[Who is the Thomas Kinkade of video games? Writer and designer Bogost explores how mawkish sentimentality can be lucrative -- and how it applies to games.]
Thomas Kinkade paints cottages, gardens, chapels, lighthouses, and small town street scenes. He paints such subjects by the dozens each year, but he sells thousands of them for at least a thousand dollars each.
All are "originals" manufactured using a complex print process that involves both machine automation and assembly line-like human craftsmanship. The result has made Kinkade the most collected painter in history.
Unlike most working painters, Kinkade's work doesn't go out to exhibition or collection, his most "important" works later being mass-produced on prints or mugs or datebooks for the everyman.
No, Kinkade's work is mass-market from the get-go. Every subject, every canvas becomes an immediate widget to be marketed in every channel. The artist himself put it this way in in a 60 Minutes interview several years ago:
"There's been million-seller books and million-seller CDs. But there hasn't been, until now, million-seller art. We have found a way to bring to millions of people an art that they can understand."
For Kinkade, "an art they can understand" means tropes of nostalgia and idealism. He paints perfect small town Main Streets with friendly neighbors and milkmen. He paints patriotic portraits of flapping flags. He paints white Christmases with serenading carolers. He paints glowing gardens basked in filtered beams of sunlight.
There is a name for this sort of art, an art urging overt sentimentality, focused on the overt application of convention, without particular originality: we call it kitsch.
Kitsch has a complex history. A century and a half ago, fine art became a personal plaything of the cultural elite at the same time as the middle-classes proliferated thanks to industrialism. As remains the case today, once the lower classes catch a glimpse of the one just above it, it tends to mimic their styles and tastes in an effort to climb the social ladder.
In 19th century Europe, one way such longing for status took form was to acquire consumer-grade copies of art created in the style of the fine arts of the cultural elite. Eventually a marketplace grew around art for the masses, just as one exists today for Kinkade's paintings and trinkets and calendars and textiles and the like.
Are there kitsch games? Such games would have to accomplish a few things.
First, they would have to draw on borrowed conventions, repurposing them for popular appeal. Lots of games do this, and it might be tempting to point to the glut of selfsame casual puzzle games as possible candidates. But, those games don't adopt another necessary property of kitsch: trite sentimentalism.
And there's one more ingredient: production value. While 19th century kitsch painting was sometimes accused of having been thrown together, modern kitsch can have quite high production value -- Kinkade's paintings are technically competent examples of a particular style of realism.