A short introduction to transgressive aesthetics in games

blog2Games are both art and entertainment. As entertainment they don’t necessarily aim to make us think, but are mainly a pastime where players can have some fun and challenge. As art, however, they may have an agenda of raising appreciation or provocation in the players and in society. Games may do this is by modelling problematic processes or issues and inviting the player to become part of them, thereby encouraging the players to reflect upon what they have just encountered, what it means and how they feel about it in the context of play.

Being transgressive means “going beyond acceptable boundaries of taste, convention, or the law”. When something is described as transgressive, it is often in conflict with social norms and considered somehow offensive. That media content or art is transgressive does not necessarily mean that it is provocative for the sake of provocative, but that it through overstepping certain boundaries may carry a message and shed light on important and/or difficult issues. For this reason, a goal of transgressive expressions is to enable reflection and awareness through creating a sense of discomfort in those who experience that content. A much-used example of transgressive art is Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ, in which a plastic crucifix is submerged in urine. In literature, Nabokov’s Lolita is often mentioned as transgressive, featuring pedophilia. The Muhammad caricatures by Jyllands-Posten and satire sketches by Charlie Hebdo are also transgressive because they are meant to provoke believers at the same time as they claim to be critical towards oppressive religion. They also illustrate the important fact that what is experienced as transgressive for some, may not be so for others.

Games have been the target for criticism since the 70s, often because some see them as transgressive, featuring excessive violence and other controversial content. The first major controversy over game violence came in 1976, after the release of Death Race. In this game, players were rewarded point for hitting “gremlins” with vehicles, and the game spawned debates about game regulation, and even led the Philippine president to ban arcade machines in 1981. In more recent times, every time a new Grand Theft Auto game is released moral panics and strong criticism arise, mostly due to excessive violence, gender representation, and explicit sex. Defenders of GTA claim that skeptics miss the fact that the game is satire, and that the controversial content must not be taken seriously because “it is only a game”. However, reviewers have pointed out that the representation of females still may be experienced as transgressive for players. Another arguably more transgressive game by the same studio is the stealth-horror game Manhunt. Here the players is cast in the role of an ex-convict forced into commit gruesome acts of violence by a snuff film director, and the game was experienced as transgressive for people in the development studio. According to one of the employees,

“Manhunt, though, just made us all feel icky. It was all about the violence, and it was realistic violence. We all knew there was no way we could explain away that game. There was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line.”

An example that may have not reached the same attention in Europe or North-Americas GTA but indeed may be understood as transgressive is the Japanese hentai game RapeLay. In this game, the player is a sex offender who stalks and rapes a mother and her two teenage daughters. Despite the fact that the game was not available outside Japan, it raised strong debates related to gender discrimination and the sale and production was eventually restricted also in Japan.

So what does aesthetics have to do with it? There are numerous ways of understanding “aesthetics”, including the philosophy of aesthetics, which is a field in itself. In connection with games and transgressive aesthetics in this project, we are talking about the appreciation and judgment of artistic expressions. The project assumes that games are experienced as aesthetic objects, and that the “aesthetic” or “beauty” can be found in gameplay as well as in content or in the audiovisual features of the game. This means that people playing a game for the sake of good gameplay and interesting challenges also have an aesthetic experience, in a similar way as those appreciating the message or the audiovisual art. Concerning transgressive aesthetics, this is about judging and appreciating the transgressive as a central part of the artistic expression.

The GTA project stresses that the ability of a game to be transgressive while also making us reflect is part of what makes that game artistically valuable. We will look at games that are transgressing the boundaries of what generally is accepted as aesthetically pleasing. We will ask whether games such as those mentioned above are experienced as speculative or repulsive by players, or whether they encourage the player to reflect over and find the content meaningful or have other features that make them aesthetically valuable. Further, we will look into what makes players experience game content as truly transgressive? What happens to the gameplay experience when something is transgressive? Can violence be judged by criteria of beauty? Is everything that provokes reflection worthy of defense? Are games always fun, and is it therefore corrupt or indecent to try and use play as a way to create reflection?

A premise for the research that we will be carrying out in this project is that games are a powerful art form and medium of expression, and should have the same protection against censorship as other media. At the same time, games are a dominating form of entertainment which reaches out to a variety of demographics, and must – in the name of public debate and freedom of speech – accept criticism on the grounds of problematic or stereotypical representations.

About Kristine Jørgensen

Professor in Media Studies at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen. Project manager and principal investigator of the Games and Transgressive Aesthetics project.

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