design, essay

Crafting the Spillage: Thoughts on the New Aesthetic and Videogames

This is going to be somewhat of a blast of different ideas. I am going to apologize for that right here. I’m in the middle of a number of different projects and should be, at the very moment I am writing this, grading some papers. Instead, I want to point at a few things I think are important for us, as videogame players and especially creators and consumers of cultures, to pay attention to and, hopefully, write more about.

First, go read An Essay on the New Aesthetic. It’s a great summation of the trend of designers, writers and producers taking the “eruption of the digital into the physical” and making it into different things. If you weren’t already a fan of Bruce Sterling already, you should be now.

I want to say something now: this is not new. It’s new in the sense that we can recognize it, that many people are writing about and talking about it on a greater stage, but this has been bubbling for awhile now. In fact, it reminded me, as I was reading about it, how much it was like William Gibson’s latest trilogy Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History.

When I read Pattern Recognition, I was in love with how it mentions, ever so causally, what it means to craft history, identity and how people take brands, or even off-brands (which are, in and of themselves, brands too), and craft meaning out of them. These pants with this shirt. This brand shows up and the others do not. (If you are interested, that theme is continued in Zero History.) The iconography of what we wear projected into the culture so that, just by a glance, we identity with one group, against another and in support, if you know the code, for something else too.

Of course, that’s just public fashion. It’s nothing new either from an anthropological perspective. We have been wearing certain colors, trends or even copying the styles of important figures for thousands of years. What’s new about the ideas in those books (Pattern Recognition and, in parts, Zero History) and The New Aesthetic is where the trends are coming from: being seen by robots. That’s, in part, where the New Aesthetic finds its roots.

Dan Catt talks about it in Why the New Aesthetic isn’t about 8bit retro, the Robot Readable World, computer vision and pirates. It’s not, as the characters talk about in Zero History, taking the fact that some designed clothes will hide (or not) a person from scanners by the very fabrics, patterns and shapes and just wearing them. It’s reacting to that, changing that for something else and that, as far as I can tell, is what The New Aesthetic is, at least in part, about. It’s knowing we are seen by technology, are in some cases constantly watched, and reacting in some way. Creating art from glitches and artifacts from, well, technical artifacting.

It’s taking the fact that computers can understand parts of the world and playing with that idea. It’s taking pixels and bringing them into the real world. You take the fact that robots, scanners and moving parts leave patterns on the world and you change those artifacts and remains, you design with and around them. You, in more than just revolution or even revulsion, subvert in some small way. Transformation through the multiple virtual spaces and then placing it into the physical. It’s taking the spillage between the worlds and making something from it.

That’s what the trend of videogames coverage is all about now. The words “New Videogame Journalism” are all about, as I understand them, going into the virtual, doing a thing and then bringing back traces of the experiences. This is what I did. This is who I saw. This is, more than anything else, who I was for a time period. It’s the tour guide not just pointing out where certain things are, but what happened to them at that moment — locative in fluid motion. The player takes in everything she sees, not just the screen. The controllers, the input and the reaction between all three things. The synthesis and synchronicity too.

Because it’s not just, as we have been seeing with Mass Effect 3 on a small scale, the work itself, the player herself or even the the authors. It’s all of them, together, working. Each makes something, takes a turn in changing the composite and yet — yet! — the computer is in the middle too. It’s all story bits and programming matching up from feedback to create a new thing, a new journey — a unique experience per session. And, like other constructed works, it’s the Logos, machine language and iconography itself that contributes too. It’s the dance between pattern recognition and apophenia. The written is read, the buttons pressed and the performance a composite of previously known and currently-learning, all the while assigning meaning for ourselves.

These patterns spoke to me. These colors, in this sequence, were what I saw. We bridge the increasing virtual, including the small glitches all in-between, into something more. We start to see our aesthetic reactions based in the tension, no matter how small, of how the computer sees the world and how we do. The tracks of the perfection of machines wearing down and, for some, infringing upon spaces. The thought that, “Yes, I should be able to go there and do that. I’m going to try it out.”

We make, in a strange reflection, what computers can’t completely see. We take the patterns, without a mechanical meaning, and assign them one in a physical space. Then, of course, the computers see it again. We filter and provide the feedback that creates the dissonance for a purpose, even if that reason is just to see what will that will produce in the machine. What happens if I do this? Playful pixels designed for people.

2 thoughts on “Crafting the Spillage: Thoughts on the New Aesthetic and Videogames”

  1. This is fascinating because one of the chief differences between videogames and trad games (e.g. board games) is, imo, that computer processing power allows them to function effectively as an ‘other’, an autonomous ‘world’ or false opponent that responds to your actions rather than a set of rules which must be voluntarily upheld. If that’s the case, then the whole time we’re actually playing with how this other sees us, with how it might interpret their actions, and its interpretation of our interpretations forms one link in a cybernetic chain.

    But I’m not quite understanding what you mean when you talk about the “dissonance” or “tension” between our interpretations and that of the machine. What do you see as emerging out of that tension?

    1. “This is fascinating because one of the chief differences between videogames and trad games (e.g. board games) is, imo, that computer processing power allows them to function effectively as an ‘other’, an autonomous ‘world’ or false opponent that responds to your actions rather than a set of rules which must be voluntarily upheld.”

      Sure, that’s it exactly. Just as we might play with another opponent in real space, we are doing the same in the virtual. We press a button and the game responds in some way. It’s a constant cycle of feedback and signals. Sometimes the player misunderstands them and, of course, sometimes the machine does too.

      “But I’m not quite understanding what you mean when you talk about the “dissonance” or “tension” between our interpretations and that of the machine. What do you see as emerging out of that tension?”

      Pretty recently, I was talking to someone who mentioned an article on how soldiers were getting attached emotionally to the little robots used to sniff out improvised explosive devices. Over time, some soldiers were getting upset when the robots weren’t being sent out or would wear down with usage.

      It reminded, the robots did, of how some people are getting attached to Siri. The code becomes part of our lives, like the robots and Siri, and we start to forget that they do not see (or hear) the world as we do. We anthropomorphize them and assume them to be human in some way. But they aren’t.

      The threshold of tension, then, is in the moment when the machines either exceed, through what we perceive to be synchronicity of events, our expectations or, we think, malfunction in some way because we gave it some input it was never designed to handle or receive directly. It’s arriving at the Uncanny Valley quite suddenly.

      We see what could happen from these moments in open world games or even swarm intelligence simulations. Patterns in all the chaos start to emerge. For a short time, all the events and reactions line up together for a chain of situations that we could not have anticipated or even, in some cases, replicate again. Sometimes it’s beautiful and other times it’s noise. We assign the meaning by being there and perceiving it in some form. Code doesn’t so that, we do.

      The New Aesthetic, as the little bit I think I understand, is taking these patterns, the noise and nuanced expressions, and making them into art in a physical setting. The next step, which is probably already being done, is to, as I mentioned, take the noise, craft it and then send it back to the code to see what comes next. Then doing it again and again until we perceive something interesting.

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