Phillip D. Deen

Phillip Deen is a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Wellesley College. His primary areas of research are American intellectual history and democratic theory. He has published articles in Contemporary Pragmatism, The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought and Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society and has edited John Dewey's lost manuscript Unmodern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy.

Interactivity, Inhabitation and Pragmatist Aesthetics

by Phillip D. Deen


As the cultural presence of video games continues to grow and pop culture has become even more of a subject for philosophy, a debate has raged over the aesthetic character of video games. While refraining from the familiar debate over whether games are in fact art, this article argues that a valuable and previously unexplored framework for analyzing their aesthetic character is John Dewey’s pragmatist aesthetics. Spectatorial and institutional approaches are rejected on the grounds that they do not speak to the unique qualities of the video game medium. Dewey’s aesthetic theory gives a central place to interactivity and embodiment, critical elements of video games. It also allows gamers to respond to the charge that games are trivial and childish by means of a distinction between simple discharge of emotions and their expression.

Keywords: pragmatism, videogames, aesthetics, interactivity, embodiment


Hegel famously claimed that it is only after the tumultuous events of history have run their course can we look back to see the rational order and purpose they embodied all along. Another, less charitable, way of interpreting Hegel’s epitaph is that philosophers are always late to the party. This is evident in the history of aesthetics. Philosophers of art frequently chase after artistic practice, articulating it and, hopefully, revealing the wisdom beneath. It is no surprise that Aristotle reflected on the emotive force of Greek tragedy, Enlightenment rationalists sought the mathematical rules of composition revealed in perspectival painting and architecture, Marxists exposed the class basis of bourgeois impressionism and Suzanne Langer asserted that pure form could embody emotion as Rothko and Pollock were at work. What was controversial becomes canonical, and philosophers disclose the rationality of it all.

At present, philosophy lags behind another artistic medium-video games. Among game designers and players, of course, the artistic merit of video games is held to be obvious and it has been virtually a requirement that discussion of video games open by noting their academic marginalization. To an extent, this is still true. But, as scores of articles in popular journalism, media studies and game studies begin with this complaint, it has become more and more difficult to decry marginalization without irony. However, despite the increasing presence of video games as an object of study in other fields, philosophers have had little to say on the subject. This silence would indicate that philosophers consider the question of the aesthetic standing of video games to be obvious. It is obvious either that video games are not art - because they are vulgar and trivial - or that they are - because who is to say what is not art.

That said, this article does not attempt to prove definitively that video games are art. For the purposes of this article, it is assumed that video games are legitimate candidates for artistic standing. Instead, I discuss criticisms and defenses of video games in order to argue that John Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy of art offers a valuable framework for discussing the unique way in which video games may be art. Within game studies, the discourse has been shaped largely by the language of post-structuralism and phenomenology. These have been useful frameworks from which to study popular culture and new media and pragmatic aesthetics shares elements with them, especially the phenomenological. What is offered here is not an attempt to eliminate those alternatives. However, I do argue that pragmatist aesthetics directly addresses the unique concerns and qualities of video games as a medium. To ignore it would be to foreclose potentially fruitful inquiries.

In the first section, two broad criticisms leveled against video games as art are presented: that interactive media are incapable of being true art and that games rely upon and promote a vulgar sensibility. After rejecting some possible responses, each is addressed in turn. In section two, it is argued that pragmatist aesthetics, unlike the classic spectatorial model, begins from a transactive model of experience. In the third section, it is also noted that pragmatism provides a distinction between mere emotion and artistic expression that makes room for video games while still offering a critical vantage point.

Toward a Video Game Aesthetic

In late 2005, the film critic Roger Ebert caused a stir by claiming that video games could not aspire to be high art.
“I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic. … There is a structural reason for that: video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control (Ebert 2005 & 2007).”
There are a two interwoven criticisms in play. First, Ebert objects to the interactive quality of video games that undercuts the author. As a spectatorial experience, a work may have artistic aspirations but, as an interactive one, it may not. In true art, the audience does not determine whether Ilsa gets on the plane at the end of Casablanca. Second, there is the implication that video games are vulgar, coarse or juvenile. It recalls the stereotype of the gamer living in his mother's basement (which renders those who would study video games into Jane Goodalls who look on, trying not to disturb him and taking notes).

