Leisure and the Culture Industry
“The man with leisure has to accept what the culture manufacturers offer him.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1997, p. 3)
It was the belief of Marxist philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer that art produced under American capitalism, under the culture industry, rendered the audience as passive consumers. All nuance and critical thinking had been stripped away from man’s relationship with the art and products produced by his culture; that “the industry [robbed] the individual of his function.” (p. 3)
They believed that mass culture – art & products catered to and designed for the working-class with leisure time and expendable income – was formulaic and servile. The cultural products so created were doomed to be “cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable,” (pg. 3) to merely be “sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again.” (pg. 9)
Adorno and Horkheimer had little optimism for anything produced by the culture industry. They believed that audiences were robbed of the enlightenment one can find in art, that they were being pacified – catered for with a relentless absolution that resembled the tactics of propaganda.
One must wonder; how would they have felt about video games?
Games as Toys
“Are video games art?” The question has spawned news segments, essays, think-pieces, and countless arguments on forum threads. To truly answer the question, one must first present and defend a comprehensive definition of “art”, which is perhaps too broad a topic for this post. One may have more success asking the question “does anything inherently disqualify games from being considered art?”
One could point to their interactivity, the most obvious distinction between them and other mediums more traditionally accepted as the homes of art – visual art, cinema, literature, etc. Aaron Smuts (2005) argues that such a distinction would be irrelevant, as games have historically been social and communal in nature. He argues that “[t]here is no radical difference here between video games and dance contests or poetry slams.” (pg. 5)
John Storey (1997) wrote of the relationship between “high” and “popular” culture in his book What is Popular Culture? – how Wiliam Shakespear, jazz music, film noir and countless other cultural products eventually “crossed the border supposedly separating popular and high culture.” (pg. 6) Video games are already seen by many as an emergent medium for mature and insightful art, and their perception by the public at-large will continue to shift in the coming decades.
Interactivity, the End of the Passive Consumer
That being the case, there is no reason that interactivity should inherently preclude a work of art from being deemed as-such – in fact, there are many games that utilise this interactivity to tell stories in ways that other mediums never could.
A villain in the retro-role-playing-game Undertale closes the game entirely after he wins a fight; forcing the player to re-launch the game. One puzzle in the mindful, contemplative The Witness asks the player to stay in one place for 59 minutes, watching a moon slowly move across a screen, while a voice-over monologue muses on the lengths people will go to in search of completion, catharsis.
One last example. In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the player controls two brothers at once – using the left “joystick” to control the eldest, and the right to control the youngest. The player accompanies the pair as they quest through a fantastical world, adventuring and braving challenges. The older brother must frequently help the youngest – he is short where his brother is tall, he is cowardly where his brother is brave, and he cannot swim for his fear of water.
At the end of act two (spoilers) the eldest brother is killed. The player is left to control the younger brother alone; the left hand idle while the right carries on. The effect of this cannot be overstated, the way this boy’s grief and solitude is made personal to the player – it tells its story in a way only games could, and it asks the player to be more than just a passive audience member.
All that said, there is in gaming culture a clear emphasis placed upon “informed consumerism”. Gamers conduct micro-reviews in comment sections and forums, scrutinising a game’s retail price compared to its average play-time. Heated arguments break out over perceived discrepancies between review scores, the mythical “10/10” often the cause of both celebration and furore. One commenter, in their user review of The Witness: “The game became monotonous and I kept on going because I thought I was going to discover a big secret and after all, I had spent $40. Can I get my money back?” (‘loeloe’, 2016)
“Can I get my money back?“
At once, the modern gamer wants to both have their passion be legitimised in the world of “high art”, and also be told – on an objective scale of 1 to 10 – how “good” a newly-released game is. How good are the graphics? How good is the story?
Yes, games should be considered as art – also, while I have you, could you sign this petition to have Sony redo the story of The Last of Us 2?
Games can be more than just toys, more than just manipulative, intricately-pandering products of the ever-catering culture industry. Games can be art, obviously – but will gamers let them be?
Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. (1997). Dialectic of enlightenment (Vol. 15). Verso.
Smuts, Aaron (2005) “Are Video Games Art?,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 3 , Article 6. Available at: https://digitalcommons.risd.edu/liberalarts_contempaesthetics/vol3/iss1/6
Storey, J. (1997). What is popular culture?. Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction.
‘loeloe’ (username). (2016) The Witness User Reviews. Metacritic. Accessed June 25, 2021. https://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/the-witness/user-reviews