Videogame as a language, why not? Part Two.

In his review of the exhibition of collages involving, among others, Arp, Duchamp, Ernst, Mirò, Magritte, Man-Ray, and Picasso, at the Galarie Goemans in Paris in 1930, Carl Einstein posed the question “Painting as a language. Why not?” (Einstein via Rumold. 2004). A central theme of Einstein’s theories on modern art, on image making, and more specifically painting, was concerned with visual language. By understanding the cubist flatness of Picasso and the abstract forms of Mason as visual language, Einstein enabled a theory of distinction for modern painting from narrative painting and thereby secured a release from the ‘primordial image’. (Rumold. 2004). Clearly Einstein saw that contemporary paintings were different from what had gone before, but he did not view modernity as a pure or original form of art, as we might understand by the formalist theories of Greenberg. Neither did his view prefer one over the other. Moreover, he understood the limitations of modernist devices such as the grid and its antinarrative stasis, and is perhaps, ‘the earliest critic of the avant-garde cult of (and myth of) purity’. (Rumold. 2004).

By asking his question Einstein is encouraging the reader to perform a visual turn, to consider painting as a language separate from literature and from narrative. To consider an aesthetic visual language, which creates a space for painting, or image making, to become its own entity. Georges Bataille, Einstein’s collaborator and co-editor of the surrealist magazine Documents, was similarly ‘driven by the desire for a spontaneous opening of the image space as an alternative experience’. (Rumold. 2004). As a night time breeze that blows open a window, ‘un coup de vent nocturne qui ouvre une fenêtre’. (Joyce. 2002). Documents was written and published between 1929 and 1930, whilst modern art was in its infancy. Ninety years later, with videogame as a medium also in its infancy, could we ask the same question, Videogame as a language. Why not?

Ian Boggost is an academic and videogame designer that has suggested a need for a new rhetorical domain for videogame. He has stated that the visual expression of art, a ‘visual rhetoric’, can help formulate a ‘procedural rhetoric’ for videogame. ‘Unfortunately, many efforts to unite computers and rhetoric do not even make appeals to visual rhetoric, instead remaining firmly planted in the traditional frame of verbal and written rhetoric in support of vague notions of “the digital.”’ (Boggost. 2007.) What Boggost is suggesting is that videogame, a visual medium, has more involved procedures than other visual means of production and requires not just a visual rhetoric, but a procedural rhetoric. In videogame constructed images are selected and sequenced in order for the images to function as purposeful methods for player interaction. Boggost’s objective appears to be to reinvent or expand a theory of visual rhetoric for videogame or ‘a new medium’. (Boggost 2007). Perhaps Boggost is teetering on the edge of a turn. From verbal and written rhetoric, to an image led procedural rhetoric similar to Einstein’s visual turn from literature.

Professor of education James Paul Gee writes about videogaming in a linguistic framework, in the introduction to his book ‘What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy’ and references Wittgenstein in terms of the impossibility of existence outside language, or an agreed set of rules. Gee views videogame in terms of a multimodal literacy, with various semiotic domains each with an internal and external grammar. The internal grammar is the designers and producers, with story, process and patterns. The external is the players. Gee asserts that the external grammar manifests in the forms of critical discussion through the social media interactions of gamers. Critique is essential to the public establishment of an art text, however the I feel external grammar could be more closely aligned with Boggost’s implied turn. That the player/user/audience through their understanding of visual language and their individual contexts, read the work, the videogame, and create their own meaning. Here there are parallels with how an audience reads or experiences visual communication through art or design. Gee describes this as more complex in videogame, comprising of “six design elements in the meaning-making process: those of Linguistic Meaning, Visual Meaning, Audio Meaning, Gestural Meaning, Spatial Meaning and the Multimodal patterns of meaning.” (Gee. 2007. 65). These design elements form what Gee describes as a ‘multimodal space’ which is the videogame space where a player interacts with the creative work. His theory is based on the notion that the player is the receiver of design patterns and conventions which connote meaning and simultaneously designs the meaning through interaction, by playing the game. This player function of simultaneous connotation and denotation, I propose, is an alignment with Boggost’s ‘procedural rhetoric’, as his step beyond the visual. Perhaps then it is a turn to the multiliterate or multimodal and not a ‘visual turn’ that is in operation? “The challenge” Gee writes, “is to make space available so that different lifeworlds – spaces for community life where local and specific meanings can be made – can flourish. [A space to provide] members of subcultures with the opportunity to find their own voices.” (Gee. 2007. 70-71).

In answer to the question whether videogame has its own language and potential space for a distinct system of artistic communication, I believe that it does. In 1980, at the beginning of commercial gaming, videogame was being described as ‘schema’, that a player made sense of the game through interactive experience and referencing an individual ‘readymade store of similar occurrences and understandings’. (Douglas; Hargadon. 2001). Gee perceives this potential in terms of experiencing semiotic domains as ‘design spaces’ with which to engage, create, and promote problem solving and collaboration. Helping players learn ‘to experience (see and act on) the world in a new way’. (Gee. 2007. 37). Boggost asks us to recognise the procedurality of videogame in terms of persuasive expression and states, ‘As players of videogames … we should recognize procedural rhetoric as a new way to interrogate our world, to comment on it, to disrupt and challenge it’ (Boggost. 2007), and calls for the cultivation of responsibility and consciousness of procedural rhetoric.Visual communication is essential to the immersive nature of videogame. The game Gris is an example of the beauty available in the medium, with consideration of visual communication through form, colour and movement. This is true not only of standard console games, but also on mobile devices. For instance Lifelike available through Apple Arcade (2019) depends on the movement of the visual elements to create feeling through motion.

Nomada Studio. (2019). ‘Gris.’ Digital download. Mac OS, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, iOS. Devolver Digital, Austin, TX, USA. Source: gamewatcher.com/reviews/gris-review/13085

Kunabi Brother GmbH. (2019). ‘Lifelike’. Digital download. iOS. Apple, CA, USA. Source: lifelikegame.com/

James Paul Gee wrote that gamers, through videogame are “Learning how to think about semiotic domains as design spaces that engage and manipulate people in certain ways and, in turn, help create certain relationships in society among people and groups of people, some of which have important implications for social justice.” (Gee. 2007. 37-38).

The language of videogame is unique, it is an inherently visual, interactive and immersive dialogue and within this is potential for creativity beyond a traditional notion of gaming. 

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