Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Video Games and the Technological Sublime

Eugénie Shinkle

This paper examines the notion of the contemporary technological sublime, and asks what sublime affect means in the context of contemporary digital technologies such as video games. It argues that the contemporary technological sublime finds expression in an affective combination of elevated emotion and banality – a combination in which the subject also encounters the limits of the self.

Peter Phillips, ‘The Entertainment Machine’ 1961
Peter Phillips
The Entertainment Machine 1961
© Peter Phillips

The following discussion examines the notion of the contemporary technological sublime by reflecting on the video game as an aesthetic form. It does so not with the intention of categorising video games as art (or not), but in order to examine what sublime affect might mean in the context of contemporary digital technologies. It draws on philosopher Immanuel Kant’s classical formation of the sublime as laid out in the Critique of Judgement (1790), as well as later accounts of the technological sublime by historian David Nye, and the contemporary ‘post-human’ sublime by cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. Although the remarks below are concerned specifically with contemporary electronic entertainment, the arguments made here can be extended to a broad range of digital technologies that have replaced their analogue equivalents – mobile phones, cameras, and so forth.

‘Aesthetic form’ and ‘aesthetic experience’ mean something quite specific in the following discussion. Aesthetic discourse first emerged, in the eighteenth century, as an inquiry into the subject and its experience of the sensual world. Less concerned with questions of art than with the reckoning of subjective boundaries, aesthetics was a discipline of the body, a way of reconciling the domain of the sensible with that of reason.1 It dealt with affective experience, with the limits of the self and of human sensibility, with ‘the whole of our sensate life together – the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surfaces, of that which takes root in the gaze and the guts and all that arises from our most banal, biological insertion into the world.’2 Aesthetics, as I understand it here, is a cognitive category, concerned not just with what cultural forms are, but with what they do, their effect on an embodied subject.

The video game is an aesthetic form incorporating software (which governs game content such as narrative, artwork, character development, and gameplay mechanics) and hardware (the game console and player interface). Rather than insisting on hard boundaries between the two, however, I shall be approaching the notion of sublime affect from the standpoint of media ecology, considering the hardware interface as functionally inseparable from our encounter with the game content. Software, as social scientist Nigel Thrift and geographer Shaun French write, ‘flows from the interface between body and object’.3 For game designer Jenova Chen, the interface represents the ‘body’ of the video game, tasked with communicating its ‘soul’ (the game content, the ‘specific experience the game is designed to convey’).4 The distinction between hardware and software, body and machine, visual, material, and conceptual artefacts is deliberately unsettled here, as it is in the following discussion, which posits that a feature of the technological sublime in the digital age is the absence of a consistent and uniform boundary between the self and the machine.

The category of the sublime is complex and nuanced. For the Enlightenment imagination, sublime affect was classed as a ‘negative pleasure’, and this amalgam of positive and negative emotion, pleasure and anxiety, is also typical of contemporary formations of the sublime. In the case of video games, sublime sensation also finds expression in an affective amalgam that is unique to modernity and postmodernity: a combination of anxiety and boredom, elevated emotion and banality. As well as a certain kind of affective experience, however, sublime sensation, as it was originally conceived, also involves an awareness of the limits of the self – an aspect that is less thoroughly explored in contemporary formations of the sublime. This study is concerned with the combination of these two elements – with the way that the experience of an external stimulus (sensory presentation) is implicated in definitions of subjectivity. With this in mind, the cluster of terms – affect, sensation, and experience – that I use to refer to sublime encounters should all be understood to take account of these two dimensions.

Aesthetics, the subject, and the technological sublime

The contemporary technological sublime incorporates a number of different historical formations of sublime affect, notably that set out in Kant’s Critique of Judgement of 1790. For Kant, judgements of the sublime occurred independently of any interest in the purpose or function of objects, and arose on those occasions where the imagination was found to be incapable of fully resolving particular sense presentations. The sublime object or situation exceeded the limits of the understanding and sensibility; as such, it was not sensible forms or ‘things of nature’ in themselves which were the source of sublime affect, but the sensation of the failure of the imaginationto grasp such things in their entirety.5 The sublime, as Kant framed it,was a problem of the subject: ‘Sublime is what even to be able to think proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense.’6 Sublime affect was a means of testing subjective boundaries, of exploring and affirming the limits of the human self and its relationship to nature.

