I Feel Your Pain
In that sense, one way that I like to think of aesthetic response is that it is a feeling of awe (though that is a slightly inaccurate and abstract word) when recognizing a very well arranged object or idea or image or story. It is, maybe, a sense of appreciating something that is well designed.
Now, this, of course, suggests that beauty is in part in the eye of the beholder. I need to have the ability to recognize something that is well designed on its own terms, so my own experiences are relevant to whether the thing is effective in provoking such a response. I would argue, for instance, that apprehending the novel A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce as a piece of art, as opposed to merely an entertaining novel, is helped a lot by having some knowledge of Catholic ritual and tradition and also by having a familiarity with the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Without such knowledge, the reader is unlikely to see the astonishingly elegant design of the structure of the novel and how Joyce is able to utilize and reorganize the structures of a Greek myth and his sense of Catholicism to interesting and beautiful ends in telling his story.
All of which in a very roundabout way, returns me to my initial topic, whether or not interactivity somehow ruins our ability to have an appreciation of well ordered, well arranged, or well designed objects. As I noted before, some aestheticians, like Aristotle and Eliot, have made some compelling arguments that such successful provocation of the aesthetic response is contingent on the audience being able to “step back” from something well arranged in order to appreciate that very arrangement. You need, as it were, the emotional distance to appreciate the intellectual components that support the design.
Eliot claims that part of the appreciation that we have of tragic situations in theatre, for example, are related to the fact that we are not emotionally involved with them, allowing us to consider circumstances that would normally provoke other sorts of emotions in us (pity, terror, sadness) and also allowing them to be considered in an objective way and appreciate the manner in which they have been presented. We appreciate the design of the narrative circumstances in Hamlet because we are not involved in any way in the action. You are not involved in the problems of the play, as you would be in a tragic circumstance that directly affected you.
A personal tragedy is hard to appreciate in that you may not be able to see how appropriately all of its circumstances fit together, not when you are crying and bleeding over it. You are not Hamlet, nor are you related to him, so all of the moral, political, and social implications of the play are all there for you to appreciate in repose and ostensibly in an unemotional or objective way.
It’s a bit more difficult to make such an argument about the player’s experience in Catherine, however, in which slacker and seemingly professional layabout Vincent is feeling all sorts of pressure from his girlfriend Katherine to become responsible and get married. Similar kinds of pressure are affecting you, the player who, when playing the game, have to flee representations of marriage and responsibility, like a deformed bride or child with a chainsaw, by ascending a complex system of blocks that are dissolving under your feet. Sure, you aren’t really getting married and you aren’t Vincent, but you are feeling pretty directly what he is feeling. And do you have time to appreciate his circumstance as you negotiate and puzzle out a world that is literally falling apart beneath your feet?
Hamlet has it bad. His father is dead, his scheming and murderous uncle has taken the throne that Hamlet should inherit, and his relationship with his girlfriend is falling apart fast. None of this bothers me from the darkened aisles of the theatre. It really isn’t in any way my problem, just a circumstance to ponder.
Whether or not pondering and coming to some kind of understanding of a circumstance or a set of orders or a structure embedded in a piece of art must be done in a less direct, less overtly participatory way, is something that it seems worth considering if gaming is to be taken seriously as an activity that can also catalyze an aesthetic response. After all, there is a certain thrill that I get when riding on a rollercoaster that is quite similar to moments that I have had when playing Call of Duty. I don’t think that either of these “thrills” are aesthetic responses, and in that sense I can see a detractors point in not feeling like gaming is quite like viewing a work of art.
That thrill seems to have something to do with the fact that I am part of this experience (indeed, watching others ride the roller coaster or play Call of Duty does not provoke a response that is any way similar to such a thrill—so the indirect experience is left a bit vacant of meaning in those cases). Thus, I understand why people quite familiar with playing video games might reject them as an art and consider them to be something more like a roller coaster ride.
Parsing these fleeting, visceral responses from an overall experience of a game seems to me necessary to accurately describe why a game might be capable of provoking aesthetic responses. It isn’t as if artistic works have never provoked other kinds of responses from their audience than aesthetic ones. Readers have thrilled at passages from Moby Dick’s whale hunts, have been aroused by the paintings of Gustav Klimt, and have been repulsed by the imagery of Alain Robbe-Grillet. None of these feelings resemble what I think of as aesthetic response. Still, audiences and critics have come to understand that there is some overall response provoked by these works that is aesthetic.
In this sense, I would not cavalierly dismiss the objections of the “it’s just a game” folks. Instead, I’m more interested in hoping to show them some things that are going on in games that they might not have detected with their own eye, but might be made clearer if I can give them a glimpse of some of the things that I have seen with my own.
A Halo-inspired space marine in the gallery from Veteran Gamers