Wednesday, 30 April 2014

From Dungeon Kitsch to Dungeon Camp

I was going to do some writing -- about some people's resistance to my identification of gaming aesthetics as kitsch, about how it might be more productive to think of it in terms of the warmer category of "camp." With a huge warning sign that here, we are not talking about an aesthetic mode meant to bridge the gap between masculine and feminine, but rather, between the wonder of the child and the consciousness of the adult.

Susan Sontag by Juan BastosThen I went to re-read Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on Camp" and discovered that most of the things I wanted to say, she had said, and all I had to do was change "Camp" to "Gaming" and a few other words (in blue). These aphorisms out of her list of 58 are perfect. The others are too tied to specific examples, to a view of camp based in gender and sexuality, or to camp as aesthetics rather than gaming as experience, to make them work.

1. To start very generally: Gaming is a certain mode of simulation. It is one way of imagining adventure within the world. That way, the way of Gaming, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of adversity, of stylization of "awesomeness".

2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Gaming sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized -- or at least apolitical.

3. Not only is there a Gaming vision, a Gaming way of looking at things. Gaming is as well a quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons. There are "gamerly" movies, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings. . . . This distinction is important. True, the Gaming eye has the power to transform experience. But not everything can be seen as Gaming. It's not all in the eye of the beholder.

4. Random examples of items which are part of the canon of Gaming:

Aurora monster models

The Transformers
Conan the Barbarian (stories, comics, film)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Kurosawa's films

6. There is a sense in which it is correct to say: "It's too good to be Gaming." Or "too important," not marginal enough. (More on this later.) Thus, the personality and many of the works of Iain M. Banks are Gamerly, but not those of Margaret Atwood. Many examples of Gaming are things which, from a "serious" point of view, are either bad art or kitsch. Not all, though. Not only is Gaming not necessarily bad art, but some art which can be approached as Gaming (example: the major films of Guillermo Del Toro) merits the most serious admiration and study.

8. Gaming is a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not. The best example is in dungeons, the most typical and fully developed Gaming style. Dungeons, typically, convert one thing into something else: the lighting fixtures in the form of skulls, the living room which is really a habitation of disguised monsters.

10. Gaming sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a "lamp" (worth 500 gp); not a woman, but a "woman" (2nd Level, Thief). To perceive Gaming in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

16. Thus, the Gaming sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.

18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Gaming. Pure Gaming is always naive. Gaming which knows itself to be Gaming is usually less satisfying.

19. The pure examples of Gaming are unintentional; they are dead serious. The Dungeon designer who makes a lamp with a snake coiled around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all earnestness: Voilà! the Orient! Genuine gaming -- for instance, the encounters devised for the TSR modules of the late seventies -- does not mean to be funny. Gaming "humor"-- say, the Order of the Stick -- does.

23. In naïve, or pure, Gaming, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Gaming. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

24. When something is just bad (rather than Awesome), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish. ("It's too much," "It's too fantastic," "It's not to be believed," are standard phrases of Gaming enthusiasm.)

29. The reason a movie like On the Beach, books like Winesburg, Ohio and For Whom the Bell Tolls are bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable, is that they are too dogged and pretentious. They lack fantasy. There is Gaming in such bad movies as The Prodigal and Samson and Delilah, the series of Italian color spectacles featuring the super-hero Maciste, numerous Japanese science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man) because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy - and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.

31. This is why so many of the objects prized by Gaming taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It's not a love of the old as such. It's simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment -- or arouses a necessary sympathy. When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Gaming sensibility. . . . Another effect: time contracts the sphere of banality. (Banality is, strictly speaking, always a category of the contemporary.) What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic.

41. The whole point of Gaming is to dethrone the serious. Gaming is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Gaming involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious." One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.

44. Gaming proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.

49. It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Gamer taste cannot be overestimated. Gamer taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.

53. Nevertheless, even though adolescents have been its vanguard, Gamer taste is much more than adolescent taste. Obviously, its metaphor of life as theater is peculiarly suited as a justification and projection of a certain aspect of the situation of adolescents. (The Gamer insistence on not being "serious," on playing, also connects with the adolescent's desire to remain youthful.) Yet one feels that if adolescents hadn't more or less invented Gaming, someone else would. (To be precise, middle-aged men did.)

55. Gaming taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation - not judgment. Gaming is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it's not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Gaming taste doesn't propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn't sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

56. Gaming taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of "player character." . . . Gaming taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as "a game," they're enjoying it. Gaming is a tender feeling.

57. Gaming taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles. The absence of this love is the reason why such kitsch items as Dark Dungeons (the tract) and The Big Bang Theory aren't Gaming.

58. The ultimate Gaming statement: it's good because it's awesome. . . Of course, one can't always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I've tried to sketch in these notes.


  1. Religion objects and art are kitch but not all equally so - sunday school art and thousand year old greek icons are kitch

    - caldwells art is more kitch than allan lee - any fan artifacts could meet your guidelines but some less so - star wars more kitch than writings of ian banks

    I try to be more like Rabelais than kitch - my sentimentality is more a hook to do something non syrupy and vulgarity can have other functions and non naive intent

  2. "Gaming not necessarily bad art, but some art which can be approached as Gaming (example: the major films of Benicio Del Toro) merits the most serious admiration and study."
    Er, are you sure you didn't mean Guillermo del Toro, the director rather than Benicio del Toro, the actor?

  3. Your idea of Kitsch is intriguing. As I have been working on new content after many years, I have been trying to keep what I am creating recognizable.

    And by recognizable, I mean in visual sense, something matching up with known images. The context underneath can be different but the look is set by various gaming culture stuff. I think much of this longevity of gaming comes from straight line connection going on. 'I want to be the hero in that picture' and then you are.

    It is getting more complex with so much iconography floating around to know who is keyed into what. It was easier in HS to have the same sources: books and movies easily shared and consumed.

    I'd like to see more of your thoughts on the naive/anti-serious gaze gaming adopts. Does this view have to be a negation or in opposition to personal "adult" values? Just wondering in a very non-aggro way.

    1. I think that depends. If your "adult" values have to do with morality, loyalty, creativity, or persistence they can all find expression in gaming. Remember, it's partly about taking ludicrous things seriously. What it rebels against instead is the insistence that everything in life must exist in the same key and register of seriousness, and conversely that "fun" must be mindless, hedonistic, and compartmentalized. If that begins to answer...

    2. Actually it does.

      Often I feel what gave my HS games their kick was how we were all exploring what life had to offer in a safe fun environment.

      Not to sound arrogant, I have often found that games I tried to run after that had this problem of wanting to progress and not just to playing like I was emotionally fifteen. For example, we played out a lot of bar carousing in a way that only underage people would.

      The most successful games I've run were able to lock onto where the group's collective head was at the time we were doing it.