Throwing money at the screen

It is well known and well documented by now that many videogames released within the last decade are fantasies of accumulation: of experience points, of wealth, of abilities, of guns, of power. That is to say, the power fantasy that these games peddle is built on the idea of upward mobility, that someone can start with nothing, and through hard work and the sheer force of will, gain money and influence. “It is a power fantasy that reflects our time,” writes game critic Austin Walker, “We want to be reassured that our effort will pay off in the end, that progress is guaranteed, and that our achievements are fully our own.” Walker has helpfully dubbed this dynamic the “new power fantasy.”

Other writers have elaborated on the new power fantasy, albeit without referring to it by name. Ed Smith has noted how the systems by which games go about rewarding players is often based on a utopian distortion of “real-life wage/labour systems, whereby hours worked are equivalent to money earned,” wherein games “appeal not to a player’s altruism or morality, but to their desire for material.” In his explication of the colonialist tendencies of open-world games, Brendan Keogh notes how gameworlds are “reduced to resource and commodity for the Western subject” through the basic structures of open-world games: “how various hidden objects and power-ups can be found,” how “side missions and quests can be completed for bonus rewards.” Though Smith and Keogh don’t identify Walker’s new power fantasy, the mechanisms they describe are endemic to it. From these writer’s observations, we can ascertain that the new power fantasy is based in particularly destructive Western ideals, particularly the notion of meritocracy.

Digital art critic Lana Polansky explicitly tied Walker’s new power fantasy to meritocracy in the last days of 2014. In her essay, Polansky relates the new power fantasy “the shifting positions of the owner and the buyer,” diagnosing and challenging the tendency of retail videogames to centralize the ego of the player while simultaneously “asking the player to expend more time, skill and energy to keep proving their worth.” To this end, Polansky cites the art critic John Berger’s book (and the precedent BBC Television series) Ways of Seeing (1972). In her brief explication of his book, Polansky cites Berger’s observations on the European Art tradition of oil painting, specifically his idea that oil paint is “the perfect medium through which to propagandize capitalist excess.”

images are made to appeal to the player’s “desire for material”

Polansky’s invocation of Berger is illuminating, not only because of the purpose it serves within Polansky’s original argument, but because the specific way in which oil painting is able to represent capitalist excess can be examined to reveal a different sort of supposed meritocracy that has emerged within games: one that is perhaps more sinister than the new power fantasy, if only because it has been allowed to persist, unidentified and unquestioned. It is not based on the systems that players engage with, but the way players experience the images of games. Players’ experiences of images have been warped by the values at the heart of the new power fantasy: images are made to appeal not to the player’s aesthetic sensibilities, but to her “desire for material.” Images have been reduced to commodity. It is a phenomenon that finds its parallel in the medium of oil paint.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes that what differentiates the tradition of European oil painting (a tradition that lasted from around 1500-1900) from other forms of painting is “its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts.” Berger uses Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) as a prototypical example of the tradition, and upon examining it, you can see the way in which the surfaces of luxurious objects (the clothes, the jewelry, the curtains, the navigation tools) were reproduced by the painter to emphasize the extent to which those objects had been intricately worked over “by weavers, embroiderers, carpet-makers, goldsmiths, leather workers, mosaic-makers, furriers, tailors, [and] jewelers.” That is to say, the realism of oil painting emphasizes the craft behind the objects depicted, in order to create the illusion within the spectator that what she is seeing is a real object. It is this illusory realism that allows the oil painting to appeal to the sense of touch through strictly visual means. What the eye perceives is translated “within the painting itself,” writes Berger, “into the language of tactile sensation.” To see an oil portrait is to feel the materials depicted within it, to be confronted with those materials’ quality in such a way as to confirm their authenticity. For the oil painting, the real is “that which you can put your hands on.”

the ambassadors

Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors via Wikimedia

It isn’t difficult to identify a similar fixation on texture within videogames. Digital games are, after all, images and text that players can manipulate via mediating devices like controllers, mice, and touchscreens. The duality of the oil painting finds some measure of continuity in the modern videogame, insofar as both are images that are simultaneously seen and, in some sense, felt. In videogames, this notion of “texture” manifests itself primarily in two ways: through the art assets that are placed atop digital objects to present the illusion of materiality (which are actually referred to as “textures”), and through the physical sense of touch that is allowed by those aforementioned mediating devices. The former sort of texture is experienced in a manner similar to that of oil painting, as these visual art assets are usually integrated in such a way as to suggest that a digital object is actually constructed from real materials like wood or metal. Processes like bump mapping, in which the appearance of bumps and scratches are simulated on digital objects without changing the object’s geometry, are even employed in tandem with textures to further the illusion that digital objects possess a true materiality. However, as effective as that illusion can be, the second variety of texture, that which is directly experienced through the sense of touch, is more immediate.

