Sunday, November 25, 2012

Adorno, Baudrillard, Nickleback, and video games?

at 10:51 PM
Long time, no blog.  Hey y'all.  I got a "good" one for you, though.

Theodor W. Adorno was a German dude who wrote all sorts of stuff about mass culture when he wasn't busy fleeing the Nazis.  In his essay, "On Popular Music," he argues that there is a difference between "popular" and "serious" music, and that the latter is much, much better than the former.  Now here are a couple of notes for all you kids following along at home: Adorno, a marxist, was all about the idea of a Culture industry which mass produced its wares and then used them to manipulate the population into being passive consumption-bots; another thing to note is Adorno was quite the classical musician himself, and, judging by the adoring way he describes his works, has a passionate attraction to Beethoven.  He was also super into a bunch of 12 tone stuff.  Which sounds...unique.  

My take on this particular assertion by Adorno is that the man just wasn't hip with the cool new jazz music the kids were playing.  Sucks for him, he wrote it in 1941 when bebop was busting out on the scene and turning jazzinto a truly new and talent-driven art form.  I find his argument's failure particularly interesting because I think it's MUCH more valid today than when he was busily writing.  The type of dance music he was referring to was vastly more unique in comparison to popular music nowadays, which is in fact standardized to farcical levels.  In fact a Spanish study recently proved, like scientifically even, that music is boring as all hell now.  And, fun fact, even the Nazis loved jazz so much that when Hitler tried to ban it, popular taste made it an impossible task.

Here are some hilarious examples of popular music getting away with artistic murder.

Man, the Nickelback songs are actually super catchy when theyre stacked.

But since this is a video game blog I'll spare you and talk about how I think this whole line of thinking applies to video games.  One point Adorno makes, which rang very true to me, was that the standardization of music into genres makes it easily consumable, so much so that regardless of details like the particular artist or lyrics, we expect and indeed have the same reaction to each song.  Is this true for any particular video game genre?  That's a good question, I'm glad I asked! 

I think so, but maybe to a lesser extent than music.  Certainly there a plenty of clones out there, stealing basic game mechanics and even settings and adapting them over and over again in a Baudrillard-like simulacra.  Think Elder Scrolls is genre-defining and unique in a bleak landscape of RPGs?  Nope.  Dungeon Master did it first with surprisingly similar mechanics in 1987.  Now,I am not going to sit here and go through each genre because I think the issue of game cloning is clear, if not decided.  Perhaps the interactive element of games decreases the extent to which we can, as consumer-bots, passively absorb the products of the culture industry.  That'd be my guess.

Adorno digs his "serious" music because he thinks that these works are comprehensive; each section and detail relies on the whole to take on meaning.  Meanwhile popular music relies on details to differentiate itself and provide emotional impact, while the whole is a standardized piece of trash.  It's hard for me to very seriously disagree with this sentiment but I think that a relativist attitude, like my white-privilege, should be checked at the door.    Sure, maybe a few particular runs in a sax solo are what make a whole jazz tune so goddamn cool, but that doesn't mean it's somehow less meaningful then Schoenberg's artfully put-together pile of noise.  In the same way, a really inspired level in Mario Land 3D isn't going to be respected because it is woven into the pattern of the entire game.  It is just the particular that elevates the whole.  One of my favorite quests in Skyrim, where you get enlisted by a spirit to help him keep another, probably more evil spirit, locked in his tomb, is completely disconnected from every other plot line in the game.  You simply stumble upon it in a cave.  But it makes the entire thing a much more absorbing and satisfying experience.

This subject begs more questions then there will ever be answers, especially from myself.   Is there a "popular" and "serious" divide in video games?  Has the reproduction of a model, the simulacra of video games, become worse as the medium has progressed?  Is this bad?  To what extent do we consume video games simply because of genre-expectations?


  1. I'm tempted to post my own take on this--there are a few things here that I've mulled over in the past--but I don't want to get ahead of myself. I do want to ask, though, where would be a good starting point for Adorno? Can you recommend any particular translations?

  2. Indie games have become so elevated in the industry that I feel as though they are the "serious" games and main-stream games are the "popular" ones. Games like Braid, Fez, and other games of their ilk are the games used to argue that video games can be art over games like COD BRO. Indie games usually break standard genre definitions, which ties into your point as well. I might write a response to this post critiquing my experience at the Art of Video Games exhibit at the American Art museum.

    Or the distinction might just be the mythical "casual" and "hardcore" game divide, that Yourself previously mocked to great effect.