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Thoughts on Postmodern Gaming

So I'm nearing the end of my college curriculum, which means that there's a lot more rattling around in my head than there was a few years ago. I know a lot more about art and about games than I used to, and I have a lot more opinions about art and about games than I used to. So I'll go ahead and preface this post by issuing a general disclaimer and saying that this is not an argument for the "games are art" debate, so much as an application of ideologies and thoughts to contemporary culture. If I talk to much, or you think I'm totally out of my depth, feel free to say so.

Before we can apply postmodernism as an ideology, we need to understand it as a history, and that really begins with modernism, which properly began with the advent of photography between the 1820s and the 1830s. William Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre separately but nearly simultaneously created chemical means of reproducing images of reality, which caused a bit of a crisis for artists, who had long worked to paint reflections of these realities as well. Supporters of photography themselves boasted that the day of paintings had ended, and artists were typically unable to disagree entirely; with photographs able to more accurately capture realistic images, the authority of the painting to depict truth seemed in doubt.

It was at this point that "reality" and "truth" became important, as artists began to work less in terms of realism (depicting reality), and more in terms of how that reality was perceived (depicting truth). This principle was implemented by Paul Cezanne, who showed that representation could -- and should -- still account for the manner in which the viewer and the object interact. If Cezanne introduced this idea, it was Picasso and the Cubists who picked the concept up and ran with it, reducing figures to geometric forms and displaying them simultaneously from multiple vantage points.

On top of the issues relating to photography's ability to reproduce reality, there was also the issue of photography's reproducibility; where painting typically saw only one of a work produced, photography enabled multiple prints of the same image to be produced. Mechanical reproduction created a fear that, because paintings could no be photographed and replicated ad infinitum, there was no longer value in the original. Walter Benjamin addressed this possibility, fearing that the reproducibility of art would case the obsolescence of that very same art, but asserted that regardless of how much a work was reproduced, the original would always have a significant something that the copies or reproductions would not: "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." While reproductions could demonstrate the exact visuals ofa piece, they could not recreate the exact circumstances in history and location that caused the painting to be born, and thus would ultimately remain inferior to the original work itself. This gave the original painting a measure of authority that reproductions would simply lack.

Marcel Duchamp helped to push the ideas brought forth by the Cubists even further, both in 1912 with Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, and in 1917 with Fountain. Nude depicts exactly what its title details, but does so by superimposing numerous frames of time surrounding the figure's descent, giving the appearance of motion, while still pulling influence from the Cubist and Futurist movements. The piece caused a fair amount of controversy when it was shown in America, where audiences were still accustomed to realistic portrayals in paintings; Nude was mostly scandalized at this showing. Fountain, similarly, is still a benchmark for discussing what does and does not constitute art; the piece is a bathroom urinal tilted on its side, dated, and signed by the artist with a name that is not his own. By raising the question of what constitutes art, Fountain became art itself, giving way to the idea that an item could be created by someone other than the artist, but still submitted as art by the artist; these would later be referred to as readymades.

Duchamp's exploits led to a large number of principles central to modernism; his work served as an easily illustrated basis for the ideas of both avant-gard and kitsch. Avant-gard was not so much about "experimentation" so much as the continued pushing of art forward ahead of its current place, the idea of taking something to its furthest and sometimes most remote conclusion (Nude presents a case for this idea). Kitsch, similarly, was the logical conclusion resulting from Fountain, manufactured works not necessarily crafted by the artist personally, but torn directly from contemporary culture, and sometimes supplanting folk culture entirely. These developments brought about the ideas of doing art for art's sake, as well as the division between a high and low art culture, or rather the differentiation of educated and/or elitist audiences from culture-based, mainstream audiences. Before us, then, are the foundations of modernism. Artists shifted from portraying "reality" to portraying "truth," which is essentially reality as shaped by perception. The development of high culture versus low culture, the authority of the artist and their art, and art for art's sake are all consistent with a modern world, as are the focus on specialization and the production of material works. Duchamp, however, possesses a rather auspicious place in art history; in putting into motion some of the very ideas present in modernism, these same actions opened the door for what would eventually become postmodernism.