Visual art and bump maps may appeal to our sense of touch through the visual, but that metaphorical sensation is overwritten by the literal, overpowered by the actual sensation of physical contact. The nature of this contact, this physically-felt texture, can be elucidated by interrogating what we actually “touch” when we come into contact with digital objects within the space of a videogame. When an avatar bumps up against a wall within a gameworld, the feeling of the substance (i.e. wood or metal) that is referred to by the art covering the wall does not translate literally to our sense of touch; nor do the imperfections and dents that are simulated through normal mapping. The wall’s visual appearance may appeal to the sense of touch, but when it is ‘felt’ it is little more than a flat plane. The player’s ability to approach digital objects in this way—to break this visual illusion of material-ness—is what allows the physical texture to supersede the visual. However, what is perhaps more revealing than the property digital objects lose is what they retain: while videogame objects lose their surfaces when they are touched, they retain their solidity. This solidity is preserved because solidity of an object is its only aspect that is in conversation with movement.

Movement is the physical texture of the videogame medium. When the player “feels” a videogame, she is feeling the sensation of motion. Objects retain their solidity for the sake of halting that motion: for example, when Faith runs up to a wall and extends her hands in Mirror’s Edge (2008), the player herself feels no difference in the touch of a cement wall or a glass window, as their purpose within the physical texture of the movement is identical. Most often, when a videogame can be said to have a certain tactile sensation, that sensation is tied to an entity’s movement through a space: whether that entity is a body, a vehicle, or the “camera” is irrelevant, so long as the entity’s movement through space corresponds to some kind of button press, trigger pull, or mouse swipe. The texture of a videogame is that of a turning head, or the heft of a swung sword, the immediate thrust of a quick jump.

when a videogame can be said to have a certain tactile sensation that sensation is tied to movement

In a sense, the primary texture of the videogame is the antithesis of the texture of the oil painting. Whereas the tactile sensation of oil painting lies in the perceived feeling of materials, the primary tactile sensation of videogames lies in the absence of materials, in unhindered motion through airless space. However, despite this apparently significant difference, the texture of oil painting and the dominant texture of the videogame are crucially similar in one way: both are expressions of wealth. We see this in videogames, especially, through the fixation on frame rates and the high-performance machines that can achieve the faster ones. The fascination makes sense if you understand videogames’ most luxurious texture to be motion—the higher the frame rate, the smoother and more precise a game can feel. This resultantly sleek, fluid movement has led many to consider a higher frame rate to be an objective good: if a player has the means to play a game with a higher frame rate, then she should play a game with a higher frame rate.

Before addressing how this erroneous assumption harms the discussion and development of videogame aesthetics, it’s worth remembering that most people who play videogames do not have the means to experience most games at a frame rate of 60 plus. Most retail videogames will run at a perfectly serviceable 30 frames per second on more affordable consoles and computers, but this more easily achievable and affordable frame rate is rarely standardized across platforms, meaning that the frame rate will often vary wildly across different devices. This inconsistency goes largely unquestioned by developers, publishers, and hardware manufacturers, leaving the onus of running a game at a high frame rate on the player. And so, she who has been pressured into playing the latest retail release at a frame rate, which the general discourse (wrongfully) insists is optimal, must submit to the following dynamic: the higher the desired frame rate, the more powerful a device she must use; and the more powerful a device is, the more expensive it will be. This dynamic lends to the images of videogames a hierarchy, a class divide wherein images from the same game can be said to have different worths based on the machine that rendered them. A blockbuster videogame running at a high resolution with a high frame rate is impressive not because those aspects of the image carry any insights as to the game’s themes, or elevate its style: they are impressive because they have a high market value, because the machine that produced those images was expensive.

How does this dynamic—the linking of the dollar value of an image to the texture of motion—affect our experience of a videogame’s images? To begin to interrogate this question, take a minute to watch this video (in the highest possible settings your internet connection can manage, and preferably with the annotations off):

What, exactly, is this video doing?

Firstly, it is, like all videos of its genre, a form of advertising. Its primary concern is exposing the spectator to an incomplete experience of a videogame: an experience wherein the audience can see, but not touch. In its removal of the controller, of the literal tactile sensation, the video is meant to seduce the spectator-buyer, suggesting an alternate reality in which the spectator is also a player (another modern rendition of the spectator-owner) and has been granted access to the full breadth of sensations that are implied by the video. But what, exactly, is the video trying to sell?

The ‘incompleteness’ of the video—its removal of the physical sensation of play—lends it a profound correspondence with the tradition of oil painting that illuminates the video’s true purpose. Although the dimension of physical touch has been removed, the video, like oil painting, still appeals to the language of tactile sensation strictly through its visuals. The smoothness and precision of motion remain tangible, and so the video appears to be demonstrating how the game will, as Berger puts it, “reward the touch, the hand, of the owner.”

