Depicting Vulgar Profligacy
I always anticipate/dread @thecatamites making a new blog post because so often it works out something that has been bugging me in a really eloquent way or at least, gets to the heart of the matter and provokes more important questions than what I’ve been dithering around about. This one, for example.
Saying you’re interested in exhibitions of videogames sort of implies an endorsement of the curatorial model that is the dominant perception of what a curator, esp. at an art institution, should do which is, find the good, the important, separate the wheat from the chaff and say, this is what’s worth looking at (or copying to your overgrown and chaotic downloads folder) and this sort of selection is always working towards, consciously or unconsciously, the formation of a canon. This is what survives, as the evidence of How It Was and everything else can languish in the damned obscurity of a MobyGames page with no pictures that they’ve earned.
And so it is for most of the institutional game exhibitions I’ve looked at for my research so far, whether they’re these sort of monstrous uncritical regurgitations of fanboy history or an attempt at sussing out “art games!” in general or, ridiculously rarely, trying to identify issues and tendencies in the field rather than an undifferentiated art!-y mass, they’re always looking towards the presumption that selecting and presenting these things means that they’re good, they’re important, they should persist, have legitimacy and influence, moreso than the non-selected.
Social approaches to history tend to paint the art historical canon, Art History as bought in a £150 textbook, as a sort of Swiss cheese, with holes where you know, a woman should be there but because of sexism she isn’t. The rest of the world should be here, here and here but because they’re not white Europeans they’re in the supplement which is another £100 please, etc. But really it’s more like the holes themselves, the things that have transcended the unmemorable escape the ephemeral and consumed of painting, music, movies, games , the actual cheese— but at the same time become what defines it.
If there’s an innumerable amount of new games available every day does it matter if one of them is bad? (Innumerable because I think 200 has become a possibly conservative guess at how many there are?) Does it even matter if most of them are bad? A lot of game exhibitions, especially the ones that are big spends and big draws for big galleries are very married to the commercial history of games because that at least imposes a sort of comprehensible limit for what is considered. While there are still more than you can play in a lifetime, and most are probably also bad, they are all coming from this system that seems like a singular place, The Game Industry, and so you can build a channel and kind of order and prioritize your consideration of these things… this approach to history is becoming more and more obviously inadequate.
There was always the rest of the cheese but it was the kind of thing you had to go looking for because you were a bored kid in the suburbs with poor social skills or had some other reason for obsessively looking up Petz hex editing. Making your own shit was always a sort of meeting halfway, ripping a commercial thing apart to see how much it allows you to make it your own, functioning more like a coping mechanism (think Sonic OCs) than a traditional High Art idea of creativity. But then, gradually, the tools to reach a certain tipping point of authorial control where this became “worthwhile” rather than “concerning” became available to anyone with an average PC and internet connection and now pretty much anyone can try to make a survival crafting game just for the hell of it.
Most are bad! There’s a certain pleasure to finding a really good game “in the muck” but at the same time some of my most effecting experiences with games as a form are the least reliable or playable, moments of happenstance and experience that don’t translate well to the question of is this whole, hours long behemoth Important, is this Selectable. I really enjoy this mashup of weird Laura Dern faces from Inland Empire even though it has little to do with why the movie is alternately argued as brilliant or intentionally dense garbage. There’s just something about making a series of cuts that have the sensibility of some of the finest Mama Luigi variations out of what most people would consider a ridiculously high-brow art film I guess!
Selecting the “good games,” the “classics” the “art games” or whatever tends to fail to represent these really interesting aesthetic dimensions of games, the overabundance, the repetition, the flop-on-face brokenness and inscrutable internal logic, the emptiness of a world map in an RPGMaker game that has not been fully populated and just exists as a sort of abstract canvas of grass here mountains here desert here ice level here, the amateur expression of a personal understanding of a sort of implicit standard that you can make a guy walk on.
A lot of game studies in general seems interested in definitively establishing what makes games good or worthwhile which betrays a sort of lack of confidence? The same sort of doubt that made Clement Greenberg so vehement that there was A Right Way to do abstraction that had a sort of Transcendent effect because of some Quality of Form. Exhibitions that presuppose that these ones are the good games serve this sort of incomplete vision of the field. It’s not that we don’t see the bad games, but it’s just that they’re the failures, they’re not part of this grand project of this flashy new youth obsessed medium we’re partaking in, which is Good and The Future etc.
But at the same time. Exhibition is narrative in space. Narrative inherently selects. How can I depict this effect of ridiculous, vulgar excess that is so much a part of why videogames exist the way they are today in the first place? And also why they interest me as a medium?