Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of organizing the startup seminar for the Games and Transgressive Aesthetics project. While it was not the first event hosted by the project, it was the first event that gathered all project partners, and a first one with a mission: To kickstart the project and discuss the collaboration that will take place in the project. The seminar opened with an inspirational day where invited speakers talked about transgressive aesthetics and/or transgressive play. During the second day of the seminar, all partners presented their perspective on transgression and games and we used this as point of departure to discuss the collaboration on an anthology that will be announced later this year.
As introduction to the seminar I asked what transgressive aesthetics is in connection with games. As a starting point I anchored transgressive aesthetics in art where transgressive aesthetics concerns taboo art that is in conflict with social norms and which aims to shock or subvert conventional beliefs. Transgressive art is often accused by critics for being a speculative attempt of drawing attention under the alibi of art, while defenders argue that taboo art creates reflection and allows norm-breaking experiences free of moral judgement at a safe distance.
These arguments are also heard in the discussion of offensive or controversial content in games, and a valid question is whether transgressive games some day will be compared to transgressive art such as Serrano’s Piss Christ or Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chen Andalou. However, if we are to take the word transgression literally, referring to the overstepping of boundaries, we should also ask whether there may be additional kinds of boundary-crossing taking place in games that may be covered under transgressive aesthetic. While transgressive art is about transgressing social norms, in games it is fruitful to direct attention towards the transgression of game rules as well. Also, while transgressive aesthetics often has focused on transgressive content such as images and topics, it is important to look at how gameplay can be transgressive or contribute to transgressive experiences in games.
Linking the project both to art and to play is a way to stress the potential cultural value of transgressive games, and a sign that games are maturing. Central to this is to explore play not as something safe and fun, but as “something precarious, a balance that needs to be maintained unbroken but that at the same time needs to be challenged and put at risk in order to remain interesting” (Linderoth and Mortensen: “The Aesthetics of Controversial Playfulness”, in The Dark Side of Game Play (2015), p. 6).
The five keynotes
With years of experience studying transgressive aesthetics in film and visual media, Asbjørn Grønstad, professor at University of Bergen, introduced his talk with reference to the Holocaust movie Kapó and Jean Luc Godard’s claim that “Tracking shots are a question of morality.” This he used as a starting point for arguing that form matters, perhaps even more than content, and that form and content are dissoluble in the creation of meaning. His argument rings especially well in a game context, where we must take into account game mechanics and gameplay, and how these medium-specific formal aspects interact with the representational level to form specific meanings.
Although Staffan Björk, professor at Gothenburg University, introduced a perspective from interaction design, his talk was also related to the formal aspects of games and how they can be instrumental in creating meaning in games. He argued that game designers through dark gameplay design patterns can be transgressive by breaking the expectations of players. He gave several examples of game design that goes against the player’s interest, but shows that while such game design may be seen as unethical, what can be said to be in the player’s interest may vary. Painstation is a Pong based game that provides feedback to the player by exposing them to pain. Still player engages with the game playfully. Another example is the activity of grinding, which may be boring and almost feel like work rather than play. Björk also showed how dark game design can be used to create uncomfortable gameplay experiences. The horror game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem uses error messages, blackens the screen, and manipulates camera angles to create a disturbing experience.
Active partner in the project, Torill Elvira Mortensen, associate professor at IT University of Copenhagen, gave a talk loosely centered on her, Jonas Linderoth and Ashley Brown’s recent release of the anthology The Dark Side of Game Play: Difficult Content in Playful Environments. With the point of departure in the idea that games direct themselves not towards our intellect, but towards our emotions, she changed the focus of the seminar from transgressive content to how we as players respond to certain kinds of content, arguing that what is seen as provocative may differ between individuals and player groups.
Giving us a taste of his recently defended PhD thesis, Jaakko Stenros, postdoctoral researcher at University of Tampere, argued that all discussions of play must take into account bad play: play that is destructive and subversive, and may not be seen as play by all involved. Examples are cheating, trolling, griefing, and even mistreatment and harassment may be carried out in a playful mood. Bad play shows that play is unpredictable, but this unpredictability has also made it subject to much regulation.
The seminar’s final presentation introduced a different perspective, as Rune Mentzoni, postdoctoral research fellow at University of Bergen, reviewed the psychological research on problematic play. He challenged the notion that players engaging in transgressive play become transgressive people by showing that data from effects research is ambiguous and that it may be interpreted both in the favor and against harmful effects. There are many reasons for this beyond dishonest research. The conclusions are often a matter of who interprets them and what kind of paradigm they represent. Also, it is extremely difficult to identify causality in complex social realities, and the idea of what is transgressive may be colored by the views of society even when the content doesn’t feel problematic during gameplay.
The seminar as a whole showed that in order to understand what transgressive means in the context of games, and what players experience as transgressive, can be studied from a range of perspectives. We must look at what they represent and through what means, be it audiovisual means or through game mechanics – and perhaps most importantly – how these means are combined, and what they are interacted with and interpreted through the player’s conscious mind.
Psychology is important for understanding games and transgressive aesthetics, perhaps not primarily because of its research on effects, but because of what it can tell us about the emotions we have when playing, as well as the mindsets or attitudes we employ when we decide to play. The play activity, including the attitudes and emotions associated with it when engaging transgressive aesthetics, is for this reason the common denominator that binds the perspectives together.
The project also has strong ties to earlier research in the arts and the media concerning transgressive, provocative and controversial content. Understanding how art, literature and film communicate and whether it is appropriate to stage uncomfortable and provocative content in a particular medium is a long and still thriving debate, and many of the arguments both for and against certain kinds of content can be revisited with a new pair of game-shaped glasses which may shed new light upon the subject matter.