view does not take into account the recent change in game dynamics in which the games are used for a philosophical purpose.[1]

The original aesthetic function of art, according to Benjamin, is most noticed in the Pre-Modern era. Pre-modern art is rooted in tradition and ritual, consequently allowing for the ultimate “expression of the will,” as viewers are required to contemplate and comprehend the art’s history in order to accurately pass judgments about them. Due to the distant and fixed nature of these works of art, the spectator is able to remain an individual while still becoming immersed in the art’s meaning. This is what Benjamin described as the art’s aura.[2] However, with the introduction of new art forms, “the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, [as] the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice–politics.”[3] Benjamin saw that the politics that characterized mass amounts of artwork being reproduced would cause the public to view them with an altered perception. The public would be forced to express their opinions in the constructs made by those who were reproducing the art. Art being brought to the forefront of the public eye defeated the significant tradition of authenticity that characterized original works of art, as Benjamin states, “Art [has become] something that happens to us rather than an object which we frame and consider in a distance.”[4] In essence, the art form that aimed to reproduce for the masses consequently functioned to control their perceptions and experiences. Moreover, the claims that Benjamin made in his writing seem to classify the video game culture today, and consequently raises the question: are gamers actually the ones being played?

Contrary to the original cult value that once distinguished authentic works of art, the film portrayed an exhibition value, rather, film’s aesthetic significance was the fact that they were able to be viewed. Just as the film, video games can be said to possess an exhibition value. Most people play them without really thinking to interpret their meanings during actual game interactions.[5] This is because the importance is not in the existence of the game, but rather the fact that people can play them. Consequently, people become habituated by the immersive environments of video games while being completely distracted from their actual suggestive content.[6] Compared to the pre-modern art forms, which functioned to, “[create] a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.”[7] Society has now created video games which use moral shock values to function as entertainment, and those who play them receive instant gratification for their interactions.[8] Further, the functionality of video games treats players as though they are, “the latest trend…as a stage prop[s] chosen for [their] characteristics and… inserted at the proper place.” [9] Gamers are the stage props. Video games are controlled interactions that require a gamer to place himself or herself into the role of the main character. Those who play video games are not given the opportunity to thoroughly contemplate the things they are seeing because they are being fed a constant flow of stimulation and information. In this fact, video games cannot serve as primary, authentic art forms, rather they are designed for the function of reproducibility and consumerism, and in this way art has been, “transformed into a commodity,” as something to be incidentally considered as an art form. [10]

Additionally, video games, “demand a specific kind of approach [to thought],” and within those thoughts are our perceptions about the world which consequently affect our experiences and behaviors.[11] Benjamin further notes that contemplation is an asocial behavior in relation to reproduced art.[12] People become accustomed to an instant acquisition of information, and they no longer feel the need to ruminate on their ignorances. An ad infinitum reproduction of art provides the means for rising capitalistic exploitation and, in Benjamin’s opinion, diminishes the authority of the original works of art. Further, within reproduction, there is no true original, as all is simply just imitation and forgery. As a result, art can no longer be looked at in the same way as in the past because there is no presence of original uniqueness and quality. Benjamin states, “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses towards art.”[13] This is prevalent in the fact that video games serve as an influential source to those who play them. For example, the two Columbine students, Harris and Klebold, were avid players of the video game, Doom, which had been licensed by the US military to train soldiers in combat. The two students, prior to the shooting, created a web version of Doom and eventually acted the game out on videotape, “In the video, Harris and Klebold dress in trench coats, carry guns, and kill school athletes. They acted out their videotaped performance in real life less than a year later. An investigator associated with the Wiesenthal Center said Harris and Klebold were “playing out their game in God mode.”[14] In this case, the video game had directly influenced those who were playing it in an extreme way. However, this is evidence that video games are not primarily acting as art forms but rather as motivations for a certain behavior. Thus, the claim that, “the adjustment for reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception,” is legitimate.[15] One’s individual reality is the way that he or she thinks it to be. Further, one’s perceptions are influenced by the things that one spends a significant time viewing. In fact, “ about 90 percent of U.S. kids ages 8 to 16 play video games, and they spend about 13 hours a week doing so (more if you’re a boy).,”[16] What perceptions might these video games be subjecting children to? Could the high percentage of video game usage be correlated to the fact that, “ [Approximately] one in three American students fail to graduate from high school?” [17] While other factors are also related to the declining education in the US, it is noticeable from this fact that contemplation still seems to be an asocial behavior. Benjamin’s writing clearly conveys the impact that mass produced art forms have on society and the current outcomes in society today further serve as evidence to his claims.

