Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Theodor Adorno Wasn’t a Gamer

Arguably idealistic, the Hacker Ethic posits a few lofty goals, including the notion that art and beauty can be created on a computer. Possibly incorporating elements of the philosophy found in cultural theorists like Theodor Adorno, one can understand the efforts of early game designers as an attempt to produce art for art’s sake. Looking at modern society, Adorno (a notable member of the Frankfurt School) might very well castigate video games as part of the culture industry—with some exceptions, video games have become manifestations of creativity or art that are more valued for their ability to make money than for their aesthetics.

Although I tend to view Adorno’s position as unnecessarily elitist, I also recognize that his views developed in a period that held strikingly different views on art and culture. This is, of course, not to imply that Adorno’s critiques cannot be applied to the current state of affairs, merely that society has possibly changed in ways that cannot be accounted for solely by Adorno.

In particular, if we are to accept that the presence of Atari in the late 1970s planted the seeds for a radical shift in thinking among consumers, we can see an immediate point of contention with Adorno, who viewed audiences as passive and deriving pleasure purely through consumption.[1] Contrasting with this view, modern cultural theorists often understand today’s audiences as being potentially active and participatory—media have become interactive and academics race to understand the ways in which channels like television, video games, and the Internet affect cognition, learning, and community. Moreover, I would argue that the interactivity suggested by video games has altered the way that people react/respond to art. Increasingly art is not merely something that makes you feel or think but something that you experience and do; we are learning to experience alternate forms of art (often multi-sensory!) while simultaneously gaining a new perspective conferred through our increased role in modes of production.


[1] Adorno’s thoughts also overlap with Marxist views on the power of ideology to distract workers from noticing the ways in which the state oppressed them, but this is a larger discussion that I do not have space to expand upon.

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