Philosophy of the Arts


Computer games and the artistic attitude

Computer games allow their audiences to interfere in the world that they “represent”. This is sometimes said to ask for a qualification of the account of art in terms of the artistic attitude that it, art, requires of its ever audience, which account is proffered by myself in different places. In my view, the artistic attitude is characterised by particular phenomenological constraints on perception, and (hence!) on our capabilities to interfere in the represented. These constraints are particular to the relevant art forms, but generally they share the abstinence of morally induced embodied agency relative to the represented.
Thus, it is argued on the basis of the interactive nature of computer game participation that computer games are not appreciated on the basis of an artistic attitude that requires one to abstain from morally induced agential responses.

An easy way out of this objection might be that computer games are not appreciated artistically in any way.
Taking it more seriously than that, however, I still cannot see how the objection holds, because, surely, it is the point of the artistic attitude that one is to abstain from morally induced embodied responses, and even though computer games allow one to interfere, this interference is not: by embodied agency. In fact, one’s interfering answers to strict phenomenological restrictions that assume the workings of the software used, as well as the keyboard that is being used to activate the relevant in-game commands, and “moves”. Also, the avatar’s psychology is in no way like ours, and the game is not set up so as to make us identify with him (like we are made to do in cinema). No elaborate varieties of representation, such as ellipses, intimation, etc. We are simply led to experience the avatar as part of us, because of the interactivity. (I am not saying this is easily understood, but it is not relevant for the reference to artistic attitude.)
Lastly, the agential choices we make within the game, hardly, if ever, follow our moral intuitions, rather the contrary: in the game, we shoot and kill at will, merely for the fun of it.

The avatar is part of us

The thought that the avatar is experienced as part of us, reminds one of examples where spaces are crossed, but not by representation, but by some other means. Mirrors, for instance, tell one what is there in a place we do not directly perceive. As do fossilised animals and plants. Why would one think these are kinds of representations?
Something is a representation if through its own presence it presents one with something absent, something in another time and, or, place. The presenting at stake in representation, though, is not merely a causal chain of some sort, it is intentional. Representations are not mere traces. For that reason a mirror image is not a representation, nor is a fossil remnant.
But what about the avatar, whose actions depend casually on something we do? The mirror image we can conceive of as part of ourselves, because it is fully present, and presents no real absence. The star in the nightly sky, too, even though it may have “died” thousands of years ago, is not represented by the light spot we perceive. What we see out there is the star itself—it merely took a while to get here. The time and place of the original star are continuous with those of the perceiver. A similar story holds, with regard to the fossils: what we see in the rock is spatio-temporally, causally, continuous with the animal that turned into stone.

The avatar is a typical thing. We see it depicted before us an a screen, like a character in a film, but its actions are causally continuous with our movements, translated by rules inherent in the software, like the physical rules of petrification translate the animal in the fossil. The crucial difference is that the player gets to understand these rules and to respond to them, so as to induce the survival of his avatar: intentionality, not mere causality.

Gerwen, Rob van. 2004. “Ethical Autonomism. The Work of Art as a Moral Agent.” Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 2.

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