Kant divided sublime experience into two orders, the mathematical and the dynamical. Both arose in encounters with natural objects; the former in relation to size, the latter to might. The dynamical sublime was experienced in those aesthetic judgements where nature’s awesome power inspired fear at the same time as it ‘[raised] the soul’s fortitude’, and brought the subject to see in itself a ‘match for nature’s seeming omnipotence’.7 Although the individual could not hope to equal nature’s potency, the mind and its capacity for reason enabled them to ‘assert [their] independence of natural influences’,8 and so to affirm their superiority both to external nature, and to the nature within themselves. The mathematical sublime dealt with the feeling that resulted when the imagination ran up against the incomprehensibly large in nature. Here again, the notion of the infinite or ‘absolutely large’ was not a property of any sensible object, but a concept lodged within the human mind. Both the mathematical and the dynamical sublime dealt with the discovery, within the self, of a moral vocation that set the human subject above and apart from the domain of brute nature.

Kant also commented on the temporal span of sublime experience. The sensation of the sublime, he wrote, ‘is a pleasure that arises only indirectly: it is produced by the feeling of a momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed immediately by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger.’9 Sublime emotion did not come upon the subject in an instantaneous surge; rather, it developed, it was phased and nuanced, unfolding over time. For Kant, sublime experience had a duration; it was understood as a process, hybrid by nature, and incorporating a number of different emotional registers. Typically, the trajectory of sublime experience begins with a loss of human agency, as the subject feels itself overpowered by a greater force. While Kant insisted on compensating for this loss by re-asserting the subject’s freedom from causal determination and its conformity with moral law, later romantic variants of the sublime welcomed the dissolution of self  – the ‘all-subsumption of the perceiving mind into the eternal and infinite’10 – as a kind of seduction.

The technological sublime, for its part, is understood by cultural historian David Nye as a distinctively modern, American formation, free of the cultural aspirations that motivated European variants of sublime experience, and more representative of the social and political priorities and assumptions of an emergent middle class. By the 1820s, Nye has written, an American version of the sublime, distinct from the European taste, had emerged. In place of an abstract philosophical idea, the American sublime was submerged in practice, as early settlers battled with a hostile landscape. Here, the sublime was not a disinterested aesthetic judgement, but took on a more vernacular form, shot through with social, political, religious, and technological values.

In its classical form, sublime experience is found only in nature and not in human conceits. For the American sensibility, however, technology and nature were equally potent sources of sublime experience. In transforming the American landscape from wilderness to civilisation, ‘both natural and man-made objects became part of the discourse of Manifest Destiny. Those who praised Niagara Falls and a new railroad did not see any inconsistency in embracing both.’11 Where the European Enlightenment regarded nature as something to be admired from a distance, early American settlers saw it as an obstacle to be overcome, and public works like dams, canals, and railway bridges, which demonstrated humanity’s control over natural forces, were powerful sources of sublime sensation. By the mid nineteenth century, natural splendour and technological accomplishment were firmly linked to each other, and to the ideology of republicanism, as individual experience of immensity and awe was transformed into a belief in national greatness.12

The technological sublime incorporated both mathematical and dynamical registers of its Kantian forebears, while collapsing some of the finer distinctions between the two. Although it was rooted in philosophical speculation, it lacked the precision of earlier forms, identifying sublime sensation with elevated emotion – typically, terror and awe – rather than scrutinising it in detail. Visual presentation – awe-inspiring size or complexity – came to replace self-reflection as the key dimension of sublime experience. Although emptied of some of the nuance that characterised earlier definitions, sublime sensation continued to be conceptualised as a heterogeneous process – an emotional state characterised by duration, instability, and transformation. Sublime affect was understood to begin with a disruption or discontinuity in sensory experience (Kant’s ‘momentary inhibition of the vital forces’) and developed as an amalgam of pleasure and pain, excitement and terror.

