Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game

By Mortensen, Torill Elvira | American Journal of Play, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game


Mortensen, Torill Elvira, American Journal of Play


Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game

Graeme Kirkpatrick

New York: Manchester University Press, 2011. Images, bibliography, index. 247 pp. $25.95 cloth. ISBN: 9780719077180 Graeme Kirkpatrick's study of aesthetic theory and video games seeks to apply aesthetic theory to what some view as a garish, popularized, and mass-produced cultural form. What do video games have to do with aesthetics after all? Kirkpatrick takes this question head on and argues that video games are a"historically specific instance of an aesthetic form," and as such they should be viewed through the lens aesthetics to be understood (p. 1). Over the course of six chapters, Kirkpatrick discusses the newness of what games bring to aesthetics. For the author, the newness of games is a specific way of approaching the text through the body, as a participant rather than as an audience.

Drawing on the work of Markku Eskelinen (a founder of gamestudies.org), Kirkpatrick demonstrates the difference between games and stories. As Eskelinen notes, when we are thrown a ball, we do not expect it to tell us stories. This example becomes Kirkpatrick's starting point for an exploration of games as texts that expect us to play along, take part in, and initiate the progress of the experience. He pushes Eskelinen's comments further by asserting that the act of playing can be meaningful without being subjected to interpretation. The act is its own meaning and its own goal.

Despite Kirkpatrick's initial claim that play does not have to be interpreted, he does commit interesting and thoughtprovoking acts of interpretation. For instance, in chapter 5, "Meaning in Virtual Worlds," he interprets the structure of video games as a constant revisiting of loss, and he points to how it is described as a joyless pleasure (p. 187). In this discussion, he demonstrates through strong and engaging analysis the connections between game criticism and the cultural criticism of Walter Benjamin and Frederic Jameson.

In Kirkpatrick's chapter called "Ludology, Space, and Time," he positions the ludology (the study of games) of Espen Aarseth and Jesper Juul in the context of traditional aesthetic theory. He weaves the loose ends of structuralist game studies into the aesthetic traditions and understandings that the ludologists originally rejected, claiming that game scholarship was independent of them. These original ludologists did this to avoid having games reduced and understood only in the image of the previous, more static texts dominating the field of literature and aesthetics. Yet while this chapter performs the necessary task of positioning ludology in relation to aesthetic theory, it also leaves a lot to future discussion. …

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