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Feature: 'Persuasive Games: Video Game Kitsch'

Feature: 'Persuasive Games: Video Game Kitsch'

February 17, 2009 | By Staff

February 17, 2009 | By Staff
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Who is the Thomas Kinkade of video games? In this feature, writer and designer Ian Bogost looks for examples of kitsch titles and explores how mawkish sentimentality can be lucrative -- and how it applies to games.

Tracing its origins to 18th century Europe, the concept of kitsch art developed as a mimicking of the cultural elite's fine art styles and tastes, adapted for the lower classes. This sort of art tends to feature exaggerated sentimentality, focusing on "the overt application of convention."

Bogost says that in order for video games to qualify as kitsch, it would have to accomplish some requirements:

"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."

He uses Ferry Halim's online Flash games, posted on his Orisinal website, as "perfect candidates" for video game kitsch:

"They borrow conventions from casual games, using simple mouse movement and button pressing as their sole controls.

Thematically, the Orisinal games depict idyllic scenes of natural beauty and wholesomeness, riddled with cute critters and schmaltzy musical scores. And from the perspective of production, Halim's games are well-executed, with high-quality illustration-style graphics, smooth animation, and fitting sound effects.

Take the first game published to the site, Apple Season. In the game, 100 shiny, red apples fall from the top of the screen, accelerating as they spin. The player moves a small basket side to side at screen bottom, attempting to catch the apples.

The source of the apples isn't shown, allowing the player to fill in the details: perhaps they are falling from an unseen, noble orchard tree, waiting to be reaped by ruddy-faced families. The score display at the bottom adds the final packet of saccharine sweetness: apples are not caught, but "saved." The noble player basks in this virtuous, if corny victory.

You can read the full feature, which includes further discussion on the concept of kitsch video games with additional examples (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

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