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III. (Post-) Ironic (Post-) Modernity

What is adequate to our times is not to make something new or specifically adequate as modernism may have aspired to but to reproduce past adequacies as sterilized nostalgia. Postmodernism in the visual arts took the long history of gradual paring down and eventually questioning the “object” of art and the contexts (including market) which surrounded it... and turned it into a business model. Acts which questioned the value of the artists’ hand in late modernity, or challenged the position of the unique art object or genius artist were cynically turned into new ways to market your work. Representation of art historical meta or popular culture made """ironic""" (rather: immediately-hegemonic) by its presence in an art gallery became the style and the process became fabrication and outsourcing. Just like a boss now does not operate the machinery or assemble the objects sold, or even live in the same country as the workers who do, “I understand that, as an artist, if you actually touch your own artwork the value of said artwork is severely depreciated. That’s just how the market works nowadays.” - Hennessy Youngman

And yet we still romanticize Warhol (and the art world contorts to try and make the sublimely unlikeable Koons or Hirst remotely romanticize-able) as some sort of combo sensitive artist plus boyish trickster plus small business hustler… obviously they’re none of these things, instead just protected like a tragically inbred stable of pale and fragile racehorses, as a deliberately limited set of individuals who direct the production of expensive decorative/speculative assets for the wealthy. The vast majority of us (Hito Steyerl also notes that art creation is another thing that has been automated and distributed on a mass scale, that in the 20th century everyone may have been thinking of writing a novel but now we’re all thinking of making an art project) are left with the comfort of making the bad art, bad in the sense that it is, speculatively/fiscally, valuless. The abundance of bad art and wannabe artists only shores up the obscene value of what goes in the vaults. “The more unpaid interns, the more expensive the art.

When it became evident that a slew of imitators were on the way and there was really no way to position the high(price) art reappropriation of low(value) cultural icons and aesthetics as shocking, transgressive, or even ironic anymore, postmodernity then took a turn to cynically co-opt the idea of “sincerity,” a subset of “authenticity” that seems to exclusively play nice, giving everyone the ability to just enjoy things and be comfy, especially if they are easily recognizable elements of mass consumer culture. “There is no alternative,” not only because capitalism’s image of itself is inescapable despite an increasing pile of failures pointing to the fact that it is not the only or even one of many potentially feasible economic systems, but because proposing an alternative makes you a kind of insincere snob now. Get a load of this guy who claims he doesn’t like the blandly universal ebullience of the balloon dog! This situation, of endless repetition of some sort of vague nostalgia, or callbacks to things we think we should like and appreciate, of boom and bust while a few choice assets are selected and squirreled away to consolidate more inevitable power and capital at the tippy-top, is not unlike the corralled history of commercial videogames.  

Are any of the indie videogames, or even “controversial” AAA games which bill themselves or are received as a recursive or ironic or critical or retro revival takes on existing videogame genres or aesthetics actually challenging or expanding the history and potential of the form as told by best selling game consoles, money making IP and studios that absorb and conscript emerging talent because going it on your own (or even in a small studio) is increasingly untenable? I don’t think if there’s a single plot twist that “makes you think” or a mechanic that interrupts conventional genre expectations, or moments of “transgressive aesthetics” (which is usually just a yawn inducing extra layer of gore or, especially, abuse of women) that it does enough to effect the fact that the game is generally enjoyable as the expected product, or maybe even a tolerably modest improvement on it through incorporating new mechanics and narrative tones. Recursive takes themselves have even become a disciplinary tool of the standard game aesthetics presiding over the “videogames canon;” “ironic” phone games, educational games, visual novels and so on mostly created by white male devs swat these marginal approaches to the videogames form into line, elevating them to be worthy of consideration.

Can this repetition escape itself or go anywhere beyond another hubristic market oversaturation where we have to bury 10 million undownloaded digital copies of the most expensive and labor exploiting open world game --but with a twist-- possible in the desert somewhere? Can applying recursivity/irony/auteurism/polish to callbacks to this proscribed history of games do anything except reproduce and give power to such a history? I don’t think it can, and it definitely won’t resolve the crises and insecurities of the form. To me, the most interesting work is not trying to rework or find something new about what has already been well-canonized, but searching for uses of and experiences with technology that have eluded being labeled as unproblematically “videogames” at the present time (Huhtamo’s connecting of the history of videogames to the history of coin-op entertainment, indie games taking inspiration from web 1.0, CD-ROM software and hypercard experiences, and examinations of meta-play, fan culture and glitch exploits to name a few), or which envision entirely new relationships to the making and playing of videogames (Bitsy, flatgames, and so on).


Well then, to conclude, these are just three claims among many hundreds or thousands that could be made about videogame modernities. I’m deliberately not trying to be comprehensive (after all, I’ve already written 5000 words here), instead pulling out threads from discussions and theory on modernity and postmodernity that are compelling to me. Videogames as a form were born and raised of and in the complex phenomenon of Modernity. Of course you can talk about “modern” videogames however you like. But if we’re going to talk about the form coherently and “elevate the discourse” beyond inside baseball for people with a presumably uniform nostalgic appreciation for a commercial construction of the platonic ideal Video Game, we have to incorporate these contexts rather than just presume we are chunking off the same period of some corporate walled-garden “history” in our minds as our readers when we use the phrase “modern videogames.”



Okay! No more! Go home!