Notwithstanding these changes, contradiction, internal inconsistency, and the mixing of positive and negative affect were integral to the category of the technological sublime.For the Enlightenmentsubject,this internal inconsistency was primarily a consequence of the subject’s perceived relation to Nature as both a matrix from which it sprang, and as something radically other. At once sublime and dehumanising, technology came to occupy a similar place in the nineteenth-century imagination; perceived, Nye writes, as, ‘the corollary to an expansion of human power and yet simultaneously [as] evoking the sense of individual insignificance and powerlessness. … as an extension and affirmation of reason or as the expression of a crushing, omnipotent force outside the self.’13 For the Enlightenment imagination, nature was both a generative force and a state from which the subject must distance itself were it to be truly human. In nineteenth-century America, the measure of subjectivity shifts to the uncertain distinction between the human and the technological. Here, the subject’s distance from nature is assumed; it is humanity that serves as the generative matrix for technology, and humanity that is ultimately exceeded by its own creation.

Present-day formations of the sublime are routinely linked to the idea and appearance of technology. The Marxist literary critic and political theorist Fredric Jameson suggests that technology can only be theorised through the category of the sublime.14 Technology, he argues, represents contemporary society’s other; it is a shorthand for ‘that enormous properly human and anti-natural power of dead human labour stored up in our machinery – an alienated power … which turns back on and against us in unrecognisable forms and seems to constitute the massive dystopian horizon of our collective as well as our individual praxis.’15 Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe identifies the contemporary sublime with technology as both self and other, ‘terrifying in the limitless unknowability of its potential, while being entirely a product of knowledge … at once unbounded by the human, and, as knowledge, a trace of the human now out of the latter’s control.’16 Gilbert-Rolfe situates technology within the context of the post-human – a form of nonorganic being that bears no relation to nature and the natural.

As I posit it in the following discussion, however, the contemporary digital sublime is characterised not only by its association with technology, but by its proximity to an equally potent sort of twentieth-century affect: that of the banal.Banality is linked historically and semantically to boredom and ennui – the latter term originating in the twelfth century and originally used to express both petty vexation and profound sorrow.17 The category of the banal draws together these two antithetical meanings, combining trifling irritation with deeper spiritual distress. If boredom and ennui are emblems of early modernity, born out of shifting labour patterns and the novelty of unfilled time, the banal is both an engine and an effect of post-industrial culture, feeding on an endless cycle of unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire. Banality and the banal are descriptive of the ways we satisfy this desire, and of the objects and rituals with which we satisfy it. Where boredom and ennui are about too much time, banality is about too much stuff. As a cultural condition, it is the existential and material corollary of excess. Bound up with the material processes of commodity production, the banal goes hand in hand with superabundance, consumption, and waste.

In part, the alliance of the sublime and the banal is a consequence and a reflection of the ambivalent position of technology in contemporary culture. Technology is both a post-human other and a part of everyday life;18 it should come as no surprise then, to find that the banal and the sublime find their most fluent expression, and their closest association, in the allied categories of entertainment and the machine. The next section will examine the sort of circumstances under which this convergence takes place.

Gameplay: stuplimity or flow?

A video game itself represents an almost incomprehensibly complex technological achievement. In the past decade, the amount of work that goes into producing a commercial 3D game has increased by a factor of about eight.19 A typical first-person shooter or adventure game takes over two years of work to develop, with staff teams numbering in the hundreds, and budgets running well into the tens of millions of dollars. It involves the creation and animation of thousands of game assets – such as textures, models, environments, lines of dialogue, sounds, and animations – and the incorporation of increasingly complex core components or ‘engines’ that provide functionality within the game. The full extent of the code that goes into the average commercial 3D game is itself a kind of mathematical sublime – an ensemble well beyond the grasp of any single individual.