Because Ebert is a popular film critic and not a theorist, it might be tempting to dismiss his criticisms. One might note that, by Ebert’s standard, a great number of works now accepted into the canon would have to be excluded. Games do not satisfy Ebert’s standard, but neither do many other styles of art - ‘happenings’, collaborative site specific painting, participatory theater in which the audience is called onstage to play the protagonist or exhibits in which the audience stands within the space of the artwork and controls perspective, to name only a few. Further, there is extensive debate within aesthetics over authorial intent. One camp claims that the meaning of an artwork is that intended by the creator while others dismiss ‘the myth of the author’ and set meaning free to be determined like that of any equivocal text (See, for example, Hirsch 1967 and Foucault 1969). Lastly, even Ebert himself, under ongoing pressure from video game defenders, has conceded that it is foolish to assert that games may not in principle be art (Ebert 2010).

But we should not dismiss his critique. First, his framework is a simplified Kantian philosophy of aesthetic distance and emotional or bodily disengagement. Though he is not a philosopher, his position is representative of a spectatorial philosophical model that still shapes our approach to new media. Second, his parallel criticisms that video games are too vulgar and too interactive are two central challenges that an aesthetic of video games must overcome.

Before turning to the pragmatist theory, it would be good to discuss some responses that are ultimately lacking. First, one may argue that video games do, in fact, satisfy spectatorial criteria. Second, raw material from games may be incorporated into other accepted artistic media. Third, shifting to the level of theory, games may be defended with historical and institutional theories of art. None of these address the aesthetic standing of video games as games.

Some accept the spectatorial model, but argue that critics are wrong on the facts. They argue that video games are serious, beautiful and may be appreciated from the contemplative point of view. Shadow of the Colossus, with its dream-like and haunting world populated by enormous, earthen colossi or the Japanese ink painting style of Okami, in which the player takes on the role of a wolf-god who uses a celestial paintbrush to interact with her environment, are quite beautiful games to look at. Still frames may be selected out and appreciated on their visual merits. Josh Jenisch’s The Art of the Video Game does just this (Jenisch 2008). Similarly, one may argue that many games tell a compelling story and are enjoyable in the way that a film is. The God of War games tell of a brutal Spartan who dedicates himself to the god Ares in exchange for in his life but, once betrayed, goes on to take Ares’ place as the god of war. In the sequels, he reverses the ancient Greek story of the Titanomachy, leading the Titans to victory over the Olympian gods. Or Bioshock tells the story of a city built according to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism but comes to consume itself under the banner of “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” One may then argue that video games may be judged by classical conceptions of beauty and artistic merit.

The second strategy is to elevate video games by integrating them into accepted arts. Video games are now part of popular culture as games have surpassed films in yearly consumer expenditures. Given this, it is not surprising that images and play-elements have provided raw material for refined artworks. Take, for example, the work of Cory Arcangel. Born in 1978, one year after the release of the Atari 2600, Arcangel is a digital artist whose work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art - Chicago. In his most well-known pieces, he reprograms classic game cartridges, ‘modding’ or repurposing existing games to produce an aesthetic result. His ‘Super Mario Bros Movie’ is a reprogrammed cartridge in which the famous plumber is subjected to a world where the program degrades over time. Or his ‘Super Mario Clouds’, a video installation of 8-bit clouds slowly scrolling across a cyan sky. (Arcangel 2005 & 2002) Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 converted the Guggenheim into an enormous analogue of Donkey Kong except that, rather than confronting a great ape at the top, Barney’s three-hour journey ended with “The Architect” hurling molten Vaseline (Barney 2002). In each case, video games are made art by either eliminating the gameplay or subsuming it to classically aesthetic ends. (For a survey of the use of 1980s videogame imagery in art, see (Gibson 2006).)

Unfortunately, these two approaches assert the aesthetic standing of video games at the price of their standing as games. To argue that video games may be objects of passive appreciation is to lose the interaction that is essential to the medium. They must be played to be games. As many games become interactive films, such as those in the famed Metal Gear Solid series, players are subjected to increasingly long cut scenes in which players simply watch a cinematic clip roll. The rising complaint is that there is an essential difference between films and video games. As one game reviewer described it, “It is an interactive experience that apes a non-interactive medium. It is the equivalent of a film consisting entirely of text scrolls in order to be more like a book[.]” (Escapist Magazine 2009) The ever-increasing processing power of game systems has lead many game-designers to focus on the often-stunning visuals - both static and cinematic - at the expense of an authentic game aesthetic (Radosh 2007). Attempts to redeem video games by incorporating their imagery into other media may have its own merits, but it commits the same error. As Matthew Barney fought his way through the Guggenheim, he may have enjoyed an interactive experience, but the passive viewer of the film does not (or, at least, not in the same way).

