How Games Might Challenge the Tyranny of Authorship

by G. Christopher Williams

17 February 2010

Video games might be a more inherently democratic medium than many others.

Wallace Stevens’s poem “Study of Two Pears” is, as the title suggests, a description of a painting of two pears.  The poem carefully describes the composition of this painting and the shapes and colors that the painting contains.  It also suggests that the painting is so clearly rendered that the images of the pears can not be interpreted as anything but what they are intended to represent: “The pears are not viols,/Nudes or bottles./They resemble nothing else.”  However, as the first line implies the poem is intended as an “opusculum paedagogum” or a “little bit of instruction”.  Thus, despite its mostly descriptive qualities, interestingly the closing lines of the poem suggest that what this well described still life teaches is how framing an image is authoritarian in nature: “The pears are not seen/As the observer wills” (”Study of Two Pears”, Poetry Foundation), implying that the choice of how a subject is seen is derived from the design of the work’s creator, its author.

This kind of authoritarianism, the ability to control what is seen or how we are to know a subject, though, is implied in some way in the way that we conceive of authorship in the first place.  The word authority is derived from auctoritas, which among other things suggests “influence” and “command,” and from autorite, “a book or quotation that settles an argument” (Douglas Harper, “authority”, Online Etymology Dictionary).  We think of artists, like authors, as those who influence how we see things, and as Stevens implies about visual authorship or artistry, they do when they command what we see through drawing a line.

A similar claim might be made about the author of a novel that chooses the details that we are intended to “see” as they set a scene for us.  The claim may be somewhat more difficult in fiction, though, in which visualizing details might allow for a degree of subjectivity or misinterpretation.  We might imagine how some details might appear if the author has not specified them. However, it is, indeed more difficult to make the claim about the authority of visual arts in that it is very difficult to make your eyes “see” something that isn’t there. 

(Try it – imagine that there is a frog sitting on the edge of your computer screen.  Now, believe it, really believe it.  Tricky, no?).

Nevertheless, Stevens point may still be relevant in general about authorship, since even in written fiction, the author is at least “drawing the eye” to see details that approximate his or her own version of reality.  “Seeing” the New York skyline over the shoulder of Odysseus is imaginatively possible, I guess.  However, when you are reading The Odyssey closely, I would think that you are probably more likely visualizing that Cyclops that Homer told you was there.  Authors, then, at least “frame” the world to some degree, and through observation of what they have chosen for us to see, we (and our imaginative faculties) become subject to their influence.

Interestingly, by their very nature, video games appear to be a more democratic medium than many others.  While similar claims can be made about the “authority” of game designers in generating worlds for the player to view, nevertheless, the kind of authority that the film camera might have in choosing the subject matter for a viewer to focus on for a particular scene or that the literary author might have in setting a scene by telling the reader what details to focus on in it is less present and tyrannical in most games.  While I might be limited to viewing a suburban neighborhood in The Sims, because some of the tools of authority have been loaned out to me, the camera and building and purchasing tools, I can choose how to see the scene and add or subtract elements in the scene in a way that even literary fiction does not provide.  These changes are not merely imaginary, they make me complicit in authorship itself, adding and subtracting from a fictive and viewable reality in a substantial way that is not merely imaginative.  Video games challenge “author”-ity because they don’t force us into the “frame” of the author.

The game is often, at least in part, seen as the observer wills.

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