The Eroticism of Uselessness in Videogames

“All art is quite useless” is a reasonably well-known quote by Oscar Wilde from the preface of his book, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Besides Wilde’s plea for the exemption of art from Victorian moral judgment, he does lay down a few truths that at the time would have been outrageous and even today are likely to either be so misunderstood that they’re twisted out of shape or treated like some vague sacrilege. The first is that art, in its uselessness, exists for its own sake. Its utilitarian aspects, if it has any, aren’t generally considered what make the piece beautiful or meaningful. Even for the craftsperson enchanted by the quality and workmanship of a very nice table, they derive pure joy from those qualities in and of themselves, because they’re able to appreciate them as virtues. The fact that you can rest a bowl of cereal on that table doesn’t bring a tear to anyone’s eye.

Videogames are often compared to machines or systems. This is fair considering they’re typically designed using computer machinery and computational systems. Systems and the devices we use to enact them, generally, are a means to some kind of end. They’re teleological, even deterministic. Rarely do they exist for their own sake. There’s input (maybe in the form of some kind of labour, like writing out code) and output (when all the code is correctly written, it will compile into a game). It’s not surprising then that the games which are usually produced this way reflect the systematic thinking of their creators. Games have a tendency to espouse an ideology of productivity rooted in capitalist thinking. But, contextualized as art, games are also kind of useless. I look forward to more games embracing their very uselessness as much as possible.

Matthew Burns once ruminated on a complaint made by Taylor Clark that videogames are, by and large, pretty stupid. That is to say, insipid or vapid or silly or contrived, especially when it comes to superimposed stories and dialogue most associated with AAA gaming. Burns argues that vapidity might just be a quirk of the medium’s nature. Depending on your perspective, games aren’t necessarily any of those things, or at least if they are it isn’t such a damnable offense. Sometimes playing a silly but well-executed game can be surprisingly fruitful. But I think “uselessness,” or “idleness,” are better terms to describe games as things that exist, be it to waste time, entertain, commiserate with friends or escape into a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

We justify their existence as products that make their industry however many billions of dollars. We even praise them as these material proofs of cultural bounty (I’m guilty of this too). But we rarely talk about games as things that exist for the principal reasons that someone wanted them to be there, and someone else wanted to play them. As Bertrand Russell writes of cinema in his essay, “In Praise of Idleness”:

“It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy, because they are making money; but when you enjoy the food they have provided, you are merely frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for your work. Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad. Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profit-making is the incentive to industry. We think too much of production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.”

Games are a means to end, not an end unto themselves. We don’t often articulate it quite this way, but games both as products and as experiences are evaluated to be functional, utilitarian things even when they’re not—to make, to buy and to play. I have a suspicion that this underlying ideology of productivity, of virtuous labour that Russell traces historically and sociologically, is in part what spurs the resistance to games that lack a certain number of identifiable tropes. We’re conditioned to valorize unnecessary labour in real life and that comes back to bite us in games, which are often plagued by what feel like needless, often boring, make-work tasks that artificially lengthen time spent playing. I mean, really, how many fetch quests are too many?

The corollary to my first point about Wilde’s quote is that, as he goes on to elucidate in his preface, art doesn’t really care what you think of it. This isn’t a call against criticism—far from it. But it is an appeal to recognize that we attach values to games outside of what they contain as objects, instead of appreciating and assessing them for what they are. We use games to confirm our own biases, indulge in our own fantasies, rather than establish genuine and earnest moments of emotional connection with them. This goes not only for how we play and perceive games—i.e., the discourse around them—but how games are actually made.

There’s usually some kind of goal, some kind of achievement or improvement achieved through repeated action and possibly a developed physiological skill. There’s input, and there’s output. It’s been said before, but the systems and goals represented in games are often just idealized versions of capitalist systems of real life. The preoccupation with meritocracy and gradual improvement in, say, an RPG, is an escape out of the systematic unfairness in real life and a coddling pacification that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything—complicating structural unfairness be damned.

But then there are games that embrace the uselessness, the idleness of art. They aren’t necessarily vapid or silly or stupid (they might be) but what I mean is, they behave like conceptual art, which at best exists completely for itself. (You can call it self-indulgent twaddle, but at least it’s self-possessed self-indulgent twaddle.) When I say “conceptual art,” I mean art that demands a different set of skills to be able to communicate with and appreciate. They require not necessarily just the development of some productive skill, but of some emotional self-awareness and ability to engage intimately with something. They require the ability to let your guard down, and to not expect or demand anything from the experience so much as allowing it to wash over you. They require an understanding of erotics.

I say “erotics” in the way Audre Lorde uses it, as something which necessitates a willingness to bare vulnerability. Lorde considers the root word, “eros,” as providing a hint to her meaning: “[…] Born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony.” I’ve written about this before with regard to how sex is depicted in games, but as I said in that earlier piece, I think that intimacy and eroticism comprise a philosophy that extends far beyond just sex, and comes out in a variety of different ways in games, from the surreal to the disturbing to the romantic to the purely sensual.