A third response is to provide a more philosophical defense of video games. The philosopher Aaron Smuts has argued, “by any major definition of art many modern video games should be considered art” (Smuts 2005). Curiously, despite having written on Dewey before, Smuts does not include pragmatic aesthetics in his list of major theories of art. Smuts engages in historical and institutional defenses of video games (along with three other philosophies not discussed in as much detail). In the first, he shows the continuity of problems, features and goals of videogame designers with the historical tradition. It is possible to see them as part of an ongoing narrative about the spectatorial stance in art or to link their fight for protection under the first amendment to those of previous artists. Insofar as videogame artists can find a place within the history of aesthetics and artistic practice, we should assume that they are part of it.

The institutional theory of art would also seem to make room for video games. Put very crudely, the institutional theory asserts that an object becomes a work of art when accepted by the relevant community of artists and critics (Danto 1964 and Dickie 1974). Exhibits and symposia on video games have taken place at many esteemed artistic institutions. Significant signs of institutional acceptance are the U. S. National Endowment for the Arts’ recent decision to make video games eligible for federal arts funding (NEA 2011) and the upcoming exhibit on video games at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum (Smithsonian 2011). As noted above, Cory Arcangel’s and Matthew Barney’s works have received acceptance at the heights of the artworld. This journal, published since 2001, indicates the presence of an ongoing critical community. Again - insofar as video games are accepted by the artistic community, we should include them as part of that community. Or put bluntly by Tim Schafer, the widely respected creator of the games Grim Fandango and Psychonauts, “Games are art. If Marcel Duchamp can stick a urinal in a gallery and say it’s art, then I’m going to go out on a limb and say Okami is too” (Ochalla 2007).

This is not to argue with Smuts’ analysis, nor to delve too far into worth of the theories themselves. But something does seem to be missing. Both the historical and institutional defenses address video games from the outside. They do not speak from within the medium itself and to its unique qualities. Though acceptance within a tradition or community may have some bearing on the aesthetic standing of an object - as Duchamp’s ‘Ready-mades’ would indicate - it seems to elide the issue of the internal qualities of the object itself. In short, any argument that video games are art that effaces their particular nature is inadequate.1 Henry Jenkins, a prominent game theorist at MIT, was asked if video games would ever have their Moby Dick or Citizen Kane. His reply was telling:
“My first response is to ask whether the analogy is the right one. If the question is, ‘Will video games become a serious art form in its own right?’ I think the answer is inevitably yes. Whether the analogy is to literature or to dance or to cinema or to theater or any number of other media, it’s hard to know what the right approximation is. In a way, to ask the question that way is like asking ‘Will cinema become theater?’ (Vitka 2006).”
The task is then to develop an aesthetic of video games that pays due attention to the qualities of the medium. There is certainly an expanding and robust literature that attempts to do just that. In what follows, a heretofore ignored framework is provided - American pragmatism.

Interactivity, Inhabitation and Consummation

While critics have rejected video games because they are intrinsically an interactive medium, proponents have seized upon this point as their rallying call. Recalling Clement Greenberg’s argument that as each artistic medium reaches maturity it narrows to what uniquely defines it, game designers and theorists focus more and more on interactivity (Greenberg 1965). Game designer Warren Spector claimed, "The word 'interactivity' isn't just about giving players choices; it pretty much completely defines the game medium" (Salen and Zimmerman 2003, 57). Games obviously do not fit within a spectatorial framework. Games are primarily to be played, not watched. If philosophy is to examine video games, it must make interactivity central to its theory of art. Pragmatist aesthetics does just that.2

Born the same year as the publication of The Origin of Species, Dewey is explicitly Darwinian. We come into a world already in process. We are fundamentally organisms transacting with a value-rich biological and cultural environment. Art must be understood within these conditions. Dewey begins from the odd notion that, in order to develop a genuine theory of art, we must overcome the art object. Rather than try to define the conditions that mark off the ‘aesthetic’ from the rest of life - ‘artworks’ from ‘mere things’ - Dewey argues that there is a fundamental continuity between art and life. The artifacts in our museums are often the useful and ritualized artifacts of other cultures. Art was not for its own sake, but a part of community life. Dewey asserts that the fact that modern theories of art begin from the autonomy or separateness of the artwork - art for art’s sake - is a sad reflection of the way that art is no longer an expression of our culture. “The task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday event, doings and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience” (Dewey 1934, 9).

