[Who is the Thomas Kinkade of video games? Writer and designer Bogost explores how mawkish sentimentality can be lucrative -- and how it applies to games.]
Thomas Kinkade paints cottages, gardens, chapels, lighthouses, and small town street scenes. He paints such subjects by the dozens each year, but he sells thousands of them for at least a thousand dollars each.
All are "originals" manufactured using a complex print process that involves both machine automation and assembly line-like human craftsmanship. The result has made Kinkade the most collected painter in history.
Unlike most working painters, Kinkade's work doesn't go out to exhibition or collection, his most "important" works later being mass-produced on prints or mugs or datebooks for the everyman.
No, Kinkade's work is mass-market from the get-go. Every subject, every canvas becomes an immediate widget to be marketed in every channel. The artist himself put it this way in in a 60 Minutes interview several years ago:
"There's been million-seller books and million-seller CDs. But there hasn't been, until now, million-seller art. We have found a way to bring to millions of people an art that they can understand."
For Kinkade, "an art they can understand" means tropes of nostalgia and idealism. He paints perfect small town Main Streets with friendly neighbors and milkmen. He paints patriotic portraits of flapping flags. He paints white Christmases with serenading carolers. He paints glowing gardens basked in filtered beams of sunlight.
There is a name for this sort of art, an art urging overt sentimentality, focused on the overt application of convention, without particular originality: we call it kitsch.
Kitsch has a complex history. A century and a half ago, fine art became a personal plaything of the cultural elite at the same time as the middle-classes proliferated thanks to industrialism. As remains the case today, once the lower classes catch a glimpse of the one just above it, it tends to mimic their styles and tastes in an effort to climb the social ladder.
In 19th century Europe, one way such longing for status took form was to acquire consumer-grade copies of art created in the style of the fine arts of the cultural elite. Eventually a marketplace grew around art for the masses, just as one exists today for Kinkade's paintings and trinkets and calendars and textiles and the like.
Are there kitsch games? Such games would have to accomplish a few things.
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.
The Player of Light
Take Ferry Halim's online Flash games, published on his Orisinal website since 2001. Halim's games are perfect candidates for videogame 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.
Or consider Take Two, a game about helping a dog and cat help one another. Adorable, illustrated animals (a Halim trademark) stand at opposite sides of a seesaw.
When the player clicks, the animal at top jumps down, vaulting the other up to the platform at top. The player attempts to time these jumps such that each animal captures treats that pass across the middle of the screen.
Take Two capitalizes on the metaphorical sentimentalism of working together. The dog and cat, so often thought to be at odds, work together (thanks to the player's intervention) to meet both their needs.
A new age piano loop cements the game's already glaring mawkishness: if only we could all get along like the adorable puppy and kitten.
Or take another game, Rainmaker. In this one, the player pilots an adorable lad atop a cloud. When clicked, he strikes a mallet against the cloud, causing rain to pour down below.
Meanwhile, black birds fly from side to side; the player must time and orient the rain showers such that they wash the blackness of the birds into a bright white, crows becoming doves.
Again, the game's sentimental message is clear: the innocence of youth, represented by the boy-cloud, can overcome the world's sorrows, represented by the black birds. Secondarily, the rain -- often an omen of despondency -- can also deliver joy. The game can be succinctly summarized with cliché: every cloud has a silver lining.
Both Rainmaker and Take Two include Halim's characteristic style of the nostalgic halcyon of lived environments. In Take Two, the background includes a blissful, clean city block, light spewing from behind a building, Kinkadesque.
In Rainmaker, the cloud and birds fly above an idealized city at golden hour, its rooftops blurred in a rudimentary but effective simulation of the shallow depth of field one might see on a postcard photograph.
Like Kinkade's art, the games of Orisinal depict idealized versions of locations and situations that probably never existed, but which the player can enjoy occupying as if they had.
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.