We can see evidence of the high versus low culture concept, as well as the concept of progression, in the idea of installation art; Duchamp's placement of a urinal in a museum ended up being an empowering stroke for institutions, leading to a shift in focus from the objects on display to the place in which they were displayed. The reproducibility of art as instituted by Duchamp's Fountain would allow for the success of artists such as pop art mogul Andy Warhol, whose images were largely reproductions pushed as far as conceivable and ranged from Coke bottles to cans of soup. Duchamp himself rejected these emerging ideas, citing that the reproducibility of his art was in itself not necessarily reproducible, essentially wrapping modernism in on itself. Obviously, reproduction persisted regardless of Duchamp's protests. Of key note is that the fears of artists living in an age of mechanical reproduction never came true; the worries expressed by Walter Benjamin ended up seeing the exact opposite end result, holding more true to his remarks that the original of a piece was significant. Contradictorily, it seemed that the more a piece had been reproduced, the more the original tended to be worth. In other words, the broader the exposure of a piece, the more enhanced its value was. As a result, public conception of art became less about truth, and more about monetary value. Art had become a consumer commodity.

With this broad exposure, art could and did transition from being explorative works to consumer images; the original context of a work as it existed was almost completely obliterated and replaced by the image as seen by mainstream audiences. The reproduced images replaced reality as hyper-reality, a reality that is crafted and engineered beyond the scope of reality as it actually occurred. Jean Baudrillard demonstrates this, holding that theoretically, a representational image will go through four specific historic phases before ending up at what he refers to as the simulacrum, the point at which its context is eradicated and its original meaning completely and totally lost:

1. it is the reflection of a basic reality
2. it masks and perverts a basic reality
3. it marks the absence of a basic reality
4. it bears no relation to any reality whatever - it is its own pure simulacrum

Because of the shift from truth seeking to commodity, in a postmodern sense the rules do not apply when creating a piece of art; rather, rulesets come into play after the art is created, as if the art itself is created specifically to explore what set of rules it actually follows. This is a matter of either accepting the hyper-reality or continuing to progress with experimentation. As such, a work that is specifically anti-art can still become art, so long as it is legitimized, which brings us back cyclically to the idea of art and knowledge as commodity. Even if art is difficult to understand or unpopular, that it can become marketable and purchasable is enough to legitimize it as art. Given that nearly anything can become art in such a way, the lines between high art culture and popular culture at the very least blur, and at the very most completely collapse.

Therefore, postmodernism differs from modernism in that, as a marketable commodity, art is less about "truth" as an absolute and more about truth as a relativity. The engineered, hyper-reality brought about by the ability to mass-produce reproductions of work simultaneously changes or destroys the contexts of the original while increasing its value, de-elevating high art and elevating pop culture to the point where they stand on the same plane. While they differ in their assessments of exactly how, where modernism and postmodernism meet on common ground is the idea that whatever is being currently engaged has already been accomplished at some point in the past; rather, everything we do is drawn from history, and nothing that can be done will ever be "new." The difference is that the postmodern view dictates that, because of the hyper-reality created by mass-produced reproductions, and because exploration of art will lead to the image's own eventual destruction, there is literally nothing to do that has not already been done, making the art process eternally cyclical.

So what does postmodernism have to do with videogames?

If anything, what's important to note is that we're living in a time that is simultaneously both modern and postmodern; Jean-Francois Lyotard pontificated that "a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant." As such, modernism and postmodernism aren't historically exactly as I've detailed above, and don't apply specifically to art; rather, the period of history between the mid 1800s through the mid 1950s is when the art world came up for names for things that already existed throughout the whole of the cultural world; postmodernism seems simply to be the name given to work that is in those birthing stages of becoming modern, the act of progressing while simultaneously challenging and recycling.

Realizing that the idea of "postmodernism" is applicable to everything cultural, and not just art, is critical. Internet memes are a great example of postmodernism at work in pop culture: you've got images, songs, music videos, and so on that have been taken and warped into something different that completely annihilates their original context. Video games as a medium were inherently postmodern when they were released; colored squares on a screen are at best a hyper-reality that bears no resemblance to reality as we know it. But it's a hyper-reality that we've accepted, and it's obviously been legitimized as a commercial commodity. That games have reached the point where their artistic values are appraised and discussed, and that there even exists a "games as art" debate, signals the transition of videogames out of postmodern culture and into modern culture.

