“Better Than Real Life”*: Towards a Critical Theory of Videogames

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary
Goethe-Institut New York
30 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003

In the second draft of Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” he argues: “What is lost in the withering of semblance, or decay of aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play [Spielraum].” This Spielraum – which plays on the multiple meanings of the German Spiel, “play,” “game,” “performance,” “gamble,” – becomes the grounds for new emancipatory possibilities to emerge in an art freed from cultic, mimetic, and “authentic” value, freed from use-value to play. The late film and media theorist Miriam Hansen was one of the first to note, almost in passing, that perhaps Benjamin’s argument, originally constructed around film, might in fact apply more obviously and directly to videogames. In this class, we will explore this particular possibility as we apply an array of aesthetic, literary, and social thought towards the articulation of a critical theory of videogames. The videogame has become an ascendant cultural form of vast aesthetic, sociological, and, of course, economic significance. But a literature focusing specifically on the aesthetic experience of the player – and indeed on the Spielraum that is opened up between the game and the player – is only beginning to come into focus. As such, this will be a highly experimental class which will incorporate theoretical readings, in-class game analysis, and at-home play and reflection. It will be held over three Saturdays for three+ hours at a time and accompanied by a gaming installation and a series of public talks and discussions. Excerpted readings will be drawn from: Plato, Kant, Benjamin, Schiller, Haraway, Habermas, Hansen, Weber, Auerbach, Butler, Schechner, Baudelaire, Berlant, Buck-Morss, Brennan, Horkheimer, De Duve, and others, as well as more recent videogame-specific literature. Games to be considered include: Super Mario Bros., Metal Gear Solid, Journey, Fez, Portal, Papers Please, Metroid Prime, Noby Noby Boy, Bioshock, Child of Eden,Saints Row, Bit Trip, Monster Hunter, Katamari Damarcy and more.

* “Better than Real Life” was the advertising slogan for Saints Row IV (2013). It played popular psychological fears of gaming’s ability to capture and influence impressionable minds off the utopian promise, however distorted, of something that is “better than real life,” as expressed through the mutually constitutive gameplay and narrative of Saints Row itself.

Course Schedule

Saturday, 2-5pm
January 11 — January 25, 2014
3 weeks