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Keep Liking What I Don't Like: Art, Kitsch, and Video Games

A comic in which one person is watching sports, a second starts mocking this, and the first covers the second's mouth and says, 'Let people enjoy things.'

https://www.instagram.com/p/BQJRw2ygflf/

Oh no! You just found out that somebody likes a thing you don’t like. What do you do?

If your answer is “keep my mouth shut so they can keep enjoying the thing even though I know it’s trash,” then I congratulate you for at least mastering the first step of basic civility. But there’s another step beyond that one: open-mindedness. It’s recognizing that you almost certainly don’t know that the thing is trash. It’s genuinely seeking to understand what it is that people enjoy about the thing. And if you master this step too, your life can be much richer.

I’m going to explain why this is the case, but first I need to talk about kitsch for a minute - after all, “kitsch” is practically shorthand for “art only liked by people with worse taste than me.”

Kitsch is a category of art designed to appeal to mainstream audiences rather than those with refined tastes. If so-called “high art” is one end of a spectrum, kitsch is the other end. Think Dogs Playing Poker as opposed to Guernica, or Candy Crush Saga as opposed to Journey.

Kitsch has been defined multiple ways, but to me the most useful framing is from Tomáš Kulka’s book Kitsch and Art. Kulka defines kitsch as art with three properties: it “depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions” and which are “instantly and effortlessly identifiable”, presented in a way that does not “enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.”

Kitsch, then, is powered by familiarity. It delivers an emotional payload by portraying familiar subjects in a familiar way.

A painting of a 1940s American family around a dinner table apparently about to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast.

Freedom from Want, a 1943 painting by Norman Rockwell, depicts a traditional American holiday dinner.

“Kitsch” is often used as a derogatory term, but there’s no reason for this to be a value judgment. All art has its audience and while some people seek out innovation, others enjoy the familiar. For convenience and clarity, I’m going to borrow names for these groups from Tadhg Kelly, who uses Harry Potter terms and labels them “magicals” and “muggles”:

“In almost every market, there are those who explore and those who don’t. Those who want to be informed, and those who don’t care. Those who avidly chase after the new thing, and those who like the old thing which they understand.

The first group are magicals: the engaged and passionate fans who devote time and interest to the market. The second group are muggles, who may be passingly familiar with the market but come with their own expectations that they aren’t motivated to change.”
—Tadhg Kelly, Muggles [Casual and Social Gamers]

Kelly summarizes magicals as “open to change” while muggles are “expectant of satisfaction” (and goes into many specific examples). I like to think of it as playfulness versus goal-orientation. Suppose you want a cup of coffee - do you want to try out new and unusual ways of preparing coffee to see what exciting and surprising things can be done with beans these days (magical)? Or do you just want a dose of caffeine without having to put too much time and thought into it so you can get on with your day (muggle)? Alternatively, suppose you’re picking a game to play - do you want to experience an emotionally-mature story or master innovative mechanics (magical)? Or do you just want to turn your brain off for a while with a well-understood activity (muggle)?

Magicals and muggles can respond very differently to a given work, which goes a long way to explain why critics might pan something that the public loves or vice versa. Most people sufficiently interested in and knowledgeable about films, books, games, etc. to be able to review them are magicals. To make a living writing about these works they must consume a near-constant stream of them, heightening the familiarity of kitsch and the refreshment of the avant-garde. While there are still certainly critics who value polished execution over innovation, for many it’s worth putting up with a lot of frustration or disorientation to see something new. And that’s fine, but there’s a risk of forgetting that enjoyment of novelty is a factor of the audience rather than proof of inherent quality of the work.

Movie poster for 'The Cabin in the Woods'

“Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s [2012 film] The Cabin In The Woods [is] designed to look like a cliched horror movie from the outside but hides a series of game changing plot twists inside. What those twists add up to feels an awful lot like an angry, resentful slap to the face of the audience itself. . . .

[The film implies that horror movie audiences are] not just screaming for blood, but demanding that it be the same blood. They want formula. They expect cliché. They want the comfort of familiarity, to see the same basic thing (telling the same basic story and reinforcing the same basic message) over and over with as few surprises as possible. . . .

