Sunday 13 April 2014

Dungeon Kitsch

I am going to argue that much of the aesthetic of adventure gaming has evolved toward a form of kitsch.

That sounds pretty harsh. I don't mean it to be, exactly. So to start digging out of this rhetorical hole, what is kitsch? And is there a nicer term for it?

Religious kitsch
Well, first, I have picked out the first three meaningful photographs of "kitsch" that Google Images sees fit to provide, as anchor for the discussion.

Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl
Wikipedia opines: "a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons." Oxford Dictionaries have it, "Art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way." But those are not quite adequate definitions, for me. They judge, but don't illuminate.

1950's-style kitsch wunderkammer
As it turns out, 20th century visual art critics had a lot to say about kitsch. Writing for the University of Chicago, Whitney Rugg sums up: "Kitsch tends to mimic the effects produced by real sensory experiences ... presenting highly charged imagery, language, or music that triggers an automatic, and therefore unreflective, emotional reaction." 

And further... "Milan Kundera calls this key quality of kitsch the 'second tear:' 'Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see the children running in the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running in the grass! It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch.'"

That's more like it. It's about the kitsch aesthetic, not about the kitsch object itself, which can be described as a mass-produced object that simulates opulence or sentiment through the easiest means. In the kitsch aesthetic, there are no defining features, because it necessarily piggybacks on an already achieved mode of culture, as Clement Greenberg remarked in 1939. There is not just kitsch, but cuteness kitsch, nostalgia kitsch, classical-music kitsch, military heroism kitsch, and so on. 

Religious kitsch uses excessive realism to depict what should be more stylized (see the Mary plaques, above), but modernity kitsch uses excessive stylization to wink and elbow-nudge its way into the future (see the 50's Populuxe furniture, above.) The Chinese Girl makes most sense as kitsch of the avant-garde; a magazine-art depiction given a banal exoticized subject and an unusual color choice that passes for sophistication.  

So, building on Kundera's definition, let's call a kitsch approach this: one that seeks to arouse the feelings most normal for its subject matter, by multiple straightforward and obvious means. 

It's this overloading that gives the echo effect, the second tear, the feeling that you are not only seeing something awesome or magnificent or sad, but you are sure that anyone else like you who sees this would also feel that way, pushing you outward into the comfort of conformity rather than inward into the doubts of introspection. It's also this overloading that gives rise to the ironic enjoyment -- climbing down from sophistication to a simpler palate, understanding why it's manipulative and in the same moment refusing to reject it entirely because it is so raw and vivid.

Now, here's that less judgmental name for kitsch -- overload -- although I may not always want to abandon the judgment entirely. And to my eye, Dungeon Overload, if you will, can be defined by its reaching for three A's: Antiquity, Awesomeness and Adversity. But that is a topic to continue next time.


  1. greek icons are kitch but when a 1000 years old it is important historic art - i find dragonlance and lots of dnd kitch - i like grittier settings and osprey book art more than lots of game art - i like caldwell art but those big gems in his art are kitch - Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl hated because he is one of most successful painters of 20th c and did so outside of normal channels - famous 19th c art on coffee cups is kitch too - i guess a syrupt sentimental mad wizard dungeon with plush zombies and cheap gold paint might be fun - a giant jeff koonz flower puppy monster?

  2. I always felt D&D magic to be kitch, especially things like Magic Mouth. The picture of the magic mouth in the old DMG I think screamed kitch - wow, it's magic, and wow, it's talking!

  3. "an automatic, and therefore unreflective, emotional reaction."

    Assuming there that something emotional and unreflective is also automatic, that your awareness is a machine that the wise reflective mind governs and makes meaningful.

    Assuming again that it is easy to be unreflective, that the better the kind of person you are the more you reflect.

    Assuming that being reflective makes you better at art. Because all the people who talk and talk and talk and reflect and reflect and reflect and reflect, they make the best art don't they? Because they are reflecting more? Right?

    "pushing you outward into the comfort of conformity rather than inward into the doubts of introspection."

    Right. Because there is noththing conformist about wanking yourself off about how introspective you are in a culture of people *all of whom are doing the exact same thing*

    Essentially, I disagree. A lot.

    I don't like anyting ironically.

    1. So, revalorize the terms - overloading for kitsch; community instead of conformity; privilege the dionysian and not the apollonian; does the argument still hold? Does the overloaded art bring not just the stirring of the heart but the awareness that the heart is stirring and why? Does all this increase community?

    2. Ngh, not, I think, for me. As to others I have no strong argument against, though it still gets up my arse for some reason.

    3. I basically agree with you, Patrick, that snobbery about these things is awful, and liking things ironically is probably even awfuller. But don't you think that reflecting on things is good? You don't have to do it in a snobby, artsy, wank way. You don't have to like things ironically. But it's important to think about things and it probably does ultimately make you a better person.

    4. Reflection is vital to understanding things but *so is not reflecting on them*.

      If you think too much about something without submitting to the unexamined flow of experience then the reflection eventually consumes you.

      I think this is what happens to almost every critic of almost every art eventually.

      It's so easy to talk about your reflections and to exchange them with others and let them feed on each other and grow and so extremely hard to experience something directly and without letting the blathering of your mind interrupt and mis-organise it for you.

      It may be that I am projecting a personal worry onto the world around me, but I see everywhere the bars of transmitted thought closing in on the organically lived world. Little locks inside phones and computer screens, quietly snapping shut.

