I would like to begin with a few criticisms of Mark J. P. Wolf’s article (chapter two in VGT) concerning his employment of the concepts abstraction and representation. Wolf, previewing his project, writes that in order to better understand “how abstraction has been used in video games” he first examines the video game “as an extension of abstract art” and “the different types of abstraction” (Wolf, 47). Wolf continues with the following important passage: (I’ve replaced italics with all capitals)
“To ABSTRACT something is to simplify it, reducing it to a few essentials and basic forms instead of trying to reproduce it. REPRESENTATION, which seeks to create resemblances and reproduce something, is the polar opposite of abstraction (and is sometimes conflated with REALISM). Most artwork falls in the spectrum between the two extremes, since even very representational artwork usually falls short of fully reproducing its subject. Abstraction has appeared throughout art history, from the earliest cave paintings…” (48).
Wolf’s mistake results from his mis-conceptualization of ABSTRACTION as the opposite/opposing term of REPRESENTATION in a binary. Wolf’s version of this binary ((abstraction, representation)), asserts that all art (or representation) exists on an x-axis to a degree between the abstract (“simplify” “reducing”) against representation (“create resemblances” “reproduce”). This is all wrong.
The opposite of ABSTRACTION is INSTANTIATION. An abstraction is the general (man) whereas the instantiation (or the instance/instancing of an abstraction) would be a specific man, “George Washington.” George Washington is an instantiation of MAN. An instantiation of MEN would be a specific group of men, such as those present at the drafting of the constitution. To abstract is to generalize, almost like a lowest common denominator, or an attempt to find those essential and necessary qualities that bind a set of items as a group.
Wolf’s mistake is a result of confusing the generalizing element of abstraction with a reductio, deconstruction, or simplification, which is not necessarily an essential element of abstraction. Abstractions frequently are more complex and difficult than an instantiation to understand conceptually. Because we frequently associate generalizations with simplicity id est stereotypes, Wolf, most likely, confuses abstraction and simplicity by an erroneous application of the principle of transitivity (abstract and general, general and simple, thus abstract and simple).
All art deals with representation. Abstract art and realist art are all representations.
Additionally, Wolf supports his erroneous understanding of abstraction with an erroneous understanding of art history and theory. Abstract Expressionism does not simplify its subject matter in representation, but rather complicates its subject matter by representing all angles and aspects of the subject simultaneously, requiring of the artist techniques in which to superimpose different points of view onto of each other while simultaneously resisting and establishing a unified perspective. Abstraction is a perspective that strives (and fails) to achieve all perspectives through one representation.
Wolf’s discussion of Surrogate-based player-characters is a productive one. Wolf identifies that the earliest “player-surrogates” were “function-based” as opposed to the “anthropomorphic character” that later would become regular. Wolf identifies spaceships, paddles, et cetera as the first of the player-surrogates (50). What Wolf desires to argues amounts to that because of the limitations of the representative power of the visual aspect of early video games, “player-surrogates” were abstract as opposed to representative. It wasn’t until later that video games, according to Wolf, incorporated “player-surrogates with names and identities of their own apart from the player” (51). For Wolf, “Abstraction then can become an aid to identification, rather than something that alienates it” (52). Here, Wolf has confused ICONS with ABSTRACTIONS. We use icons to represent abstractions visually such as a heart for love, an arrow for “this way/direction” et cetera. The faceless (and identity less) man on bathrooms is an icon representing the general abstraction of all men (as opposed to a specific man).
I totally agree with his misunderstanding of art history. Abstract expressionism in no way simplifies the subject and in ways complicates the subject more. Abstract expressionist works are energetic, busy, and very dynamic; they are hardly simple works of art by any means. However your definition of abstract expressionism sounds a bit like the definition of cubist work. Abstract expressionism focuses more on the spontaneity of making art and improvisation. It strives to capture action more than anything concrete.
This is an excellent point. I had some problems with his created binary, but didn’t critique how he defined it. Nude Descending Staircase by Duchamp alone brings him to question.
Also, upon thinking about it, I would like to add that it feels like he poses Scott McCloud against representation, and that this is not fair. While I am not overly familiar with Scott McCloud’s work, I feel it is pretty clear from what I have seen of his work that Scott McLoud uses representation and supports it, being he has gone into detail about how to draw faces in ways that represent a variety of emotions. I feel it would be more accurate to say McCloud is saying that when is more simplistic in their design one can more easily attach themselves because it does not alienate other, which is a problem with a lot of representations of women. Also, in his comic Zot! there are characters that clearly represent people with emotion, but based on there simple design I can see various people relating, being, or playing them. His understanding of McCloud is further problematized by, as you have stated, the fact that he thinks representation is the opposite of abstract.