Cabin ultimately stretches that particular metaphor to the breaking point. . . . It’s a feast for discerning film geeks and horror buffs alike, but it’s also the sort of lunacy that’s bound to make less adventurous filmgoers confused or even angry. . . . ‘I didn’t know it was gonna be all weird like that!’ raged one theatergoer to her partners at one of my (four, so far) viewings of the film. ‘That was stupid! Go get our money back!’ grumbled another, evidently unaware of how perfectly they were making the film’s point for it.”
—Bob Chipman, Re-Take The Cabin

It’s not clear how Chipman felt about those other audience members (or if he still feels that way - this review is more than six and a half years old). But it is clear how differently the film landed for him and for them.

When it comes to movies, Chipman is a magical - his handle is even “MovieBob”. As such, he enjoyed The Cabin in the Woods as a commentary on horror films. It didn’t bother him that the film was “designed to look like a cliched horror movie” but was actually something quite different - after all, he was going to see and review it regardless and the surprises meant for a memorably different experience and plenty to write about.

The audience members Chipman quoted were clearly muggles. They were looking for kitsch. They expected a standard horror movie as implicitly promised by the film’s marketing, spent time and money to see it, and in exchange received something that was not only very different from what they thought they were paying for but which actually insulted them for wanting it at all.

It’s easy for a magical to see these frustrated muggles living up to exactly what the film implies about them. It’s easy to read them as missing the point due to lack of sophistication and having tastes too unrefined to enjoy a very clever film. But the fact is that they have been misled into spending money on something they didn’t want - and there was nothing wrong with what they did want.

Imagine that after a long day you stop into a restaurant and order a familiar dish. Halfway through eating it, you realize it somehow has a tennis shoe baked in. Shocked, you demand an explanation - and it turns out that you’ve accidentally found yourself in an experimental restaurant designed to change the way you think about the commodification of comfort food. All you wanted was to relax with a nice warm meal, and that’s what you - quite reasonably - thought you were paying for, but that’s not what you got.

Casserole with a shoe sticking out of it

It would be totally reasonable to be upset in this situation, to feel misled and even demand your money back. It would be infuriating to be mocked for being too unsophisticated to appreciate the dish’s message or to be told you were proving the restaurant’s point for them. The issue isn’t whether you’re capable of enjoying playful irony and deconstruction - that’s not what you paid for in this particular transaction. On this subject, in this moment, you were a muggle seeking kitsch.

As Kelly points out in defining muggles and magicals, everyone is both a muggle and a magical - and in fact, we are all mostly muggle. Those of us who take pride in being magicals in some subjects would do well to remember that we are muggles in the vast majority of subjects that exist.

“As children we tend to have a curiosity about everything, but by the time we are a few years into the working world our curiosity has usually zeroed in on a few subjects. . . . Most of the people reading this blog are passionately interested in video games but have very little to say on the subject of modern art. Many geeks are proud of their cooking, but have zero interest in fashion. You may well be an art muggle, but a sports magical, inquisitive about pottery yet indifferent to soap operas. In short, it seems that we are built to specialise rather than generalise.”
—Tadhg Kelly, Muggles [Casual and Social Gamers]

Looking down on someone who’s a muggle in an area in which you are a magical is absurd. It just means they have placed their limited time and attention in a different place than you - almost certainly there are other subjects in which your tastes would seem dreadfully kitschy to them, in which you are the muggle and they are the magical.

You may be tempted to argue that your chosen subjects are deeper and more interesting, thus revealing your superior tastes. But of course the things you’re invested in seem more interesting to you. Whatever you look at closely seems deep, and you can’t possibly see beyond the surface of anything you only glance at. If you don’t seek out news, commentary, or analysis on a subject, the only things you’ll hear about are the ones that are so popular or have such a strong marketing push behind them that you can’t avoid hearing about them. Kitsch is the only thing that you’re likely to see without even looking for it, so anything you aren’t paying attention to will look like kitsch. It’s very easy to trick yourself into believing that justifies your lack of attention.