Take, for instance, a game like Titouan Millet’s A Cosmic Forest. It’s a dreamlike, ephemeral first-person game where a disembodied avatar is moved forward through vertical streams of changing colours into twinkling brightness. There is an ending, but I don’t worry so much that I’m playing it “right” or fretting about what it all means. It’s simply beautiful, eerie and enchanted. I feel like I’m crawling out of some kind of cosmic forest, and I let that feeling consume me.

Take another: Jake Clover and Jack King-Spooner’s Sluggish Morss. Here I am, on this surreal, twisted space station. There’s a beginning, middle and end. I can sidescroll and acquire things. But very little of that seems to matter in utilitarian terms. The game doesn’t pretend to give me anything for winning, and it feels so dislodged from time and space. The way it takes recognizable things and warps them, I actually feel smaller and more vulnerable, not bigger and more powerful, as I play it. I feel unstuck in time by the end of the game, and I let that feeling of personal insignificance and awe for the cosmos consume me. It reminds me of Georges Bataille’s “The Cruel Practice of Art,” where he writes:

“But in this inexplicable impasse where we move in vain, these irruptions — which are only seemingly promises of resolution, which in the end promise us nothing but to be caught in the trap — contain all the truth of emotion in the instant of ravishment. That is, emotion, if the sense of life is inscribed therein, cannot be subordinated to any useful end. Thus the paradox of emotion is that it wants to have much more sense than it does have. Emotion that is not tied to the opening of a horizon but to some nearby object, emotion within the limits of reason only offers us a compressed life. Burdened by our lost truth, the cry of emotion rises out of disorder, such as it might be imagined by the child contrasting the window of his bedroom to the depths of the night. Art, no doubt, is not restricted to the representation of horror, but its movement puts art without harm at the height of the worst and, reciprocally, the painting of horror reveals the opening onto all possibility. That is why we must linger in the shadows which art acquires in the vicinity of death.”

Bataille argues that art allows us to reach closer truths about ourselves and the universe by inviting us to partake in the destruction and disorder of objects and structures we cling to in our everyday as natural or true. He likens this “cruelty” of art to ancient blood sacrifice, as well as to sexual vice, to illustrate this fascination we have with toying with the limits of space, understanding and our own mortality. Life, he says, is a trap, but then so is death. As humans, we find ourselves in a double-bind between wanting to entertain consciousness beyond life, and our own material inability to preserve our own consciousness if we go too far. Art, he says, offers us a kind of bait where we can indulge those destructive, sacrificial tendencies without being totally subject to them. Think about the conceptual performance artwork of Marina Abramovic, such as “Seven Easy Pieces,” in which she performed the works of seven other artists, all of which required the testing of her emotional, physical and intellectual limits in front of a captive audience. More famously, recall her work “The Artist is Present,” in which she sat at a chair at the MoMa in unadulterated silence for 736-and-a-half hours, boring holes into audience participants as they sat across from her. Her stare was so accusatory, so penetrating, that she made some participants burst into tears. (Incidentally, this installation was made into a videogame by Pippin Barr.)

I see this idleness, this kind of anti-productivity in games like Sluggish Morss, or A Cosmic Forest, or Stephen Lavelle’s Slave of God which sets up an airy, inebriated, sensual, sexual nightclub experience. I also see it in Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic, a platformer on the surface but a despairing glitch-world of brokenness and unattainability underneath. The slipperiness of controls, the seemingly impossible heights and placement of objects, the relentlessness of enemies that knock you off course, the jumbled and broken-up structure of the world recalls this disordering of quotidian life that Bataille talks about. Like Sluggish Morss, things are recognizable enough to remind you of some familiar thing, but all just slightly out of place. In Problem Attic especially, everything always feels a little out of reach, every accomplishment feels like a great feat, but also a great warning of something worse. I feel like I’ve taken the bait and entered a trap of something even more cruel and torturous. But there’s no compensation: there’s no feeling that I laboured for reward, I just keep opening newer and more broken and more terrifying aspects of the world, as if I’m digging down instead of climbing up.

All these games are, in their way, erotic in how they draw on sensation or emotion. They’re all bleeding and vulnerable and refuse to be forthcoming with some obvious goal or meaning. As deliberate and well-crafted objects they offer the sensation that you allow the game to give to you by experiencing it, not just a pandering reward for some kind of contrived labour. These are games that allow you to bask and revel, to indulge in the destruction of the self within a system to some extent. Not every game needs to be this, exactly, but I think there’s something to be gained from their artistic “uselessness.” They exist for themselves, because someone wanted to make them and because someone might derive, if not happiness, then some kind of feeling or sensation or introspective wisdom from playing them—because someone may admire them intensely. Or maybe the player will get nothing at all out of playing them, but they don’t care, and they don’t have to.