An Invisible Art

Melbourne-based studio Kumobious’s recent iPhone game Duet is deceptively simple. Tapping on the left or the right sides of the screen spins a circle at the bottom of the screen clockwise or anti-clockwise, rotating two diametrically opposed beads.

The player must spin this circle to-and-fro to weave the beads through a cascading barrage of squares and rectangles. A single collision rewinds time to the start of the stage; the player repeats the stage over and over, memorising the patterns, until they find the path through.

“The path” is paramount. See, the pleasure of playing Duet is not in any of the objects on the screen, but in invisible trajectories and paths between them. Never visible to their eye, the player nevertheless begins to “see” curving lines up and down the phone screen. The cascading shapes and the spinning circle become not objects in themselves but potentialities, trajectories. Turn this shape in that direction to paint a trajectory forward through time that doesn’t collide with that trajectory.

It’s how we engage with most videogames. We trace potential actions; we become computer-like ourselves as we process what the screen shows us and output commands through our fingers. To be certain, the representations on the screen and in our ears are fundamental to videogame play, but it’s the dance between what we see and hear and what we do with our fingers that is the ephemera we evoke when we talk about “gameplay”.

Which means that, just as Scott McCloud claims of comics in his book Understanding Comics, videogames are an art as invisible as they are visible, a dance of the seen (and heard) and the unseen (and unheard). To talk about videogames critically is to try to pin down something that only exists in the moment of its utterance, in the moment of play. Perhaps, not dissimilar from the challenges of communicating the experience of a live theatre performance to someone that wasn’t there.

We could extend this notion of an invisible art in other directions. We could discuss how, despite their explosive financial success for decades now, videogames still struggle to obtain some kind of broader cultural legitimacy (there’s all kinds of discussions to be hard around this topic: the conservative definitions of those who get to decide what “art” means; the elitist and misogynistic scenes that still dominant large swathes of videogame culture; the dangers of marginalising less “arty” videogames in a blind hunger to prove games actually are art).

The two invisibilities are intertwined, I think. It’s difficult to “get” videogames if you haven’t traced those invisible trajectories of beads weaving around rectangles yourself.

Then there is a third invisibility: videogame criticism. If videogames are an invisible art, then videogame criticism is the shadow cast by a pane of glass. It’s become standard to start any new column that plans to discuss videogames for a broader audience with the claim that, until now, there has been a lack of intelligent writing around videogames. You are meant to point to your credentials as a Life Long Gamer and write a manifesto-like claim that you will fix how we write about games.

I plan to make no such claim. As I wrote for The New Statesman last year after Helen Lewis bemoaned the dearth of good games writing, videogame criticism is, I think, one of the most exciting mediums of writing at present. Both beyond and within traditional, consumer-orientated games journalism, a rich discourse around the art and culture of gaming is emerging.

There are conversations on form, representation, gender, violence, genre. Just as there’s a burgeoning movement of DIY and amateur developers pushing the videogame form in all directions, there are people experimenting with the form of writing about games. From traditional long-form features to sprawling memoirs to play diaries to essays. Writers like Cara Ellison, MammonMachine, Tim Rogers, Mattie Brice, Leigh Alexander, and countless others are constantly challenging what it means to write about videogames through their own explorations of writing forms.

The problem isn’t that there is no videogame criticism, it’s that most people don’t know where to find it. Most of it happens on blogs or exclusively games-focused websites or among the fleeting ephemera of Twitter.

With Touch/Screen, I want to make the invisible visible. I want to draw attention to the current cultural and critical conversations in and around games. I want to talk about games, and I want to talk about talking about games.

Like the Duet player, I want to trace the trajectories for you to follow, both within games and around them. It’s an exciting time to be playing games, and it is an even more exciting time to be writing and reading about them.