Transaction of agent and environment is not unstructured. If it were, there would be no stable points to rely on for further activity. Dewey notes that experience is both precarious and stable. Absent either, growth is not possible. Rather, growth occurs only in dynamic equilibrium as old habits are found inadequate to novel situations and new ones must be developed. Interaction is marked by periods of disharmony and re-harmonization where we fall out of habitual relation with the world and have to develop new ways of fruitfully transacting with it. It is a dynamic and rhythmic. All experience is a matter of doing and undergoing but, under certain conditions, experience may be aesthetic. “Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s private feelings and sensations, [experience] signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events” (Dewey 1934, 25). Under certain conditions, harmony can be anticipated, cultivated and consummated. When this happens - when everyday experience is taken as an object of concern with an eye to freeing and harmonizing it immanent qualities - then we term it aesthetic experience.

What marks off aesthetic experience - ‘an’ experience - from the routine and inchoate? ‘An’ experience is whole, imbued with a quality all its own. “An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts” (Dewey 1934, 44). It is integrated and self-sufficient. It has a sense of the dynamic movement toward an anticipated, organic whole, not a mere subjective emotion (as we will discuss). The advances and setbacks leading up this moment are seen as phases of the whole experience. And the building process incorporates the past and future and anticipates a future consummation. To crib the classic phrase, it displays unity within diversity, but it is the unity of a process. Therefore, central to pragmatist aesthetics is the aesthetic experience that arises when our commerce with the world over time attains a unifying quality. It is not the artwork alone, but our transaction with it that makes aesthetic experience possible.

These moments may happen by luck, but that is very rare. The artist and the appreciator are interested in cultivating these moments. Aesthetics experiences are not the same as artworks, but artworks are those objects that have been designed to produce aesthetic experiences. Producing aesthetic experiences requires craft, responsiveness and care. The material of life is reworked so that it becomes an experience, a consummated event. For example, the routine act of making a drink becomes an aesthetic experience in the Daoist tea ceremony. Or to repeat Thom Alexander’s example, the immediate experience of a clanging, colored fire truck racing behind Charles Demuth was remade into both his painting “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold” and William Carlos William’s poem “The Great Figure” (Alexander 1998, 7).

This has two implications relevant to the present discussion. First, Dewey rejects any sharp division between popular culture and fine art. Everyday activities may exhibit aesthetic unity while fine art may be isolated and dull. Rather, true art is that which, through craft, is able to constitute aesthetic experiences for those willing to enter into commerce with it.3 Second, aesthetics must begin from interaction - the defining characteristic of the videogame medium.

Inhabitation or embodiment is an element of interactivity. Within Dewey’s naturalist philosophy, there is no breach between self and world. “The world we have experienced becomes an integral part of the self that acts and is acted upon in further experience. In their physical occurrence, things and events pass and are gone. But something of their meaning and value is retained as an integral part of the self. Through habits formed in intercourse with the world, we also in-habit the world. It becomes a home and the home is always part of our every experience” (Dewey 1934, 109). Various artistic media have their own strengths. Novels allow access to the inner lives of characters in a way that other media do not. Music and dance evince a specific bodily response. According to John Lanchester, video games surpass other media in their own way: “The interiority of the novel isn’t there, but the sense of having passed into an imagined world is” (Lanchester 2009, 19). He notes the ‘survival horror’ genre. In games such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill or Fatal Frame, the player is not the near-invincible soldier that is so common in other games. Instead, one typically plays the role of an ordinary and vulnerable person who simply hopes to escape a horrible situation. The need to move slowly and listen for oncoming threats creates an atmosphere of dread. Because one controls the character instead of merely watching, as one would in a film, there is far more anxiety. It is far more immersive, “and if you can play it at night with the lights out, you have steadier nerves than I do” (ibid).

In the case of video games, the player interacts with a virtual environment by means of some physical tool, be it a keyboard, joystick or multi-button game controller. Andreas Gregersen and Torben Grodal draw from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of bodily intentionality to investigate the way that video games allow an extension of the self. We have both somatic and audio-visual responses to the virtual world. “One allows us to feel our own body extending into the virtual environment through a kind of virtual tool-use, the other activates our own motor system as a response to observed motor systems” (Gregersen and Grodal 2009; see also McMahan 2003). Take the most clear cases of embodiment, as when the player moves their body and an avatar moves in a corresponding way. The thumb pushes forward and the avatar walks; the player squeezes their right finger and the avatar fires their gun; and so on. And, even when there is no representation of the player’s body by a virtual one, the pushing forward of the thumb may mirror the movement of a virtual car, or merely the movement of a color upward on the screen. My actions in the natural world extend into a virtual space.

