Even those who would reject the idea that videogames are an “art form” could agree that games can exhibit certain traditional aesthetic values. One prominent one is elegance. If we look toward traditional, analogue games, it seems inarguable to me that Go is elegant, and that Chess is elegant. Over the course of centuries, the tumbler of human culture has worn them down to their most perfect, least messy forms. (And they often come in supremely visually pleasing packages, to boot.) Looking to the history of videogames, it seems uncontroversial to propose that Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov, 1984) and Breakout (Atari, 1972) also exhibit this serene mixture of simplicity and grace.
Of course, videogames can also be bloated and unrefined. On the audiovisual level, the public imagination has long associated the medium all that is cacophonous and retina-searing: a ceaseless stream of crude stimulation optimized for goldfish-like attention spans. A peek at the output of PlatinumGames or Treasure over the past decade demonstrates that this conception is not entirely unearned. On the design side of things, games often come packaged with an inordinate amount of mechanical cruft. To boot up a contemporary Ubisoft game is to be assaulted by map icons, as the core activities of the game are augmented with collectibles and minigames and side-challenges and online player “invasions” and microtransactions and and and and and and and and and….
Sometimes, though, you can point to a game and say, “this is exactly what it needs to be, and no more.” Sometime a game stands as a perfectly-cut gem of craft, with every element contributing to an overall sense of balance. Its user interface is a triumph of usability, compact and graceful. Its color scheme is tamped-down and meaningful. Its sound design is minimal and expertly-deployed. It is thematically tight: if there is a narrative involved, it is a lean and coherent one. It is, overall, soothing in its form, even if it might simultaneously be stressful in its challenge.
The first five games of this list all chase this sort of technical perfection. Some are small, and some are large, but they all are careful not to hit one unnecessary note.
What follows is an invited talk I gave last month at a university that will remain unnamed. Here, things get a little awkward: the talk in question was actually a job talk, and I am technically still waiting to hear back on the school’s final decision. Hence, the location of the talk remaining unnamed.
Originally, I was going to wait to post this talk until I had heard official word back on the status of the position (whether that news was good, or bad). I’ve decided to post it now, though, mostly because I attended an excellent panel at SCMS 2017, “Video Games and Queer Affect,” chaired by Bonnie Ruberg (an old compatriot of mine from Bard College) with papers by Whitney Pow (with whom I co-organized this conference) and Diana Pozo. Bonnie and Diana’s papers, especially, shared considerable overlap with the trends outlined here, down to including some of same case studies. It seems, then, that this material is very “of the moment,” and I didn’t want to let the opportunity to make is publicly available pass. I’m planning on moving this material forward into an article in the coming months. It’s exciting to be part of a community of peers who finds it as interesting as I do, and I’m definitely going to alter the direction and focus of aspects of this piece in response to the work I saw happening on the panel.
The first time I taught a unit on the concept of procedural representation, it was in my course “The Moving and Interactive Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The theme I wanted to explore that week was the limits of thinking about games as moving images, at all. Are there some games that get such a large percentage of their meaning from rules and interactions that it is not even productive to think about them as images at all anymore? To this end, I assigned students the chapter “Art” from Ian Bogost‘s book How to Do Things with Videogames, where he lays out the idea of what he calls the “proceduralist style” in art games. Bogost characterizes this style of games in the following way:
In these games, expression arises primarily from the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects. These games lay bare the form, allowing meaning to emanate from a model.[i]
I also set up a unit on proceduralist games in my Intro to Mass Communication course at DePaul University, which I taught three times, in the Fall 2015, Winter 2016, and Spring 2016 quarters. As I repeatedly taught this unit, I segued away from using Bogost’s “Art” chapter from How to Do Things with Videogames. (I found that the chapter’s engagement with the tired “are videogames art?” debate was too much of a lure, pulling student attention away from the core issues I wanted to address.) Instead, I subbed in “Procedural Rhetoric,” the first chapter of Persuasive Games, with very heavy excisions. (It really is a shame that, at 64 pages, that chapter is so unreasonably gargantuan. It definitely makes for some headaches when deciding on reading assignments.) And, over time, I gravitated toward some specific games to play in-class: a group of games I affectionately refer to as “games about squares.”