If the interface works properly, however, none of this complexity is perceived by the player. The extensive gameworlds, dazzling graphics, and sophisticated gameplay that players experience are a reduction and a representation of the technology’s inner workings. Even the game form itself is rarely available to the player in its entirety. Instead, it is encountered as a series of finite elements, experienced as ‘extended cycles of exhaustion and recovery’, as tasks are repeated over and over again in order to progress. Rather than a confrontation with the infinite, experience of the game form involves an extended and, at times, deeply tedious engagement with ‘the mechanical operations of a finite system’.20 This experience – one of aesthetic awe intertwined with boredom – has been termed ‘stuplimity’ by literary and cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, and in many respects, it is an apt description of the player’s encounter with the game form. As an affect, stuplimity ‘reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality, as does Kant’s mathematical sublime, yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition.’21

Repetition is the quintessence of gameplay. Time is erratically paced, only behaving in a reliably linear manner during cut scenes. The rest of the time, temporal flow is hampered by constant interruption of the game narrative as the player attempts and reattempts particular tasks or levels. Narrative moments are repeated over and over with minimal variation. This uncomfortable prolongation of simple actions is also characteristic of stuplime affect. Especially in action-based games, these stretches of suspended time are punctuated with intervals of frantic activity where boredom is replaced by shock: ‘high levels and steep gradients of neural firing’ interspersed with ‘low and continuous levels of neural firing.’22 Both states involve a kind of paralysis, an impedance of normal actions and responses.

Stuplime affect makes no claims for spiritual transcendence or ironic distance, relying instead on a paralytic tedium: ‘Instead of emerging from existential or phenomenological questions … this boredom resides in relentless attention to the infinite and small’.23 It proceeds differently than classical formations of the sublime – in stuplime experience, the initial dysphoric affect is not overcome by a competing one affirming the self’s superiority, or concluded in a euphoric dissolution of self. Instead, stuplimity draws together boredom and astonishment, it fuses awe to its opposite and holds these opposing affects in tension – an indefinite state without resolution.

If gameplay is indeed an instantiation of stuplime sensation, this suggests that we situate video games in the context of the general waning of affect that is said to characterise postmodern experience: a cultural moment where depth is replaced by surface and real affects by simulated ones.24 In the video game, technology is used superficially – not to control nature, but to simulate it. Nye uses the term ‘consumer sublime’ to describe situations such as these, where technology is divorced from use value and employed instead to enact fantasy. Places like Las Vegas and Disneyland, he argues, simulate the sublime as a form of diversion: ‘[their] epiphanies have no referents; they reveal not the existence of God, not the power of nature, not the majesty of human reason, but the titillation of representation itself.’25 Sublime affect, in this instance, does not act to reveal and affirm the boundaries of the self, nor does it act to situate the subject in relation to the radically other. Instead, it is treated as a product. Stuplime affect suggests a similarly shallow kind of engagement: rather than a challenge to subjective boundaries and an affirmation of the powers of reason, the subject experiences an attenuation of self in the guise of entertainment.

This line of argument is countered, however, by those who propose that the repetitive activity of gameplay brings about not boredom, but a semi-hypnotic state, described in recent theory as ‘flow’. Increasingly significant in game design and game theory, the concept of flow – a term originally developed by psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – characterises gameplay as a process of discovery, a meaningful creative activity. In Jenova Chen’s 2008 game flOwer, the player glides over a vast open world, transforming parched desert into a pastoral landscape. Gameplay is simple, requiring the player to do little more than move through the landscape and touch flower buds to make them bloom. flOwer offers a more tranquil experience than conventional video games, and foregrounds a growing tendency within game design – a concern not just with the visual, technical, and narrative elements of a game, but with the way it makes the player feel. Along with his 2006 release flOw, Chen’s games encourage the experience of flow states, rather than offering more commonplace experiences of competition, violence, and destruction.

Flow describes a state of total physical and psychic immersion in a task. Flow states occur in activities that offer clear goals and immediate feedback, and that present challenges without introducing undue frustration. In a flow state, the individual is fully focused on what they are doing – distractions are ignored, and the sense of time is distorted. The task at hand becomes autotelic – an end and a source of pleasure in itself – the fear of failure is reduced, and self-consciousness vanishes. As Csikszentmihalyi remarks, ‘we might even feel that we have stepped out of the boundaries of the ego and have become part, at least temporarily, of a larger entity.’26 Although flow states may not necessarily involve moment-by-moment mastery of a task, overall they indicate a correspondence between the user’s capabilities, and the chance of completing the task successfully. A flow state, in other words, is one of control.

