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Note on the presentation 'The Contagion of Reality, Video Games and the End of Art'

11 March 2023

Text Summary

In presenting his forthcoming manuscript, Conrad Hamilton starts off by introducing us to a debate on whether video games should be considered art, which started nearly twenty years ago with the release of the film DOOM (which is based on an iconic first person shooter game of the same name). In a review of the movie, prestigious film critic Roger Ebert argued that films shouldn't be like games, as this makes them no more entertaining than watching someone else play a game. Conrad goes on to discuss how Ebert's comments attracted a lot of anger from gamers, who saw his views as condescending to their medium. In spite of receiving lengthy criticism in light of his position, Ebert doubled down on his views, arguing that video games, by their nature, require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. As the discussion extended itself through time, Ebert maintained the position that video games could never be art through nothing but subjective arguments. Ultimately, Ebert retracted himself and acknowledged his shortcomings throughout the discussion, thus allowing for a sense of triumph within the gamer community spread out through forums.

Hamilton sets the Ebert / Gamer discussion up as a moment of a change in the perception of the gaming medium. This allows for the historiographical recap of the development of video games. From 1958’s Tennis for two to 1977’s Oubliette, video games had been, as argues Hamilton, a social ordeal as the analogue games before them. One had to play with someone else in order for it to work. It was only through commerce and technological development (for example, with the advent of affordable microprocessors and the improvement of AI) that video games could become more individualized.

Regardless of the system it is played on, be it Atari’s Video Computer System (VCS), Apple II or in an arcade, video games expanded sales through time and, in doing so, gained an overall cultural significance. Hamilton uses this context to focus on the encroaching matter of authorship that appears and the struggle of authors to be recognized for their craftsmanship. The events such as the Atari employee Warren Robinett putting an easter egg in the game Adventure and the “Gang of four” being belittled by the Atari’s management to the point of quitting the company were both used to present a change in the video game industry norm, namely that of third-party developers making games instead of hardware (console) companies. After a few notes on the downfall of Atari and the ascension of the Japanese video game industry (in the form of Nintendo), Conrad Hamilton states that the shift from more social game experiences (Arcade and ARPANET) to that of home games entailed more elaborate single-player campaigns and a high level of authorial control which, in turn, landscaped the 2000’s scenario of designer recognition that had been neglected up to that point. Hamilton thus recalls the Ebert debate at this point and re-contextualizes the discussion in light of its time, stating that, had the discussion happened a decade before, there might have been less of an uproar and more of a consensus.

With the increased internet use in the 90’s, online video games became possible. StarCraft, through the online service ( provided by Blizzard, was the first game to defy expectations in this segment. According to Hamilton, this game is also worthy of attention due to its unique player-creator dynamic. The fact that a player could create a map and play in it was a sign of new possibilities of creation. StarCraft, in this sense, paved the way to entirely new game genres (such as MOBA) and to the rise of e-sports. The innovation that is seen in this transition is the reduction of role of corporate to a curatorial one, as well as the exploitation of user-created content. This context allows for some sense of plurality in the developments that followed, for there was then a possibility for corporations to capitalize on monthly subscriptions to online games (as in World of Warcraft), single player narrative arcs (as in Grand Theft Auto, albeit with a significant increase of production cost throughout the years) and, even, on the disruption of the previous narrative patterns set forth with the 2010’s minimalistic approach seen in Wii.

Alongside scenario of changes in the medium, Hamilton cites game theorist Janet Murray and video game designer Warren Spector to elucidate what the discussion of video game as art had become. What is pointed out, at this point, is that video games constitute a unique medium that, in and of itself, can allow for a constant recurrence of the question of what kind of art video games are, as well as, what is art altogether. However, Hamilton uses this as a segue into the lack of proper theorization in video games around the 2010’s. Despite some interesting efforts, according to Hamilton, Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck falls short of properly grasping what games are due to narrative reductionism. Also, Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton’s Vintage Games seems to altogether disregard the medium’s peculiarities when analyzing Tetris through Freud’s psychosexual phases. In short, for a while, Markku Eskelinen’s 2001 critique of poor video game theorization (in the article The Gaming Situation) remained pertinent, even though this very critique, states Hamilton, was not without problems as well.