I think that what Frans Mayra said about video games returning to abstraction through an active effort is happening with the rise of independent game development. When large gaming companies create a game they are trying to make it appeal to as large of a crowd as possible because they have to turn a profit otherwise they will bankrupt. Therefore, they tend to play it safe with most games. The independent developer has the freedom to make games how they see fit because they are not under the thumb of a big-time production company. That is why we are seeing more games like Hohokum and Flower. These games break the norm and go for a more stylized art style.
Also, the article stated that video games differed from interactive art because of a goal. The game, The Manhole, is a game that lacks any form of goal and is strictly meant for the player to explore and interact with the world. The art style depicted very surreal scenes that gave the viewer a sense of being on another world with different rules. That game was the single reason I love surrealism.
I liked how he touched on the difference between “implied player characters” and “player-surrogates”. I find that both have their uses and have individual ways of puling the player into the world of the game. Player-surrogates give the player a visual representation of what their character is and where they reside in space. For example, in Frogger the player knows by looking at the player’s sprite whether they are about to be hit by the cars and where they need to go. One the other hand, a game like the Star Wars Arcade game puts the players in the seat of Luke’s X-Wing which empowers them and gives them a sense of being the hero they admire.
What I find most interesting about abstraction in video games is the fact that now we have incredibly realistic graphics in our games, however when we play old “classic” games, we still put ourselves in the character’s spot without questioning or hesitation. People do not question the fact that they are controlling a circle with a mouth, they just go at it without any hesitation. I think that this kind of behavior among people creates room for modern games to experiment with abstraction more than they do, people will play games whether they are hyper realistic or not.
Take the whole Flappy Bird craze of a few months ago for example. Along comes a game with classic Super Mario graphics and a 2-bit bird character, and the game takes off and becomes incredibly popular in it’s short run as an app. People still gravitate towards abstracted characters, and honestly I think that anyone would gravitate towards anything that they feel they can control and interact with. I do not think that abstraction is something that has left or will ever leave when it comes to video games, I simply don’t think there is a reason for it to.
Sweet observation. I didn’t think of it that way before, and it’s really interesting that we have such a willingness to leap into another’s shoes, perhaps akin to how we connect with characters in a film.
Speaking of birds, I would like to also point out Angry Bird. It does not have the same nostalgia, that your point does, but it is very mainstream and much more abstract in the simple shape it reduces its representations to.
I found this essay to be very informative and interesting because I have always been curious about the tie between technology and art in video games, and this chapter touches on it. As an artist, I am always focusing on the aesthetics of a work that I sometimes forget the unseen facets of video games. I thought that this essay did a very good job at linking the visuals with the mechanics, and how they both evolved together.
Thinking back to the history of my video game playing, I remember how impressed I was as each new gaming system came out. I remember Nintendo 64 just blowing my mind because this Mario looked so different from flat Mario on the NES. The same thing happened with the Playstation, and so on. As the graphics and sound advanced, the previous system seemed silly and archaic.
One item that Wolf wrote about which I never really thought about was the comparison between home games and arcade games, and the differences in their technology as well as their marketing. For some reason, I had always thought that home games were more advanced than arcade games. Why, I don’t know. The marketing of the home games interests me. I couldn’t help but compare old NES and Atari game packaging to those of current games. The covers are still detailed and flashy, but, lo and behold, the trusty instruction booklet is no longer there (even though many of the current games are much more complicated than anything I played back in the day!).
Wolf writes about how a game’s graphics are the main reason for its success or failure. I think that he is right, but I also think there are exceptions. Once again, I’m mentioning this craving for nostalgia and minimalism that so many young people have nowadays, and how games like Fez, which pays tribute to the 80’s through its pixelated graphics, have gained a lot of fans. I think that even though there have been so many advancements in the way games look, sound, and even feel, there will always be that love for the abstract graphics and synthesized sound effects.