Perhaps, though, Benjamin is (again) a bit too pessimistic to speak about the artistic progress of the Digital age. He has even stated, “We do not deny that in some cases today’s films can also promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions…,”[18] and further quoted, “We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”[19] While he continues on to contradict the possibility that reproduced art can bring about anything overall meaningful, it is quite noticeable that a number of newer video games can be thought to serve a meaningful, artistic purpose to society. For example, the US military created a video game in which trainees learn to identify situations of sexual assault in order to intervene on behalf of the victim.[20] Another game, Proteus, has been created in a way that upsets the norms of typical gameplay. Proteus contains an element of magical realism that does not necessarily influence the gamer, but rather invites him or her to explore and discover the game’s environment. Another game, This War of Mine, contains an aura of its own as the third-person view forces the player to view war conditions at a fixed distance. Moreover, the player is only able to see certain actions during the daytime, as well as during nighttime scavenging periods. The rest of the game, even the detailed happenings of the characters who survived the war remains a mystery. After one finishes the game, one is encouraged to contemplate about the effects of war on civilians. These newer games also utilize a delayed gratification system, which contradicts the claim that all reproduced art is a “homogeneous flow” of digital images.[21]

However, Benjamin might retort by stating that even philosophical video games, “demand a specific kind of approach, [because] free form contemplation is not appropriate to them.”[22] Even though some video games aim to produce contemplative thought, they still require the player to do so within the given environment and under the occurrences created by the fixed constructs of the game. For example, the earlier stated military anti-assault game that aims to decrease the occurrences of sexual assault is regarded by some to be, “an example of the Army trying to teach its way out of the sexual-assault problem rather than focusing on disciplining and removing offenders…Once again… people are expressing a behavior but not changing the thoughts and circumstance.”[23] Further, in order to contemplate about a game such as This War of Mine and its interpretation of civilians in war, one must at least play the game for some extensive amount of time. The player is required to play the game; but in order to play the game, someone has to purchase the game. After one has purchased the game, one becomes immersed in the game aspect and, for the time being, plays in a distracted state, focusing on game progression rather than contemplation. The achievement-nature of some games causes others to view all games in a competitive way. These are the effects of mass reproduction of concepts; there is no originality. Video games are a digital art that has already been integrated into society. (If and) when people are given time to contemplate them, it is not by their own thoughts but rather within the context of the game environment they are given. Therefore, even the things which one thinks he or she has control over are by a qualified sense. Due to this fact, “only the most high-minded persons, in the most perfect and mysterious moments of their lives, should be allowed to enter [their] ambiance.” [24]

Another issue that might arise from Benjamin’s argument is the fact that he states that the new art form is a way to, “exploit the proletariat.” [25] One might ask: what is the difference between the new art forms and, say, an older old one such as the Morisot painting, On the Balcony from 1933?[26] Women before and during the modern era were exploited in such a way, as they could not go into the public spaces as a man could and paintings depicted and encouraged this double-standard. The Morisot painting displays a woman and her daughter overlooking the city on an isolated balcony. According to Pollock, subtle art like this piece confirmed gender norms in which women were exploited as weaker objects to be kept safe. Women could not enter into the same spaces as men, and the art not only represented these ideals but also encouraged them into a new era. One might notice this in the photograph taken in 1948 titled, Oblique Look, by Robert Doisneau. Further, “Mary Kelly addresses the feminist dilemma wherein the woman who is an artist sees her experience in terms of the feminine position that is, as object of the look-while she must also account for the feeling she experiences as an artist occupying the masculine position as subject of the look,” [27] The history that Benjamin uses to classify the cult value and tradition of authentic works of art had been the very means used to exploit women and the working class. Art was used to reinforce societal norms of the time and further created a societal hierarchy. Art contained politics even during the time of the aura — sexual politics. [28] The aura of these paintings was not only a factor experienced by the viewer but in some cases also by the feminine subject as she wonders at the streets and restaurants she would never inhabit. Perhaps, in his writings, Benjamin had conveyed the gradual evolution of the politics that would inevitably classify every aspect of society in attempts to control the masses.