The cycle continues as the eyes and ears provide feedback and the player adjusts their actions to meet new circumstances. As controllers have developed, there is even rudimentary tactile interaction in the other direction. As the avatar is wounded or grows nervous, the controller shivers or drums a heartbeat. The player’s bodily comportment does not end there. While playing a scary game, people arch forward to look around virtual corners or jump back when something is there. Under the right conditions - when the virtual environment has been designed well and the gamer enters into a fruitful interaction with it - the qualitative unity that marks aesthetic experience occurs.

Interactivity in games exhibit the same rhythm of the stable and precarious and it is this need that allows room for authorial intent. Game designer John De Margheriti explains his authorial role: “The author of the game has written some grand plotline, has created the races, the pretext of the story. He’s constrained you in a series of quests you must do, missions you must complete, objects you have to collect. There is a structure, but it’s a structure that is interactive” (Moses & Murray 2006). If the environment is poorly designed - too difficult or too confusing - the player is frustrated and the experience breaks down. Extensive game testing takes place to ensure that the player will find the game challenging but not off-putting. For example, if the next move is unclear, the designer may subtly light a path and draw the eye to it. The author does not dictate the form of the player’s experience, but leaves the world both open enough to enjoy and closed enough to sustain activity. Games are structured interactions.

There has been a movement toward ‘open-world’ or ‘sandbox’ games in which the player moves freely throughout the game world and chooses the order of the challenges (though some level of choice has always been present in video games). As worlds have opened up, game designers have tried to make future play reflect the earlier actions of the player. Rather than a linear narrative, it is dynamic. If the player aligns themselves with certain groups or engages in immoral acts, they may have difficulty securing the help of others. Sets of ‘side-missions’ will be made available or closed off, changing the content of the game. Games like Little Big Planet push this further. Upon purchase, the player has a number of designed challenges to overcome. But the true value of the game is in the level editor. Players are encouraged to create their own challenges or game-worlds and share them online for others to play within them. This inverts the auteur theory, as the work uses a set of tools and raw materials for others to design, in turn, their own works.

This is sharply at odds with Ebert’s claim that video games cannot be art because “art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist” (Ebert 2007). The spectatorial model assumes a separation between artistic production and esthetic appreciation. Dewey explicitly rejects a sharp division of these two phases of aesthetic experience. We must avoid an excessive emphasis on either the experience of the artist or of the audience. Production and appreciation interpenetrate. The artist creates for an audience and takes up that role while in the thick of artistic creation. In the same way, the audience mimics the creative process in their appreciation of the artwork. “As production must absorb into itself qualities of the product as perceived and be regulated by them, so, on the other side, seeing, hearing, tasting, become esthetic when relation to a distinct manner of activity qualifies what is perceived” (Dewey 1934, 55). The meaning of the work is not found solely in the process by which the work comes into existence, but how a work takes on meaning for both artist and audience.4

The issue is then not whether the medium is interactive, but whether a particular interaction constitutes ‘an’ experience. Henry Jenkins, the game theorist mentioned above, believes that games are able to provide them. Despite making no mention of Dewey’s concept, Jenkins’ discussion of ‘memorable moments’ certainly echoes it. Criticizing game designers for emphasizing emotional intensity or visual spectacle- to which we will turn momentarily - he lauds others who understand that “memorable moments emerge when all of the elements of the medium come together to create a distinctive and compelling experience.” (Jenkins 2005, 180)

Dying or failing in video games disrupts the linear progression of a story, yet is an essential part of games. If it were not possible to fail, then there would be no interest in playing, as evidenced by the gamer’s frequent complaint that the game was too easy. What then, is the player seeking? From a Deweyan perspective, they want the challenge of identifying and overcoming challenges, the slow build to victory. This raises the issue of pacing. ‘Boss battles’ in which the player faces ever-more difficult and unique enemies are paced out as special moments in the rhythmic build of the game, eventuating in the final boss and epilogue. It is not simply the story that provides the sense of completeness and consummation but also the feeling of accomplishment. The victory transforms the previous failures into elements of an organic whole. They were necessary to consummate the experience, even if they did disrupt the continuity of the narrative. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time slyly addresses this concern. The game itself is presented as a story told by the protagonist. Whenever the player dies in the game, he apologizes for misremembering the story and the game reloads to the most recent save point.5 Or the failure may be the defining quality of the experience. Ian Bogost in his Persuasive Games discusses an artwork critical of the war in Afghanistan. Entitled Kabul Kaboom, it is an unwinnable game in which the suffering mother from Picasso’s “Guernica” futilely chases humanitarian food drops (Bogost 2007, 85). The point is not to win, as that is impossible, but to experience the absurdity of “humane war”.

