Nuts and Bolts, Variables and Functions: Formalism in Digital Contexts

codebannerOver the past week, I participated in an intensive course on mobile app development, and I have a very simple program on seasonal eating to show for it. Coming from a background of practically no experience with CSS or Javascript, and having taught myself HTML to make my Neopets homepage years ago, the pile on of this course (six 6-hour days in a row) was at times overwhelming and mentally exhausting. The breakthroughs were gratifying, but there were also long spans of time where I’d simply be staring at the screen, wondering what any of this stuff I’ve typed out is actually doing. It was my first experience with actual coding in years, since making silly text adventures in BASIC during Middle School. And in a way, I often felt like knowing BASIC held me back, since I kept wanting to just ‘print’ something rather than having to write a piece of script! It was a lot like learning to do any other activity.

When I attempted to paint with oil the first time, I thought I was doomed to fail the Intro to Painting course I was taking. Using egg tempera in a medieval restoration course felt the same way. I often attempted to use the techniques of the nearest parallels that I had experience with, drawing or watercolor, but of course, it usually made an even bigger mess of what I was trying to do. Each language you learn, and every skill or process you practice has its own form that you have to feel out gradually be experimenting, failing, learning. This may seem obvious to anyone, especially someone who is a jack of all trades but master of none, but it’s easy to lose sight of these processes in the midst of the flattening power of digital media.

By “flattening” I don’t mean that media presented over the internet or any sort of digital system in general loses meaning or quality. In fact, Google Art Project has allowed many researchers in the History of Art to have a more intimate look at the objects of their study than most museums would allow, and listening to a recording of a symphony can be a much deeper and contemplative experience if you’re alone with noise-cancelling headphones rather than sitting in a hot, dusty concert hall next to a terrible fidgeter. Of course, this doesn’t even address the issue of access, since it assumes you could experience the “analog originals” yourself! In many cases, experiencing something digitally is the only feasible way for most people to experience it.

When I say digital media “flattens” I more precisely mean that it eliminates the differences in process between many forms of media. Panel paintings, oils, photos, and digital images can all be presented as image files with the same extension, and it’s easier to lose sight of the material reality behind the creation of these images, as well as the nature of the medium itself. Creating digital images is often described as “painting (or drawing) with a computer” and yet the technical processes and techniques that go into each are completely different.

Formalism has fallen out of vogue as a way to analyze art in general, as critique focusing on content, ideology, and reflexive questions like the role of the artist or of art in society is seen as more relevant and a richer location for inquiry. And, taken to the extreme, it is not very good as the only metric by which one analyzes art. The shortcomings of the Abstract Expressionist movement and the discontent in the art world that followed demonstrates this clearly.

What makes Javascript so different from HTML, which is so different from BASIC? It comes down to documentation, that is, what you root through to find out how to achieve the end you have in mind, and the set of ends the language was originally written for. Trying to paint like an artist who uses acrylics when you’re using oils will probably make you cry. I’ve been there. Of course, there are political implications to an artist choosing acrylic over oil paints, and all mediums are somehow ensnared with ideological values. That’s something “pure” formalism neglects to address. However, at a conscious level, the artist is probably only thinking of the inherent material traits of each medium. Acrylic is opaque and dries fast. Oil dries slowly and makes translucent layers. BASIC makes text do basic things quickly, Javascript can do all kinds of buttons and inputs and objects and so on, but it also takes a lot of scripting. At first, learning Javascript with a BASIC mindset was a nightmare, but after six tiring days, I’ve made something that, while not perfect, I can be proud of. More than I can say of my first oil painting. Examining mediums from a formal perspective, which values the peculiarities and strengths of the medium itself can not only reveal a lot about a work from the perspective of a critic or researcher, but also inform one’s own work.

So what does this mean for video game criticism? Is formalism in this area the same as the formalism that analyzes a painting? Games journalism that focuses on presenting images and evaluating the visual information of a game may make this mistake. Because video games are experiences that are generated by code being read by some sort of computer, though, the visual information that this code produces is not really the “form” of the game. Asking a game critic to go into the source code of the game and identify what procedures lead to which experiences is clearly absurd, almost like asking an art critic to take samples and identify every mineral pigment used in a painting. But an art critic must be aware of the nature and uses of paint, at a basic level, and the strengths, weaknesses, tropes and goals of the medium. Evaluating the procedures of a game and how the operations within fit together doesn’t just lead to a formal close reading, but it can reveal much about the ideology a game communicates as well. Yes, after the 1950s we’re all tired of formalism, but in a time when cross-medium digital access seems to eliminate the differences between the products of visual art mediums, programming languages, even approaches to music-making, returning to formal analysis can bring the processes behind all of these media to light.

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