Despite its title, this is not a diatribe against video games, but rather a history that finds unappreciated nuances and aesthetic importance in them.
An unapologetic fan, British journal Poole champions video games as an emergent art form, asserting that “the player’s response to a well-designed videogame is . . . the same sort of response he or she has to a film, or to a painting: it is an aesthetic one.” Lamenting that semioticians and art historians have failed to take their presence seriously, the author rushes heroically into the breach. He traces the evolution of the games from their primordial ancestors (Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man), creating a typology, a critical vocabulary, and a canon to distinguish truly great games from mediocre ones. He notes the formation of distinct genres in the early 1980s, including “exploration games” (posing spatial puzzles), the “beat-’em-up” (in which players fight one another using martial arts, magical powers, or fantastic weapons), “God games” (simulating the construction of cities or nations), wargames, simulated sports, and role-playing games (in which many players participate, adopting magical personae in science-fiction or fantasy settings). Poole’s explanations for the psychological satisfactions of games are skimpy and oddly flat: “videogames give you their full attention,” fulfill players’ fantasies, and “set challenges that involve full, rich interactions of signs.” Such abstractions are a poor argument for the games’ supposed emotional depths, although less unsettling than bland praise for a game in which enemies are blown “into pleasingly gory, fleshy chunks.” Poole argues more authoritatively that the games display visual artistry, adding motion to the techniques of aerial perspective and relative size developed by Renaissance painters, and manipulating chiaroscuro, texture, and symbolic elements to evoke atmosphere. Innovations in graphics, producing increasingly convincing illusions of impossible situations, not only add excitement to the games, but will doubtless influence the films and literature of the coming decades.
A perky exploration of the semiotics of video games—if that’s what readers have been waiting for.