Dewey’s dramatic, consummatory model easily fits narrative or adventure games, but consummatory moments are present even when there is no story. Some games are built around the acquisition of items or points - racing games or dungeon crawlers, for example - but the challenges of acquiring them give the process structure. There are still rhythms of rest and exploration that grow toward a sense of accomplishment that includes and completes the prior phases. The experience has a dramatic structure irrespective of whether the game does. Pragmatic aesthetics offers a way to discuss games while giving full credit to their nature. This leaves open the question of whether any particular game qualifies as art or, for that matter, whether the genre as a whole has risen to that level. What we do have is a set of criteria that respect the medium and allow us to judge a game’s aesthetic merit. Is the game immersive? Does it create a world? Does it allow the player to interact visually, somatically and imaginatively with that world? Does the experience of playing the game allow the player to attain a sense of organic fulfillment, harmonizing its many moments into a whole possessing its own emotional quality? To be sure, most games do not. But some games do.

Emotion versus Expression

In his discussion of the aesthetics of video games, Trigger Happy: Video Games and the Entertainment Revolution, Steven Poole quotes novelist Georges Duhamel’s estimation: “A pastime of the illiterate, wretched creatures who are stupefied by their daily jobs, a machine of mindlessness and dissolution' (Poole 2007, 31). Of course, as Poole notes archly, Duhamel’s 1930s critique did not apply to video games. Instead, he was distressed by the new medium of film. This is not surprising. Years later, similar criticisms would be made of Westerns and comics, initially taken to be juvenile but eventually accepted by many as candidates for the status of art.

Despite mentioning Plato, Descartes, Peirce, Wittgenstein and Heidegger in his examination of the aesthetics of video games, Poole makes no mention of John Dewey. This is unfortunate, as Dewey’s Art as Experience presents arguably the best philosophical defense of the continuity between popular and high culture. He also engaged in a sophisticated analysis of the relation between common or ‘vulgar’ emotions and the refined emotional quality of art. This is no coincidence. The denigration of video games as popular entertainment is interwoven with the belief that they appeal to the juvenile character of the players. Recall Ebert’s criticism that video games take time away that could be used to cultivate our finer sensibilities or consider his reply to horror novelist and game designer Clive Barker’s argument that video games allow for escape: “Spoken with the maturity of an honest and articulate 4-year old” (Ebert 2007). The claim that video games are ultimately immature was made directly when Jack Kroll notoriously asked “Why must they claim that what they are doing is ‘art’? … Games can be fun and rewarding, but they can’t transmit the emotional complexity that is the root of art” (Kroll 2000). Game designers certainly aspire to evoke emotion. Peter Molyneux, creator of Populous, Black & White and Fable, explained what he believes motivates artists:
“I think they’re more concerned with evoking emotions and creating something meaningful and enduring. I set out, especially today, to instill emotions in the people who interact with my games[.] … I want players to feel a range of emotions, not just excitement - that is my ambition” (Ochalla 2007).
Henry Jenkins borrows a phrase from Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 defense of popular arts in his own defense of video games, calling them “the new lively art.” (Jenkins 2005) A distinction is made between ‘great’ art, which appeals to the intellect and calculates the artwork’s effect over the long term and ‘lively’ art which values immediate or spontaneous affect. Seldes and Jenkins argue that popular art evokes an emotional reaction and displays the vitality of American culture. It is delightful and forward-thinking, experimental yet accessible. Therefore, video games may not represent high culture, but they have an aesthetic value of their own.

Wordsworth, Freud and Tolstoy all argued that art is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions,” conscious or unconscious, moral or immoral. In this simple form, Jenkins’ argument runs the risk of reversing or, perhaps, leveling the hierarchy of fine and popular art but accepting the basic dichotomy. It still assumes that the best games can aspire to is to evoke unreflective emotion. But Molyneux’s distinction above between emotion and mere excitement is significant. For all their disdain for the supposedly juvenile emotion expressed in gameplay, critics of video games are correct to reject Clive Barker’s celebration of raw emotion. Emotion is the material of art, but material that must be refined and formed into a completed work with its own quality. If his discussion of momentous moments is forgotten, Jenkins’ expressionism is inadequate, as it does not address the transformation of raw emotion into aesthetic expression.