We play games, and if they're decently constructed then we accept the realities that they portray. They may be self-contained realities, but as long as the game can make sense of the reality that it has constructed, we typically accept it. Accepting this reality and playing the game as it was designed to be played would be decidedly modern. Glitching, cheating, and hacking may all be ways designed to corrupt this reality to the benefit of the player, but if the end goal is still a matter of performing well within the game's designated goals, then the gameplay is still modern. It's like breaking rules for the sake of excelling within that same rule structure; if you're using a modded XBox to cheat at Slayer in Halo, for example, you're still doing so with the ultimate goal of winning the match against your opponents, which is a goal that the game has issued you. While the physics and rulesets are broken, it is typically evident in which ways the structure has been perverted, and there is still some resemblance to the original gameplay.

Postmodern gaming, then, would have to be gameplay that is not only so terrifically augmented from the original intent that it bears absolutely no resemblance to actually playing the game as designed, but also is specifically geared towards a goal that is not identical to the goal of the developers. To put it more simply, a new game is created, with the original game serving as the medium of execution.

I can think of no better example than the idea of speedruns, and in particular those which are tool-assisted. The player's objective is not simply to beat the game (which would be following the developer's goal), it's to trigger the game's ending sequence as quickly as possible using any means at your disposal. This might simply sound like "beating the game really fast," but even if it were, that's still imposing an external ruleset onto the game, which is enough to raise the question of whether it's modern or postmodern. Where tool-assisted speedruns make the distinction clearer is in the manner in which they're executed.

A tool-assisted speedrun is a playthrough of a game that's done with the help of emulators, programming knowledge, glitching, and a number of other exploits in order to create the shortest and most optimal run from the game's start to its ending. This typically entails slowing down the frame rate of the game to the point where reflexes and player skill have literally no impact on the outcome of the game, and instead is a measure of how far the game's programming can be pushed when the human element is removed.

For example, take this video of a player beating Chrono Trigger in 21 minutes. Go ahead, I'll wait.

When considering this from the angle of postmodern gameplay, the player isn't playing Chrono Trigger at all. This is something completely different, a contest of sorts with the goal being the shortest game time possible; the particular medium for executing this contest happens to be Chrono Trigger. So we can already say that goal as originally intended by developers (Save the world from Lavos) has been scrubbed and supplanted with something entirely different (reach the ending sequence of Chrono Trigger using any means necessary, even if it means breaking the game).

Once the alternate goal has been set, the means of achieving it are changed as well, and very dramatically. If you could stomach watching the video above, and have every played Chrono Trigger, it only takes about a minute and a half to two minutes to realize that this is simply not how the original game is played. As the gameplay progresses, and more and more glitches and exploits are implemented, it becomes evident that the entire programmed system of the game has collapsed; gameplay implemented to achieve this alternate goal bears literally no resemblance whatsoever to its original context. Chrono Trigger transforms from a tale of friendship and adventure into a terrifying world where innocent chairs are placed on trial, where Mooninite rejects roam the overworld of the distant future, and where MissingNo. defeats his greatest enemy by giving it a present.

To illustrate the same idea in speedruns that are not tool-assisted, we can jump back to the previously mentioned Halo; sometimes the quickest ways through a level rely very heavily on skipping entire portions of the game, as well as abusing loading areas to cause behavior in the game that is not typical to a normal playthrough. Halo also serves as a good example for other forms of postmodern gaming outside of speedruns; there are entire communities of players that work to find places in levels that are off the beaten path and thought to be impossible to get to. Exploring in this fashion has nothing to do with the game's storyline, and typically is done through hilarious abuse of the physics engine in ways that programmers had not anticipated. Again, we see alternate goals set and achieved through means not resembling the originally intended gameplay.

What's awesome is that the idea of this alternate play is seeing slow legitimization through the implementation of certain features by developers into games. Super Metroid seems to have been specifically built to allow for the prospect of sequence breaking without the utter annihilation of the game engine. Portal enables players to attempt to clear rooms using as few portals, as few steps, or as little time as possible, creating goals separate from the original "escape the facility" agenda. And more recent Halo games have included small shoutouts and hidden prizes in very difficult to reach locations, indicating the developers' expectation for players to continue to try to break the game. It's an indication that postmodern gaming is in the transitional phases of becoming modern, and that's a pretty rad thing to watch while it's still an ongoing process.
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About ThaJinxone of us since 2:20 PM on 09.25.2009

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