However, despite possible ambiguities, Benjamin’s writing still serves as viable in current society. Regardless of the time period, the predetermined experiences inflicted by the art forms are means by which the masses become habituated in their behaviors, “hence, the performance of the actor is subjected to a series of optical tests… [as] the projector will play his shadow before the public, and he himself must be content to play before the camera.” [29] Consumers are the puppets of the political system when they allow art forms such as media to infiltrate and influence their perceptions of the world. Benjamin describes the painter and the cameraman as the equivalent to the magician and the surgeon respectively. The painter keeps a distance while the surgeon is involved and intertwined with his subject.[30] These characters are said to be representations of reality. The surgeon physically affects the reality and is, therefore, more significant than the magician who “maintains a distance.” If this idea were thought to include video games, gamers would be considered the patient being operated on. In the patient’s mind, their surgery is going to improve their health, but this is never a certainty, rather a wish. Video games are the surgeon in this manner. They influence perceptions, experiences, and ultimately behaviors. People can wish for the best in their circumstances but until they decide to rebel against the function of politics in video games (and other modern day media), nothing will change. Technology does not want to tailor to the markets, but rather aims to manipulate society without letting it discern the truth.

Benjamin states, “War is a rebellion of technology which collects in the form of human material.” [31] He believes that mechanically reproduced art serves to restrict the functions of citizens into unassuming expressions while politicians will control the objectivities of the law in the background. This is why Benjamin calls for, “the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.”[32] Moreover, if Benjamin currently saw this era of digital media, he would view video games as a form of fallen art, tainted by political motives, whose function is to control the perceptions and the experiences of self-alienated, unassuming citizens.

This is Part Two of a Three-Part Series on Video Game Culture. Read Part Three, Here.

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Author: R.Lederman. Spring, 2016. Copyright 2016-Present. Please Cite Author and site if any information is used in other writings. Thank you.

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Works Cited

“Army Employs Video Game to Help Curb Sex Assaults; Critics Call It ‘affront'” NBC News. Ed. NBC News. WILL Interactive, 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Continental Aesthetic Reader. Ed. Clive Cazeaux. 2nd ed. N.p.: n.p., 2011. 429-500. Print.

Korach, Bill. “Violent Video Games Caused School Violence in Columbine |.” Violent Video Games Caused School Violence in Columbine |. Thereportcard.org, 26 Dec. 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Pollock, Griselda. “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity.” (n.d.): n. pag. Rpt. in N.p.: n.p., n.d. 245-66. Print.

[1]Benjamin, 435.

[2] Benjamin (as cited by Cazeaux), 429.

[3] Benjamin, 434.

[4] Benjamin (as cited by Cazeaux), 429.

[5] Benjamin, 435.

[6] “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. [However]… the distracted mass absorbs it.” Benjamin, 442.

[7] Benjamin, 441.

[8] Benjamin, 434.

[9] Arnheim (as qtd. by Benjamin), 437.

[10] Becht (as qtd. by Benjamin), 446.

[11] Benjamin, 439.

[12] Benjamin, 435.

[13] Benjamin, 440.

[14] Pooley (as cited by Korach) via TheAtlantic.com

[15] Benjamin, 433.

[16] Anne Harding (as cited in Korach), via TheAtlantic.com

[17] Heritage Foundation (as qtd. By Vindis)

[18] Benjamin, 435.

[19] Verly (as qtd. by Benjamin), 432.

[20] WILL INTERACTIVE (cited by NBC News) via NBC.com

[21] Benjamin (as cited by Cazeaux), 430.

[22] Benjamin, 435.

[23] Quote by a leader of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) (qtd. NBC NEWS Courtesy “WILL Interactive”) via NBC.com

[24] Severin-Mars (as qtd. By Benjamin), 435.

[25] Benjamin, 431.

[26] Morisot Painting (via Pollock), 250

[27] Pollock, 263-262.

[28] Pollock, 263.

[29] Pirandello (as qtd. in Benjamin), 437.

[30] Benjamin, 439.

[31] Benjamin, 444.

[32] Benjamin, 431.

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