It is here that Dewey’s thought may help. As we have seen, Dewey rejects a sharp separation between common experience and refined artworks. Similarly, he rejects an isolation of unreflective emotion and the refined experience of aesthetic appreciation. But to reject difference of type is not to reject a difference of function. Raw material that has been transformed by certain processes functions differently in our experience. The question is then one of how artworks work. Aesthetic experience begins in ‘seizure’, being grabbed by the work with an inchoate sense of ‘this means something’ or ‘this is going somewhere’. It ends with an immediate appreciation of the work. Because of the seeming immediacy of the experience, we take aesthetic experience to be a form of instant intuition. Dewey counters that it is temporal, moving.

In Dewey’s thought, emotions may be simply discharged, or they may be expressed. As an organism transacts with its biological-cultural environment, it is already invested in its activities. It has both ends-in-view and internal sources of motivation. It is instinctive, impulsive, energetic and engaged in its world. In its interaction with its environment, it finds sources of satisfaction and of frustration. When confronted by something novel in its environment and habitual ways of acting are no longer sufficient, the organism has its energies blunted. These energies must be redirected. For example, your car may break down and leave you on the side of the road. The typical response is to redirect your desire to get somewhere into anger by kicking the tires or yelling at the indifferent car. Or, to take another example, you may be moved by the sight of unexpected natural beauty as you round a corner and manifest this in a gasp or tears. In neither case would your response be artistic expression. Dewey notes:
“Generalization of such instances will protect us from the error - which has unfortunately invaded esthetic theory - of supposing that the mere giving way of an impulsion, native or habitual, constitutes expression. … As far as the act itself is concerned, it is, if purely impulsive, just a boiling over. While there is no expression, unless there is an urge from within outwards, the welling up must be clarified and ordered by taking into itself the value of prior experiences before it can be an act of expression” (Dewey 1934, 67).
For the rage or joy to be expressive, they must become the object of conscious attention. The artist attends to the objective conditions and subjective emotion to structure and redirect them with an eye to producing a particular response in the audience.

In this process, raw material becomes a medium in the sense that it mediates. Emotion is not, strictly speaking, subjective. It is not something pre-made and inside that must be made public through the act of expression. “An emotion is implicated in a situation, the issue of which is in suspense and in which the self that is moved in the emotion is vitally concerned. Situations are depressing, threatening, intolerable, triumphant” (Dewey 1934, 72). Artistic expression is not mere externalization of energies, but the existential reconstruction of a situation. The artwork relates disparate elements of the situation into an organic whole. An angry yell directed at a car is not yet music, but may be when arranged with other tones, instruments and words to evoke an emotional response in the listener. In short, expression is emotion remade. Through the creative process, the materials - including raw emotion - take on a deeper significance.

At the same time, expression is not the same as explicit statement. This is not to deny the cognitive content of art, but that to claim that thought is embodied in the materials, rather than using the materials as symbols. For example, the stated meaning of a stop sign is not strictly dependent on its color - another color could be the convention without losing the meaning of the sign. As an artwork, the sensuous qualities such as its red-ness carry the meaning. This is why art fails when ‘the point’ is made explicit. Its cognitive content is imposed on the material, rather than being immanent. The old adage in films is “Show, don’t tell.” When the artwork is merely a vehicle for some personal, moral or political proposition, it fails. Art neither states nor discharges. It constitutes an experience (Dewey 1934, 90).

Let us now turn back to the criticism that video games are an inherently immature medium. As noted above, the criticism of video games as a popular medium is bound to the charge that they depend on the immaturity of the players’ emotional response. And, to be honest, there is truth to the charge. We have a tendency to celebrate creative genius as singular, mysterious and divine, but the supposed simplicity and immediacy of both artistic creation and aesthetic response are actually quite complex. It requires the skilled manipulation of conditions, both internal and external, to produce a deep and sustained emotional response. “Such fullness of emotion and spontaneity of utterance come, however, only to those who have steeped themselves in experiences of objective situations; those who have long been absorbed in observation of related material and whose imaginations have long been occupied with reconstructing what they see and hear” (Dewey 1934, 78). Correlatively, the audience must cultivate sensitivity to these reconstructed situations. The audience’s immediate emotional response may be no more aesthetic than is that of the angry car owner.