Can stuplimity or states of flow be properly described as sublime affects? Flow states challenge subjective boundaries by encouraging a dissolution of self. However, they do this in a way that a way that suggests they are more properly associated with experiences of the beautiful than the sublime. For Kant, a beautiful object has a kind of purposiveness – it assists, from the side of the senses, in the formation of empirical concepts for the understanding. In this sense, the concept of flow, inasmuch as it proposes the game form as something that has been designed to assist human consciousness, offers a clear parallel with Kant’s notion of the beautiful.27 Perhaps more importantly, both stuplimity and flow imply uninterrupted ludic activity in which the technology itself – software and interface – disappears into functionality, and in which the merger between player, interface, and game content appears seamless. In neither case is the technology itself the direct source of the affective charge – instead, the latter is an effect of the gameplay experience. If we are to understand sublime affect in the ecological terms outlined earlier, then we need to look for it somewhere else – at those points in gameplay where the player becomes aware of the technology that lies beneath the game form, and where the consequences of this encounter present a challenge to the self.

Failure events and the loss of the self

Neither stuplimity nor flow can properly be described as experiences of the technological sublime. The latter, I suggest, is a function of a collapse of control and meaning, and it is felt when gameplay is brought to an abrupt halt by a failure of the interface. Failure events in video games can take the form of minor hardware malfunctions like bugs, glitches, slow running, poorly designed AIs, and so on. Such ‘flow entropies’28 may disturb a flow state temporarily; more serious flaws on a macro level  (defective core mechanics, plot arrangement, level of difficulty and progression) may mean a game simply fails to engage the player. Other, more catastrophic failures like crashes, random memory corruption, or irrecoverable hardware failure, however, bring about a different and more serious kind of breakdown.

Catastrophic failure events involve a loss of control and meaning and a consequent loss of self. Playing a video game involves a kind of Faustian bargain with the technology, a handing-over of real-world agency in exchange for agency within the gameworld. We exist in reduced form in the gameworld, our senses dulled, our choices and actions limited, and we are bound to the terms of engagement of the interface as a visual system and a material artefact. In exchange, the game offers a different reality, one of spectacular scenography, enhanced abilities, and more or less eternal life. The job of the interface is to maintain this alternate reality by supporting a perceptually coherent gameworld. A properly functioning interface ‘humanises’ the technology, acting as an extension of the body and enabling the technology to function as an affirmation of reason. It sustains a subjectivity that is ‘posthuman’ in Hayles’s sense of the term: that of a subject that is seamlessly articulated with an intelligent machine.29

When the interface fails, however, the envelope of perceptual experience is ruptured, and the subject is disabled and dispersed – no longer part of the gameworld, its virtual capabilities have no meaning and no effect in a real-world context. Such events shatter the bond between player and technology, disrupting the flow of the game, leaving the gamer powerless, and foregrounding the complexity of the underlying technology, its distance from the human. The sensation experienced by the gamer at this point is not a logical, reasoned perception. This initial affective charge is a visceral response that exceeds the powers of reason – an estimation of magnitude through intuition, a subjective rather than an objective determination. In place of a meaningful game form, the player is confronted by an inexpressive intelligence, a pure, depersonalised power, a technological other. Failure events, in other words, introduce a sense of the incommensurability of technology with the subject’s own powers of reason.

In a failure event, the unimaginably large, extroverted, operatic sublime – which many video games attempt to simulate visually – is replaced by an unimaginably complex ‘introverted’ sublime that is incapable of presentation to the senses. Here, sublime sensation incorporates some of the complexity to be found in Kant’s use of the term:it is not the object that is the source of sublime sensation, but our inability to comprehend its inner workings. Sublime sensation is both mathematical (in the sense of the extent of code) and dynamic (in the sense of the dissolution of self in the face of a ‘higher power’). Here, however, the terms of the dynamical sublime are inverted in a manner similar to that of the American technological sublime – nature, rather than a generative matrix, is staged as a representation emerging from a matrix of data. In a further reversal, the realism of this representation of nature is typically measured against a theatrical and/or filmic paradigm.

