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The great messianic art critic Walter Benjamin saw the role of film in his era of capitalist culture as creating an artificial environment for the presentation of reality as such. This is done through the film apparatus or the production of the film. What is exploited in the filming apparatus is the self-alienation of the human being paramount to the means of production of the free market (1). In the face of the camera the actor is estranged from the audience he performs for: the everyday film-goer or subject. This alienation through the properly Other machinic apparatus sets up the presentation for subjective representation required for everyday reality in itself, or the reality of the virtual:

“That is to say: In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality, free of the foreign body of equipment, is the result of a special procedure–namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted photographic device and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind. The equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice, and the vision of immediate reality the Blue Flower in the land of technology” (1, 35).

What Benjamin asserts here is the essential form of film, that of editing: the splicing together of free floating, hitherto pure moments with no context save their respective place in the sequence of the film (1). The result of this ‘special procedure’ is a construction of the abstract, bare material void of reality, represented by the still frame divorced from its place in the film, as actual, immediate reality through the ‘artifice’: a contrived world of human reality. Human reality is the properly intersubjective, empirical world of mutual understanding and scientific consensus. What we have is an opening and subsequent closing of the primordial abyss and structuring of the viewing subject who feels closure and comfort in the provided coordinates and thus transforming the meaningless, sterile world to one of reality as myth or narrative.

The movement into video games can be made in the analysis of the development toward immersion or the graphical enhancement of the virtual world seen in the gaming industry today. This continuing trend can be seen as toward a pure immersion, or the indistinguishability of reality and the virtual as such. What this can only mean is a further affirmation of the real, or the basic, uncritical understanding of everyday reality. This is the realm of Baudrillard’s hyperreal, the postmodern logic of ambiguity, or the disappearance of subject and subjective representation there-in.

The movement from film to video games can be found in the concept of editing. The basic structure of the video game retains the narrative and basic structure of film save for two essential features: the apparatus and editing, and thus comes their separation. The viewing subject of the film is now the player or, previously in film, the actor. We move, artificially, back into the world of pre-film; the essential role of video games for society is in its founding after the development of film and subsequent aesthetic of destroying the film apparatus as if it did not exist. It does this by retaining the film apparatus but banishing it to the unknowable primordial realm where video games now are their own domain of media, but are essentially still film, just playable films.

This basic, primordial structure of the film apparatus is displaced into the 1’s and 0’s of the coding of the game, and thus to view this code is only to abstract into an unknown world of meaninglessness. The ‘correct frame’ is the proper position of the player, outside the gaming console and yet inside the virtual reality of the game. The player now retains for himself the power of the apparatus, the function of editing. Previously, in the basic filmic structure where the subject was at a distance from the apparatus and thus editing process, the proper framing of the film was done through the Other: the power of the outside presence or the spatial reality the subject possesses in the movie theater or the understanding of everyday, political reality as such.

With the banishing of this basic apparatus to the implicit coordinates of the virtual game, and the insertion of the subject into the game itself, the subject is lost, displaced into the very void it once remained at the proper distance toward. The proper sphere of the preeminent, postmodern aesthetic of the singularity is now developed. Fredric Jameson describes the singularity as the reduction of content to form, the increasing role of space over time and time itself as atemporal (2). The emphasis on spatial content can be seen in the further development and emphasis on graphics in the gaming industry, but for our purposes, as for Benjamin and Jameson, this is what makes postmodern art political or its predominant role as embodying the aesthetics of the event (1,2).

The work of art, in the age of its technological reproducibility, is characterized by its loss of authenticity. In antiquity the essence of Greek art, which were singular sculptures, etc. and housed in the acropolis, the holy site of housing Greek mythology, was in its aura (1). With the reproducibility of modern art there is no original work, so its aura is divorced from its material instantiation. Or, as seen in video games, the proper space of reproducibility, or its authenticity (the two domains now blurred) is found in the virtual, spatial environment itself. The player can manipulate his world and character as he sees fit and makes implicit the indistinguishability of reality proper.

With this comes the insertion of basic historical milieu, economic structures and social-political policies extracted from everyday reality and inserted into the virtual for the purest immersion possible. The best selling game in recent memory, Grand Theft Auto V, is basically a reproduction of modern day L.A. with the only imaginative content being the narrative and controlling of highly successful criminals where you can make millions of dollars, purchase pent-houses, buy and mod vehicles, or make it rain at the strip club. This lack of imagination, and also the illusion constitutive of the virtual world for engendering novelty, is the displacement of the subject to the primordial coordinates of everyday life, or the politics of the event.

The most popular video games are in the genre of RPG, or role-playing games, which generate a simulation of the subjective fabric that constitutes the everyday: freedom. The RPG features the uncritical, ideological freedoms of gender, sexuality, appearance, etc. The company Bioware, in their Mass Effect series, provides an exemplary form of this device. In receiving backlash from their progressive minded customers after the lack of ‘love interest’ options in the first game of the trilogy, they incorporated more LGBT characters for the player to ‘romance’ in the following two games, they even let the player be a woman in the last iteration.

More recently in their medieval genre game Dragon Age: Inquisition we see the pseudo-historical era blended with modern day values where women are included into the hierarchical structure of the equivalent to the Catholic Church and feudal warriors. The disappearance of the subject is with the very coordinates of freedom embedded into the already existing political framework of the virtual; in the same way that the French post-structuralists saw in Nietzsche’s dead god the subsequent death of the subject, the death of the aura in art entails the death of the authentic, political person.

This typical aesthetic of everyday life dominated by the political apparatus of the corporate state is succinctly characterized by Jameson as a singularity-event where the distortion of history and the aesthetics of presence coincide for a novel, non-universalizable form or idea:

“the work [of art] itself … is a mixture of theory and singularity. It is not material–we consume it as an idea rather than a sensory presence–and it is not subject to aesthetic universalism, insofar as each of these artifacts reinvents the very idea of art in a new and non-universalizable form…” (2, 114).

So, what we can see in all this is the role of media and technology in framing our very interpretation of everyday life and the material world proper. Our very comportment toward the world requires this basic Kantian Understanding to function as a humans incorporated into the fabric of society, today characterized in the logic of postmodernism: the totalization of the gap between subject (virtual) and object (reality) characterizing the modern world since Descartes. This gap is the ambiguous, singular-event of the hyperreal, or distortion of the reality of the virtual. The role of the state and the media is in providing the ‘correct frame’ for navigating the ambiguity of the everyday, postmodern labyrinth of reality, “[s]uch is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art”(1, 42).

Perhaps it is time to rediscover the notion of Communism as a counter-political outlook rather than an economic one: Communism as direct identification of the death of the State as a purely virtual and imaginary entity with its cultural fascism, the direct identification of the virtual character of the subject and the opening of the essential fabric of reality toward a liberating, social closure of this space through becoming the political event and making it authentic again, the task of the true artist today.

Works cited

1. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2008.

2. Fredric Jameson, The Aesthetics of Singularity, The New Left Review 92: March – April 2015.

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One thought on “Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Video Games

  1. Yay critical theory + video games! Video Games really need to get more attention from Scholars. Even more than the internet, video games are really creating new spaces, combining media in immersive ways. In my own work I’m curious as to how the immersive play of video games can lead to unique religious experience or lead to a sort of cyberpunk liberation or gnosis.

    Like

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