Therefore, if a videogame is to claim aesthetic standing, it must satisfy the same rigorous demands of transformation and reconstruction that apply to all artworks. Sadly, as video games have become one of the dominant modes of entertainment, they have typically succumbed to the demands of the market. They have generally been targeted to a young male demographic with disposable income that desires the same lurid sex and violence that fills blockbuster films. The interchangeable thick-necked space marines that populate so many video games do not typically make for interesting avatars, nor is gameplay that reduces to “destroy everything between here and there” inspiring (though it may certainly be fun). The game designers and game players both accept stimulation instead of strive for aesthetic experience.

This is not to say that art deals only with more subtle or delicate emotions. Art can and does express anger, for example. The God of War games present a protagonist fueled by pure rage and it is possible to enjoy it on that level alone. However, the compelling story and visceral gameplay offer more than just stimulation. In playing the role of Kratos, there is a virtual embodiment of anger, a muscular quality that is immersive and satisfying. It constitutes the experience of rage. Likewise, more delicate emotions like tenderness may be expressed in a maudlin way or they may, as in Ico, constitute the experience of caring for a vulnerable and endangered friend (e.g. by subtly moving the game controller every time she takes the avatar’s hand).

Dewey joined in the jeremiad in the latter parts of Art as Experience. He lamented the isolation of artworks in museums away from the run of common life. Dewey saw this as the mark of a largely an-aesthetic culture. The great majority of our experience is routine, repetitive, shallow and mechanical. It is frenetic repetition of the moment or it is anesthetic numbness. “We see without feeling; we hear, but only a second-hand report. … We touch, but the contact remains tangential because it does not fuse with qualities of sense that go below the surface” (Dewey 1934, 27). In light of this, it is not surprising that we would conclude that art is a separate realm of life and retreat into mindless and vulgar entertainment. Dewey would be hostile to Clive Barker’s defense, noted above, that art allows an escape from our dreary lives. Rather, “were it not for the oppressions and monotonies of daily experience, the realm of dream and revery [sic] would not be attractive” (ibid). It is important to note that Dewey was not claiming that our society suffers because it cuts average people off from the objects of ‘high culture’ - as if wider access to museums were sufficient - and leaves them with popular entertainment as a consolation prize. Rather, he rejects the division between art and life to argue that the genuine task is the aesthetic deepening of everyday experience, not to bring art to life from without.

But this is only the latest chapter in the conflict between commerce and art. Critics’ lamentations about the sorry state of video games mirror claims that have been made about any number of media. The difference is that many claim that it is a fact inherent to the medium rather than the result of external forces. For Dewey, the problem of vulgar art is not one of the interactive and world-creating medium, but of economics, sociology and psychology. Without detailing Dewey’s long career as a public intellectual and cultural critic, it is enough to note that he understood problems of art to be more fundamentally the general problem of the devaluation of aesthetic experience. Under such conditions, it is not surprising that games are often poorly designed and, even when well designed, poorly appreciated.

Though Dewey held that the dearth of aesthetic experience is ultimately a social, economic and political problem, a solution cannot be attempted here. However, one step is to develop an account of aesthetics that best fits this particular medium. Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy of art offers one way to frame future discussion of video games - one sensitive to its interactive nature and standing as popular entertainment - and, perhaps more importantly, to aid in making better ones.


1 Within theoretical discussion of games, the dispute between ‘narratologists’ who understand video games as merely another medium by which meanings are conveyed and ‘ludologists’ who argue that more fundamental than the narrative is the playing is very well known. Though I will not delve into this extensive debate in this piece, a pragmatic aesthetics commits to the centrality of the experience of playing. For an introduction to the ludology-narratology debate, see (Frasca 2003).

2 The works of Thom Alexander remain the best source for a philosophical account of Dewey’s aesthetics. For an in-depth study, see (Alexander 1987). For a summary, see (Alexander 1998).

3 Richard Shusterman’s Pragmatist Aesthetics, in addition to a substantial philosophical account of Dewey’s theory, include a defense of popular culture in general and funk and rap music in particular (Shusterman 1992). See also (Kupfer 1983).

4 Though I am intentionally eschewing poststructuralist theory at the moment, Dewey’s model anticipates Michel de Certeau’s concept of ‘appropriation’ (de Certeau 2002).

5 Incidentally, the transactive model questions the dichotomy between ludic (games as games) and narrative (games as story) theories. The experience of the game has a narrative structure, but that game itself is not only a vehicle for conveying a narrative, as a game may be made into a movie or vice-versa. To use Dewey’s terminology, art does not state, but constitutes.

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