Earlier formations of the sublime resolved the negative affects that initiated the process of sublime sensation by compensating with various forms of affirmation – of the superiority of the self, of a welcome dissolution, or of a realisation of the power of humanity to subjugate nature. As it is experienced in here, however, the initial disruption of perception is followed by a breakdown of meaning that is neither relieved nor overcome. In failure events, both the game and the technologically enabled ‘post-human’ self cease to exist as such. Instead, the now-powerless subject is confronted with a technological artefact – a featureless surface with no relationship to the unimaginably complex workings that it conceals. Contemporary technology lacks the capacity for representation that allowed nineteenth-century artefacts to function as sources of awe in and of themselves. Contemporary technologies are throwaway objects destined for obsolescence, their production driven less by a wish to celebrate human ingenuity than by the late capitalist imperative of novelty and innovation. They are designed not to signify, but to disappear into functionality; the computer’s outer shell, as Jameson argues, ‘has no emblematic or visual power.’30 Here, the terms of the technological sublime are, ‘blank and static activity, intelligence without gestural expression, encoding without inflection or irregularity, pure measurement, and pure power. It is found in machines which resist personification but nonetheless interact with the human.’31

Once the functional bond – the interface – between the subject and the game is broken, the subject experiences a momentary glimpse of technology as an inhuman other. At the same time, however, the subject is faced with a sense presentation, which demonstrates neither awesome power nor infinite magnitude. Here, the process of sublime experience is emptied of the transcendence that the term originally comprised; the initial glimpse of technology-as-other is followed by nothing more elevating than frustration. Frustration is an emotional state that is born out of the tedium of the everyday; it signals a kind of brute return to a world where bodies and artefacts share in a mute and mundane – but fundamentally dissimilar – materiality. As a source of frustration, the video game is no longer the ‘locus of a being with which humans interface’32 but a consumer object embedded in daily life, and as resistant to meaning as any other mass-produced artefact. The dissolution of the technologically enabled self is both catastrophic and utterly banal: marked by a profound sense of rupture and loss, situated in the mundane reality of the post-human everyday.

As sociologist Bruno Latour, philosopher Andy Clark,33 and others have argued, the empire of the human has always been implicated with that of technology. Technological artefacts have evolved alongside the human brain, and have been ‘enrolled’ into cognition by human subjects throughout history, contributing in an active way to the processes of consciousness. Latour views technology as a mode of existence, a ‘particular form of the exploration of being.’34 Nonetheless, we live in a time when the boundaries between the human and the technological are becoming less and less distinct. Gamers often speak of a sense of being completely at one with the technology; as such interfaces grow more sophisticated and more ubiquitous, this kind of fluid union with complex digital machines will become a commonplace. And as we incorporate ourselves more and more completely into the technologies we use, the consequences of their failure become more personal, more potentially detrimental to our sense of self.

Ngai argues that the sublime and the banal are collapsed into a single sensation, that of ‘stuplimity’.In the case of the technological sublime, however, these two affects are not collapsed into one another but continue to exist, in tension, as discrete categories. The experience of the contemporary technological sublime, as it is outlined above, depends upon a merger with the artefact that can be described as ‘post-human’ in Hayles’s sense of the term – a seamless bond between the technology and user. It is also contingent upon the breaching of this bond, and a return of the technology to the realm of the banal. Mutually embedded in one another but held apart – the banality of the artefact as a mass-produced consumer object, and the sublimity of its distance from the human – the sublime and the banal are linked here not by their essential nature, but their existence as effects of capital.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe writes that ‘the sublime becomes identified with the idea and image of technology … at the point … where the technological is seen to have become the origin of … a kind of thought and a kind of body which wasn’t there before’ … and that this identification cannot take place outside of the context of capitalism as ‘the surprised beneficiary of technological production at the same time that it’s the source.’35 It is clear that here we are dealing with a subtly different kind of post-human than that described by Hayles, who conceptualises the post-human as a condition in which embodiment is downplayed in the constitution of the human subject. For Gilbert-Rolfe, the post-human describes a condition where technological objects ‘have achieved a certain distance from their original identity as extensions of the body and in that invent other bodies which become models for the (model) human body.’36 Here, embodiment is not a supplement, but an effect of a throwaway technology. In and of themselves, contemporary electronic artefacts are both impenetrable and ephemeral – the fruits of human labour and ingenuity deployed in the form of aesthetic objects designed to entertain, and then to be discarded.

See also