Among the video game theory manuscripts available, Hamilton singles out Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature as containing some insight. Aarseth holds that games, after the poststructuralist turn, can be read through a different conception of nonlinearity, more specifically one that takes into account games in the form of cybertexts. While Hamilton acknowledges the merit of the work, he also exposes the over-eager extoling of agency and dependency on a literary theory approach, which fails to account for different types of games (focusing on text-based games) and the pecularities of the medium. Thus, Gonzalo Frasca is mentioned afterwards, because he was able to reread Aarseth’s contributions alongside that of Roger Callois in an article titled Ludology Meets Narratology: similitude and differences between (video) games and narrative. Aarseth and Frasca’s work, ultimately, led to the creation of the journal titled Game Studies, which was the first of its kind. Hamilton then recognizes, out of the Game Studies milieu, how Ian Bogost became recognized for his unique writings which used Ludology as well as Object Oriented Ontology in his approach to games.

The context of the rise of Game Studies is temporarily set aside in order to rescue some of the contributions of Ludology through the writings of Johan Huizinga. These contributions are compared and discussed in order to account for the political aspects (or lack thereof) in the work of Ian Bogost. Hamilton holds that Bogost, in addressing a relation between units and structures in a fashion more attributed to Object Oriented Ontology, fails to see how “capitalism alters the fabric of reality orienting it towards the production of profit”. Hamilton resorts to Marx’s critique of the disappearance (or erasure) of labour and social relations in the perception of the production of goods, and sees the same mystification in the way OOO is able to view things (whatever they may be), stating also that “they see even non-commodities as commodities”. Bogost’s further elaborations are seen as problematic, in that his views of fun set forth in Play Anything are too centered on an acritical view the world around him. Ultimately, Hamilton sees Bogost, and ludologists as a whole, as unable to properly theorize video games, even more so in a time when it was most needed (during what was called gamergate). Gamergate, the worst crisis in the gaming industry since 1983, is seen as an overall period of political tension, which attests to the lack of proper theorization - or, rather, of a more politically inclined theorization - of video games. While it began as an exposition of coordinated harassments perpetrated by the gamer community online, it quickly drew adjacent political polarizations and became a stage for discussion on social justice warriors and alt-right (pro trump) views. Hamilton sees this moment as a failure in both a public relations matter, as well as from a theoretical one. The inability to politically and theoretically account for the different social relations that underlie the gaming communities, media and the production of video games is seen as a problem which contributed to the reproduction of limited views on the matter as a whole.

Seminar Questions

Among the questions set forth engaging with the presentation Hamilton gave was the question of the gamer community. Gabriel recalled a recent public relations strategy posited by certain campaign advisors in Brazilian politics, where candidates were encouraged to engage with the gaming community through social media. Gabriel asked whether there were any experiences with this community which weren’t reactionary, or of a reactionary inclination, considering the ironic fact that these communities were centered on the very idea of agency, or at least a form there of.

To this, Hamilton states that, in spite of the existence of some leftist gaming communities, the majority are either reactionary or apolitical in essence. Another question was on the possibility, or impossibility, of separating modes of analyzing video games. Whether one is conducting a cultural analysis, art form analysis, or political analysis seem rather difficult to pinpoint, which in turn begs the question of whether it be methodologically relevant to distinguish at all.

To this, Hamilton addresses how his work is not set out to be reduced to a Marxist investigation of games; therefore, in spite of the assessments of the production of video games throughout his work, the overall approach was to be organic, rather than aimed at answering the myriad of intersecting questions in any given specific manner.

J-P mentioned that, in reading the manuscript, the search for a statement on the matter of a social synthesis within the gaming communities was pressing in order to account for the reactionary potential that is there present. Also, it was stated there seemed to have been a causal implication regarding the lack of video game theorization and gamergate itself. In light of these comments, the proper role of theorizing video games was posed as a question.

To this Hamilton answered that there wasn’t necessarily a causal relation between gamergate and poor theorization, rather there was no “line of defense” in the wake of a crisis. Also, Hamilton went on in more depth about how game theorists and ludologist would resort to a specific form in writing that, aside from an overall apolitical tone, would seem to imply a sense of belonging to the gaming community (which, in turn, could explain why no position was taken during the events of gamergate).