Art and Purpose Objects

In this month’s GROUP SHOW, I touch on the fact that educational games are perceived as “less pure” than games without an explicit use beyond entertainment, or even not games at all. This comes from a more general suspicion of utility throughout game theory and the construction of a history of videogames. The idea of games as necessarily or primarily “entertainment,” purely systems of engaging and rewarding mechanics, has played a role in deciding what games are included in the talks, books, and exhibitions that are quickly composing a supposedly authoritative history of gaming, but it also excludes a large portion of important work also worthy of study and preservation. As we’ve seen with film before it, in the early decades of a new mediums’ existence, the way that dominant ideologies define what is the paragon examples of a medium has a lot to do with what early work survives, often to the later chagrin of historians.

From Smarty by Theresa Duncan

Rhizome’s recent conservation efforts occur at the intersection of several elements of gaming history running the risk of oversight. Theresa Duncan’s games were released as CD-ROM in the mid-90s, when gaming history overwhelmingly focuses on arcade and console programs, with few exceptions of especially notable PC games, usually from later than the mid-90s. These games also fall into the category of “art games,” games often created by single artists who create work in other mediums as well. Theresa Duncan, who also worked in film, animation and writing, is one such creator, and The Intruder by Natalie Bookchin and various Doom mods by JoDi are also examples of this sort of work, which is more often associated with art historical movements like than the history of gaming, where they equally belong. Finally, in addition to being created for a machine primarily associated with workstations rather than gaming, and made outside the typical routes of production and marketing associated with games, Duncan’s games take an explicit approach of being an imaginative, somewhat educations interactive storybook aimed at young girls.

On my reading list while I was developing the concept and writing the walltexts for the What is Edutainment? Group Show was The Necessity of Art by Ernst Fischer. In this book, Fischer takes a Marxist perspective on defining the practical purpose art has fulfilled throughout history and across societies. Whether it be through magic, recording information, or self-expression, art has always been a means for humans to exert their ability to change the world, and art remains because of this purpose.

The Necessity of Art was originally written in the 1960s, and the ideas expressed must have seemed to be almost sacrilege to the contemporaneously dominant theory of art-for-arts’ sake. Fischer’s ideal art for a socialist society would reflect reality and also be aspirational, or present ideas for how society could be improved. Further, he believed that art-for-arts’ sake, trapped in capitalist conditions, communicated a certain despair with the world, that things could not be changed, and likewise, this art mainly served a concealed purpose as a commodity for the rich in such societies, underneath the claim that it was for its own sake.

To me, both aspirational or critical art and art for its own sake can be useful approaches. The intense focus on abstraction and formalism that marked a large portion of the 20th century due to the art-for-art mindset explored and pushed the boundaries of aesthetics and visual perception, but these paintings and sculptures are often difficult to discuss and understand without a high-level academic background and mostly fell into the hands of wealthy collectors, alienating the general public. On the other hand, art that presents a narrative or deals with social issues, themes shut out by such extreme formalism, tends to be far more accessible to the public and more engaged with society in general.

The idea that art for its own sake is a higher form of art or more pure than other approaches comes from the idea that art is different from a purpose object. A purpose object is mundane, everyday, and serves a specific function like brushing your teeth, covering your body or getting food into your mouth, while the art object is transcendental. You can see the same logic at work in theory that positions games that are purely challenging and engaging systems above those with a focus on narrative, educational content, or some other form of utility, and the frequent virulent rejection of modes of criticism that bring in social or arts perspectives. However, this presumed non-utility of pure games is not transcendental, and instead points to a specific mode of consumption within capitalism that they exist to fill.

Of course, there’s no problem will conserving and analyzing specific game consoles or even games that depict virtuosic formalism, but it’s clear that this has become the quality which defines the category of ‘game’ for some enthusiasts and scholars alike. When it comes down to it, these are artificial formal constraints attempting to box in medium that is much broader. The consequences of this approach is already being seen in what games have fallen by the wayside, being left unexhibited, unconserved, uninvestigated, or have already become impossible to access. Attempting to exclude or limit the role educational games, among other marginalized genres, have played in creating and influencing the direction of games as a whole, is not simply an oversight at the theoretical level, in the long run it will have material consequences.

The desire to separate a medium of creation from other objects with clearly defined purposes seems like an expression of unconfidence as a medium attempts to find its place in a world that often seems to have much larger issues than entertainment, aesthetics, pleasure. If there is a particular thing that makes it unique, above all other forms of expression, doesn’t that make it something worth pursuing in our complex and scary reality? However, Fischer’s argument that art is inherently purposeful, beyond investigating itself for its own sake, validates a broad variety of practices instead of narrowing a medium to a particular set of paragons. The development of a history of videogames must take the same approach if it is to be comprehensive.