And yet, this is not a video about Dark Souls (2011). Dark Souls may be the game depicted in the video, but its presence is immaterial. Lower the quality of the video, and observe how quickly it appears to lose any and all substance. Its demonstration of pleasurable motion is suddenly reduced to a brief, poorly-framed shot of Anor Londo, one brief and uninteresting fight, and a loading screen. To reduce the resolution and the frame rate of this video is to remove its content; to reveal the way in which Dark Souls is merely a canvas for the video’s rendering of a pleasurable texture. The sum of the individual frames devours the imagery: there is not a single moment in this video where the spectator is unaware of the way in which the images they are seeing have been elaborately worked over—by expensive hardware components, by modders, by the player-owner. The presence of Dark Souls in the video is analogous to the presence of symbols and themes in Holbein’s The Ambassadors: both are overshadowed by the dominant materials, the motion and cloth, to the point of complete irrelevance. The video is communicating to the spectator that controlling an avatar in a digital environment rendered at 60 frames each second is a desirable experience. Moreover, it is something that, like the fine silks worn by the Ambassadors, can be purchased. And that is the ultimate purpose of The Ambassadors and that video of Dark Souls: a celebration of the pleasing physical sensations that can be bought. The texture of a videogame’s motion is indelibly tied to capitalist mechanisms. It is not an aesthetic choice set by an artist, but a luxury purchased by a player-owner. The frame rate is not a maker of meaning, but a thread count.

the sum of the individual frames devours the imagery

To remark that this is detrimental to our general understanding of the expressive potential of videogames is something of an understatement. The classist assumption that higher frame rates are an inherent good, and even necessary to properly appreciate videogames is itself based in an underlying set of assumptions that ultimately reduce videogames to competitions. To suggest that precision afforded by a higher frame rate is an objective good is to reduce the medium to its most agonistic tendencies, to a set of challenges meant to be overcome as economically as possible. It is a logic borne of high-score screens, of the fear of losing an allowance-worth of quarters. This pervasive sensibility ensures that the ludic concerns of frames will continue to usurp their potential aesthetic purposes. As such, it is rare to find a game wherein the frame rate feels vital, but there are a few exceptional works which defy the connection between the frame rate and affluence, and demonstrate the profound value the frame rate has as a tool of style. Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days (2010) is one such work. Kane and Lynch 2 imitates the aesthetic of internet snuff in an attempt to recast archetypal shooter violence as something that is genuinely horrific. As such, the game needed to imitate the unnatural smoothness of digital video in order to enhance the illusion that the events of the game were captured by a guerilla filmmaker on a low-quality camcorder. That smoothness was achieved via the game’s high frame rate, which was consistent across every device for which the game was released. In that consistency is an implicit rejection of the typical hierarchies of wealth tied to frames, and an affirmation that the game’s frame rate is a calculated stylistic choice. In Kane and Lynch 2 the frames do not overpower the image, they are a part of the image’s meaning.  

Inversely, one can look to the re-release of The Last of Us (2013) on the PlayStation 4 as an epitomical example of the dissonance between tone and texture that emerges when a high frame rate is viewed as an objective good. The original release of The Last of Us for the PlayStation 3 runs at roughly 25-30 frames per second, which lent the game a rougher physical texture that complemented its violence with tangible grit: the imprecision of the lower (but completely functional) frame rate endowed the action with an imprecision that fed the game’s visual savagery. The remaster for the PlayStation 4 runs at 60 frames per second, replacing the coarse texture of the original with a superficially pleasing fluidity, removing an entire dimension of the game’s barbarism. When caving a man’s head in with a brick is refashioned to feel elegant and fluid, it becomes difficult to feel that sensation as an independent episode of “pleasure.” I do not feel Joel’s fist moving through the air when I play: instead, I feel the pressure to make a masterwork fit a fraudulent platonic ideal; and I feel the pressure from above to justify a new console through a showcase of improved technology. The PlayStation 4 release of The Last of Us reframes the aesthetic unity of the original as an accident, confronting us with the game’s identity as a corporate product. The sandpaper was transmogrified into marble, for fear that we would cut ourselves.

last of us versions

via IGN

But for all the harm that is done to retail console games, perhaps nothing suffers more from the aggrandizing of the high frame rate than the personal computer. The PC is, at once, the most and the least democratic machine on which to play videogames. It is the platform of experimental freeware, where one can find the work of Cosmo D and Pippin Barr and Kitty Horrorshow and Connor Sherlock. But the materiality of frames, this value system that transforms the frame into a commodity onto itself, takes the computer and turns it away from these artists, transforming it into a monument to the wealth of the player-owner. And as long as the frame remains an object to be accumulated, it will continue to be subservient to money. It will continue to exist in service of the capitalist and colonialist fantasies of retail videogames, teaching players that the oppressive processes that they enact feel very, very good. And who could blame them? The gun moves so smoothly on the screen. Like gliding your hand along a silk shirt.

Header: Star Wars: Battlefront via Gamersbook