title: Cuteness and the Popular Aesthetics of Videogames
advisor: Jun.Prof. Dr. Jan-Hendrik Bakels (Film Studies, FU Berlin)
Many aesthetic theories have regarded the videogame from the perspective of a modernist theory of art. Jagoda’s (2020) rich analysis of videogames as experiments on neoliberalism, Flanagan’s (2009) Critical Play, Kirkpatrick’s (2007) reception of Adorno’s modernist aesthetics, and the numerous texts on the so-called ‘art-game’ suggest that the aesthetic quality of the videogame is found in its avantgarde or critical potential. Such an understanding however marginalizes a large portion of videogames often poorly labelled as ‘mainstream’ and tends to forget the richness of aesthetic experience a producer like, e.g., Nintendo provides. Taking seriously Henry Jenkins’s (2007, 21) plea that “something was lost when we abandoned a focus on popular aesthetics”, the goal of my project is to investigate the specifically popular aesthetic qualities of the videogame through one of its most recurrent judgments of taste: cuteness.
The project takes the following question as a point of departure: What is the ‘popular’ of the popular aesthetics of videogames? Today, the colloquial sense of the term ‘popular’ means that something is directed more towards the many, the general public, and less towards specialists or intellectuals. Popular videogames have a broad appeal across all levels of society, thanks to their developed economic apparatus of production, distribution, and consumption. While objects of the culture industry are usually frowned upon by modernist theorists, recent efforts aim to think aesthetic experiences departing from their occurrences from commodified objects. (Baßler and Drügh, 2021)
Such an aesthetic category is cuteness. Described as “sentiment objectified and commodified” (McVaugh 1997: 306), the cute represents a specifically popular judgment of taste “that speaks to our desire for a simpler, more intimate relation to our commodities“ (Ngai 2015: 31). First introduced to the consumer society through commodities of play (e.g., puppets and toys), cuteness entertains fruitful affinities to playfulness. It is therefore no coincidence that cuteness stands at the very core of the videogame industry as well. From the icon of early videogaming Pac-Man, to one of the most influential game and console producers Nintendo (e.g., Yoshi series, Animal Crossing series), to the idiosyncratic games of Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy, Wattam), and countless celebrated indie games in the West (Undertale, Minit, Super Meat Boy, etc.), the cute shapes the aesthetics of the popular videogame industry substantially. What is its structure of judgment? What are its affinities with the mediality of videogames? How can play experiences be conceptualized as cute? And in what way can it guide an aesthetic criticism in search of the specifically popular qualities of the videogame?
The project follows a strictly aesthetic approach to delineate a theory of the popular taste judgment on the example of the cute in order to develop a form of criticism for the specifically popular aesthetic qualities of the video game. While in today’s colloquial understanding, the word taste refers only to the subjective preferences of an individual, the critique of taste and its judgments is a central philosophical operation for aesthetic theory: it aims to distinguish the aesthetic from the non-aesthetic; it investigates the specific quality of ‘sensible cognition’ in its interplay of sensual perception and cognitive reflection, and its consequences for the collective sensibility (sensus communis). (Zangwill 2021) The most complete theory of taste, Immanuel Kant’s (2000) Critique of Power of Judgment, includes a theory of art, marking the beginning of the modern understanding of aesthetic criticism. The project’s main challenge consists in deriving an aesthetic criticism of the popular video game departing from Kantian aesthetics and connecting it at once with recent findings of video game phenomenology (Bakels 2020, Keogh 2018, Nitsche 2008, Swalwell 2008 amongst others). In a second step, this form of aesthetic criticism will be used for the analysis of popular videogames in the taste of the cute.
For a popular video game aesthetics
Kant begins by distinguishing three types of judgments from one another: the beautiful, the agreeable and the useful. While the useful, similar to the good, often occurs within economic and ethic contexts, the judgment of the agreeable follows from potent affective and sensory experience, hailed by Jenkins (2006) as the strengths of popular art. A problem here arises, as the judgment of the beautiful, for Kant (2006, 107) the judgment proper of aesthetics, “is independent from charm and emotion”, it follows not from a strong sensory experience but instead from the cognitive play of imagination and understanding. It is “appearance in its greatest intensity” (Figal 2016, 62).
Finding the place of the cute in Kant’s theory of taste is not hard. In his antiquated catalog of judgments of agreeable sensations, Kant (2000, 91) lists veritable precursors of the cute: “graceful, lovely, delightful, pleasing”. Often occurring in everyday life, agreeable sensations have been greatly differentiated through the contemporary consumer society, with the cute being one of its most dominant proponents. Through concepts such as ‘adherent beauty’, Kant introduces specific constellations of the useful, agreeable, and beautiful, making his theory in many ways compatible for aesthetics without autonomy claims (as shown in Forsey 2013: The Aesthetics of Design).
Another of such concepts is Kant’s (2000, 206) ‘play of sensations’. On the example of the beautiful musical piece, he writes, that it is a “coherent whole of an unutterable fullness of thought, corresponding to a certain theme, which constitutes the dominant affect in the piece.” (Ibid.) A perspective on aesthetic criticism arises from the fact that a critic is needed to unfold the ‘unutterable fullness of thought’ in relation to the affects modulated by the piece. The analysis of a play experience could be similar. The analysis of the cute in videogames would have to show what specific constellation of the beautiful, agreeable, and useful emerges in the aesthetic experiences of the cute video game.
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