      I personally would not be bothered by a more unreflective mind. I believe that powerful new information usually enters the mind silently at such points and then you must be quiet and take the time to understand what you have thought.

      (I would also probably draw less of a line between thought and experience than others. I thinks dancers think with their bodies for instance.)


      I would not necessarily extend that to the culture at large. It is the lament of a man who finds he thinks too much and experiences too little. It may be that for others the exact opposite is true and that some imbued reflection would do them the power of good.

      (I am reminded of the mixed results of solitary confinement, when used for long periods it usually results in psychic damage, making a prisoner more violent and uncontrollable. Sometimes though, when used sparingly and to limited degree, prisoners have reported deep personal change through the silent time in which they are forced to reflect upon thier lives*)

      One thing I do believe to be true in all cases is that reflection and its opposite are *bound together* a polarity, in conflict with each other yet lending each other meaning. A life with only one and not the other would be pretty bad I think.

      *sometimes resulting in them becoming better more efficient criminals.

    5. I get that. But I'm more worried about the power of kitsch. I'm worried about the way being a geek has become this sort of lifestyle choice that involves "geeking out" and describing everything to do with fantasy, SF, technology, superheroes or comics as "awesome" in this really uncritical and unreflective way. Geek kitsch is taking over the universe. And it's ultimately detrimental because it reduces everything to a series of likes and dislikes, with anything that pertains to your likes being awesome and anything that pertains to your dislikes being not worth thinking about. It's really reductive and unambitious. Like the only purpose that art has is to fit a certain set of genre parameters and then automatically it's the best thing ever, until the next one comes along.

      So I absolutely agree with you about reflectiveness taking over when it comes to, e.g., film or book critics, but there is an opposite tendency that is just as worrying. There needs to be a happy medium.

    6. I don't think geek kitsch is taking over the world, I just think its a lot more popular than it was.

      I'm not sure it has had any effect on the general level of human stupidity.

      It was unpopular for a long time, so only people who were really into it would have anything to do with it.

      Now its popular so a lot of 'normal' people are into it. Some are'nt very bright. Some just don't have much attention or time to leand it so are lead by the masses. Some are pretty smart.

      Is it any different to anything that goes from a niche to a more popular audience?

      Put it like this;The total number of people into it has certainly gone up. The average level of thinking about this stuff *may* have gone down. The total number of people thinking in interesting ways has *probably* gone up.

      I don't feel very connected to 'geek' culture but neither am I threatened by it. There is a storm of thoughtlessness around it, but inside there are simply more people, many of them young (younger than us anyway). Many are interesting, many will become interesting with time.

      Is there anything you can do to take away people's hunger for a culture and its signs?

      Do you think young people today are more stupid and thoughtless than we were?

      People will build thier identities however they can with whatever they can find. The only way to become an interesing person is to start with the crowd somewhat. If you eventually tire of it, the routes to begin thinking for yourself are there if you want them.


      I do think young people are more stupid and thoughtless than we were, but that could be because I'm 32. I do teach at a university though, and I do know that it's empirically true that 18 year olds now have to do a lot less work to pass their first year than they did 20 years ago (I've looked at the old exam papers).

      I think geek kitsch is getting more popular than you think. Look at the success of the Marvel Universe films, for instance.

      But anyway, you're probably right in general. At the end of the day, of course, none of it matters. It doesn't matter if film critics are snobbish and it doesn't matter that geek kitsch is taking over the world. Because none of it actually affects anything.

    8. Ahh the Thelma & Louise rebuttal.


      (There are parts of the MU films that are actually good, good. Or at least, good in a way that is has nothing to do with being Kitsch)

    9. I agree. The one that the Buffy guy did anyway. But if geek kitsch takes over it will become impossible to tell.

  4. Are you saying that the experience exploring, say, my megadungeon isn't genuine? Or perhaps my Hackmaster players exploring the keep?

    I think I disagree too. When that betraying cleric killed the fighter, there was real emotion in that room.

    1. I'm more talking about presentation and trade dress than what actually goes on in play, although there are some ways to achieve overload in play and adventure design.

  5. And to my eye, Dungeon Overload, if you will, can be defined by its reaching for three A's: Antiquity, Awesomeness and Adversity.

    Looking forward to reading that.

    I like Kundera's definition. A lot of Pathfinder art and 4e art is awesomeness kitsch. The first tear comes from seeing the picture of a drow in a bikini riding a dragon and wielding an unfeasibly large sword while facing off against a gargantuan lava monster and thinking it is awesome. The second tear comes from the fact that you are a member of geek culture and anybody else who is in on the geek culture secret will also look at that picture and be struck by its awesomeness.

  6. Roger, I'm looking forward to part 2. I want my next dungeon to be full of kitsch, to earn me the name Captain Kitsch, to let me step back and marvel on the kitschness I have wrought. I want it to be the Michael Bay of dungeons.

    But your last comment makes me think you'll be focusing more on the aesthetics of marketing and publication. Like -C, I'm focused on capturing an archetypal experience at the table through mimicry of something I perceive as great.

    1. I can just say, based on layout, my dungeon/D&D products are not mimicing what has come before (ref. set design) though the idea of an illustration book certainly has. I don't see any way an illustration book could be considered kitsch - it isn't a "cool thing", but rather a visualization which is cool cause of the time taken to produce it.