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Persuasive Games: Video Game Kitsch
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Persuasive Games: Video Game Kitsch

February 17, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Work as Kitsch

Ferry Halim's games are an easy target; I'd call him the Thomas Kinkade of video games. But other sorts of games offer a quite different version of kitsch.

Diner Dash and its click-management progeny offer instructive examples of a kind of video game kitsch that doesn't deploy naturalistic sentimentalism of the Kinkade variety, but occupational sentimentalism instead.

In Diner Dash, the player starts as Flo, at the dawn of her career as a restaurateur. She starts in a simple, shabby diner -- all that she could afford -- and the player's job is to help her build a thriving restaurant.

As in the other click-management games the title spawned, play is accomplished through a simplification of move-and-collide convention: one clicks on tasks (patrons to seat, food to serve, dishes to clear), and Flo automatically attends to these tasks.

Mastery is thus a matter of successfully splitting attention between the tasks of increasing number and frequency. The idea of complex, multi-action challenge endemic to games is reduced to clicking the right object at the right time. It is here that we see the copying and dilution of convention typical of kitsch.

In Diner Dash, sentimentalism is accomplished by invoking the moral fortitude of hard work. It is a game in which a good work ethic, careful attention, and persistence always yield success.

All of the other factors that make the work of a restaurateur such a thankless, risky proposition are abstracted. The random chance of location, the accident of patron tastes, the spleen of newspaper critics -- none of these play a role in the world of Diner Dash.

If Ferry Halim is the Thomas Kinkade of videogames, Diner Dash is its motivational poster, espousing the application of Care, Resolve, Persistence, Attention and other ideals of the Protestant work ethic.

Indeed, Diner Dash's values are the very same ones that a viewer might imagine take place inside the shops and kitchens of Kinkade's charming towns and cottages.

When one plays such games, persistence leads to success, and success leads to resources, which increase both influence and leverage. In Diner Dash, it's a bigger restaurant and more customers. In Airport Mania, it's a larger airport with more planes and passengers.

Reflexive Entertainment's Airport Mania

The idea is one that appeals strongly to people. Despite received ideals of Puritanism and the American Dream, modern life is riddled with a strong dose of unfairness and random circumstance.

By surrounding oneself with posters, or games, that espouse ideals of control, the timeworn hope of pure will breeds the wistfulness that makes kitsch appealing.

To Kitsch or not to Kitsch

Kitsch is often derided by the "real" art world for offering manufactured copies of ideas served to a dispassionate and accepting audience of consumers.

This sentiment of rejection has remained more or less the same since critics Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno and first coined the name "culture industry" some sixty years ago.

Defenders argue that so-called "manufactured culture" is popular not because it manipulates people into falling back on hackneyed platitudes, but because people like it in earnest. In truth, the truth of the matter matters little: whether or not making kitsch is a virtue or a vice is up to the developer.

No matter the case, there's still something kitsch art can do easily that video games can't: serve as tactile evidence of their sentimentality, and in so doing provide social purpose.

A Kinkade or a corporate motivater can be hung in a foyer or placed on a shelf of knick-knacks. Kitsch was always meant to be displayed, to serve as a marker of an upward-looking bourgeoisie.

Therein is an opportunity for game developers to consider further. After all, Thomas Kinkade has made tens of millions of dollars painting lighthouses and cottages via his an army of "apprentices." That is, if they can stand the sickly sweet aftertaste.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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