As stated before, this essay intrigues me due to the relativity of art/graphics and the game. Of course, with each new control coming out, we are so intrigued with the new advancements that we have no idea what will come next. Artists/graphic designers quickly adapt to the new format of the new gaming software to enhance the game play. Yes, we do get that same feeling from classic games, but now we also seem to have more options , but still the feeling of being within the game. This shows how abstract the games can be from each other, but also how they can be similarly represented.
I believe the abstraction of these games was based on the game style, computer graphic ability, and surrogate function in response to game type. If the objective was to eliminate the balls in the game, why not make it a character that eats them. If you need to shoot objects, why not make it a space battle. The chapter discusses the loss of abstraction among video games based on the advancement of technology. But I believe video games always to be exactly what they needed to be for the stated time based on graphics and technology. Because the console could only produce one game, this resulted in the paddle knocking the ball across the court, the player identified the paddle as an abstract character, yet I believe it only to be abstract because it was the farthest technology could go. As computer technology advanced so did graphics, and the complexity of gameplay. Now we begin to see humanoid player-surrogates, as well complex story lines. So the question I ask is whether games were abstract because of artistic decision or limitations of technology?
I had mixed feelings about this essay. I though that the discussion on technological advancement was what it was best at, being I am not as well rounded in the technological and thought this gave a good explanation of progress. That being said, some one that is more informed in technology may say otherwise. It is the discussion on abstract and representational art that I begin to question them. At first I was charmed by the comparisons of old video game imagery to abstract because I felt like it was a welcome academic comparison to an art form that has been overlooked in academia. That being said, before I call him to question, If anyone is more well versed in art terms and art history, please in form me if my question seems a little off. While the writer does state that often art falls somewhere between abstract and representational, I feel throughout the paper they themselves sometime forget this, especially in looking at the future. They talk about how in the mainstream games push to be more representational, but many still abstract the characters more. Mario, while in 3D, can still be broken down in to simple shapes. As can Yoshi, Sonic, Pacman, Kirby, Pikachu, etc. Even the texture, though feel more physically present, are still cartoonish. And this is true in mainstream animation as well. Adventure Time, Regular Show, MLP: FiM, Steven Universe, Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers etc. They are not entirely abstract, but they are not fully representational of real life.
I really engaged well with this chapter, and I wish we would’ve touched base with it sooner since it describes so well what games and gaming is in this modern culture. Most people (especially our parents) shirk games off as a pastime or form of useless entertainment. But I’ve always considered it the next step in the evolution of art, from cave paintings to sculpture, from photography to film, and now as interactive art forms, much akin to Jackson Pollock’s method of action art where the means of creating are just as important as the final product. And I don’t mean creating the game, i mean creating the story as you go along. The tools have been given to you by someone, but it is yours to do with what you will.
I’m not sure that I agree with the idea that we need to digress back to abstract forms of gaming though. Abstractness was present in a time when realism wasn’t achievable, and now that it is we’ve thrown it in a room with a healthy does of high concept and a spoonful of adventure. It’s not just “realistic” now, no, the style is now in something that we can connect to and identify on a human level (since it looks pretty close to real life now) but it is nowhere lacking in any imaginative field. There are certainly games that are more abstract now (usually they’re on a smaller operating system…iOS for one) but I don’t think that we need to “go back.” Not to say the simpler games are bad though!
The bulk of the middle of the chapter just sought to illustrate what actually goes on within a game, and how to categorize certain things in-game. The definition of player-surrogates was interesting though, I never really thought of it that way. Really cool too, to hear about the limitations of systems that caused certain games to be made the way they are. While the aesthetics of abstract games aren’t utilized comparitively as opposed to realism, their nostalgia and simplicity are something to be celebrated. (I love the art book, I AM 8-BIT. check it out if ya can.)
Plenty of good points were made in this chapter and the essay does make a good point of how art and technology define how video games between how abstract was shown with the early days of video games and representational became how video games are known as today as technology caught up. The different aspects of video games I did find interesting and would agree that it is all four of those elements working together in order to create a game and that player-character creates a game because if the player cannot feel in some way immersed in the game then how enjoyable can it be and how successful will it become. I have noticed the differences in each of the other three factors in surrogate based type of games with how they can affect game play and how misleading some advertising can be by saying in certain games basically all objects can be manipulated in some way but there still has to be some that are part of the background environment and cannot be manipulated. Also how computer presence I think was put in its proper category at second place because games seem to be where they are now because of how the goal was always to somehow defeat the enemy computer.
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