“I believe books and films are better mediums [than video games], and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.”
—Roger Ebert, A Buddhist walks into a chat room …

I fell into this trap with licensed sports games. I’ve never paid attention to them, so only the most mass-market titles make any sort of impression on me at all - and by definition, these are the kitschiest possible works in this category. For years, I only heard about Madden NFL, a famously stagnant franchise coasting on an exclusive license allowing it to put out new full-price titles every year that are essentially just roster updates. So that’s what licensed sports games were to me, and there was no reason to pay them any further attention.

Cover art for NBA 2K14 game

Then, when NBA 2K14 went free on PlayStation Plus, I found out it had narrative and role-playing elements. I was blown away watching Senpai-chan play through a post-game press conference in the My Career mode making dialog choices that separately influenced how teammates and fans felt about the player character. I was amazed that a licensed sports game would have so much more depth and context than the pickup games of NBA Jam I’d played as a child.

But then I realized - why should that be amazing? Professional sports are a big deal, with huge diverse fanbases that of course would overlap extensively with video game fans. Why wouldn’t their licensed games grow and innovate? How arrogant had it been for me to assume that Madden told me all I needed to know to judge an entire genre - and in fact, how arrogant was it for me to assume I knew enough even to judge Madden without playing a single game in the series? After all, what I’d heard about Madden was just the shallowest, most digestible, easiest to repeat take on the franchise. The snappiest sound bite is never the most accurate summation. How could I hear someone complain about Madden’s annualization and decide I knew everything I needed to?

Because I was ignorant of whatever depth and innovation was there, I concluded there wasn’t any worth looking for. It’s as if I had closed my eyes and then decided that since I saw nothing, there was nothing to see, and thus no point in opening my eyes. I dismissed players of licensed sports games as gaming muggles, when in fact I was a muggle-in-denial about sports games!

I try to remember this lesson and avoid dismissing that which I do not understand. If something is popular, there’s probably a reason for it - depth and nuance that may not be immediately obvious to an outsider muggle. I try to remember how I feel when I see someone offhandedly dismiss as shallow and samey entire categories of media or experiences that I know to be interesting and varied.

Cat and Girl comic about how 'Connoisseurship makes anything interesting.'

https://catandgirl.com/cat-and-girl-are-relative/

None of us have the time to take a close look at everything. It’s totally reasonable to extrapolate from limited information when guessing whether something is aligned enough to your own tastes to be worth your time. (I, for example, plan to continue not playing Madden.) But it’s not reasonable to conclude that something you’ve skipped is shallow or valueless or that the people who do enjoy it are intellectually lazy or artistically crass. Every time I have taken a closer look at something I’d previously chosen to ignore, I find compelling depth.

“My closest friend, my cousin Kristina, has been perhaps the most hostile towards my affection for video games. . . . She thought I was wasting my life in the video games industry. . . . One night I decided I had built enough trust with Kristina to recommend my favourite game, Skyrim. She googled it and texted me back something like, ‘Uhhhhh I don’t know why you think I would play this. I don’t watch Game of Thrones. I don’t like swords. I don’t like fighting. I don’t like dragons.” I told her she would hate the first bit with the dragon but just to get through it and then give it a chance and get back to me with her thoughts. . . . Three weeks later my phone rang. . . .I answered, and Kristina was crying.

She said to me, ‘Lydia died’. . . . She was talking about the character in Skyrim. For three weeks she had been playing Skyrim obsessively. And now she’d accidentally killed Lydia and she didn’t have a recent save game.

Kristina said to me through her tears that she didn’t realize that you could develop an emotional attachment to a character in a video game. She didn’t realize that you could create your character and exist as a version of yourself in a world full of characters whom you care about. I had never realized that she didn’t know this, because I knew this so deeply. She said to me that for all these years, it wasn’t that she didn’t like video games, it was that she didn’t know what they were.”
—Brie Code, Video Games Are Boring

When you don’t see the appeal in something that other people enjoy, your default assumption should be that you haven’t looked closely enough. Mocking that which you don’t understand reveals only your own willful ignorance, but you can still do one better than keeping your mouth shut. Engage with curiosity, not disdain. Ask why they like it, and then really listen. Keep an open mind and find out what makes it great. You’ll be surprised what you learn - and what new things you find to enrich your life or even fall in love with.