[-empyre-] Games / Cultural Expression / Benjamin

Soraya Murray semurray at ucsc.edu
Sun Mar 10 08:13:04 EST 2013

Hello, All.

I've greatly enjoyed observing the conversation thus far and want to thank Claudia and Renate for the invitation to participate. Also, greetings to my co-guest Joseph DeLappe, whom I've not yet met in person -- though I teach his work in my course.

First, a little something about my interest in games:

In my grade school, at North Campus School (an American school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), a lab of Apple II computers was installed in a spare classroom. Students with excellent grades in math could be excused from one class per week to take basic programming lessons and play with the new toys. I was among the few to participate, and was more or less hooked since then. I wrote simple programs that allowed me to simulate "horses" racing across the screen (ok, I was 11…) and simple "AI" style question-and-answer games. I was making my own little Turing tests without even knowing who Alan Turing was. Later, Atari 2600, the Commodore 64, Apple IIe, and eventually a series of home consoles entered into home life.  Nintendo 64 got me through my MFA (UC Irvine), and Playstation 2 through some of my PhD (Cornell). While completing my degree in the History of Art at Cornell, I purchased the Playstation 2 and Grand Theft Auto III for the sole purpose of seeing what all the fuss was about. It was 2004 and GTA was all over the news, for its perceived depravity and moral decadence. It seemed to needle anxieties in an unusually potent way. I wrote an essay called "High Art / Low Life: The Art of Playing Grand Theft Auto" - published a journal of performance (PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 2005
Vol. 27, Iss. 2, MIT: 91-98.) This essay, somewhat to my surprise, follows me around more than most of my others. 

I developed a course at UC Santa Cruz entitled Video Games as Visual Culture, which began with an enrollment of 80ish students, then enlarged to 175 and is now taught to 300 students. In this course, we (the students and I) take seriously games as a dominant form, engaged with by millions and certainly a notable dimension of their visual literacy. While students often have an encyclopedic experience of game play, what they really want to know is what it all means. I do my best to give them the critical tools needed to analyze these complex "texts", so that they can seize their own agency in relation to these interactive experiences.
Regarding games as "art":

The question of whether games are art seems tied to canonical inclusion, "proper" methods of study, historicization and other kinds of institutional issues. I am more interested in how games function in/as culture, rather than whether or not they are art. 

Walter Benjamin's writings elucidated, for me, the relationship between the CRISES of modern life (political but also otherwise) and the traumatic presence of cultural production particularly as expressed in the popular arts, the arts of the masses.  For him this came together in film. 

He wrote:
"The first technology really sought to master nature, whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity. The primary social function of art today is to rehearse that interplay. This applies especially to film. The function of film is to train human beings in the apperception and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily. Dealing with this apparatus also teaches them that technology will release them from their enslavement to the powers of the apparatus only when humanity's whole constitution has adapted itself to the new productive forces which the second technology has set free." (SW 3, 107–8)

[Selected Writings, ed. Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge, MA., & London: Harvard University Press, 1991–1999.]

His was a statement about cultural expression, but also politics, and the engineering of a political apparatus through artistic tools that was, in his lifetime, wreaking devastating effects on his nation and eventually, the world. For our own time, I would argue that the most cutting edge of the mass technological arts would be digital games.  

My personal reading of "Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility" is that this shift that he is not a prophet of disaster, but presents a more complex vision that exhorts caution-- but also identifies transformative potential. We make our tools,  and then their potentials assume a transformative role in our lives.

To play a game is to engage in an embodied human activity. I continually attempt to remind students in my Video Games as Visual Culture course of this. I encourage them to become activated users, to understand what powerful and pervasive representations games are. This new mass culture will shape them haphazardly, unless they actively engage in their own self-fashioning. I would suggest that digital games are no less an aesthetic approach to politics than the printed matter, the theater and the film of which Benjamin wrote. Some games are beginning to be capable of generating affective relations— amorphous intensities that precede the more subjective, more constructed FEELING or EMOTION. I am thinking here of Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, The Graveyard, among many others. 

What is the connection between games and training human beings to contend with vast apparatuses and adaption to "new productive forces" of our own time?

Soraya Murray, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Film and Digital Media Department
1156 High Street
University of California
Santa Cruz, CA 95064

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