topical media & game development

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development(s) -- philosophy and beyond

In teaching multimedia & game devlopment I sometimes point out to my students what the diffence is between an artist, an engineer and a (real) scientist. In a nutshell:


Leaving aside whether computer science is a science, or for that matter what role the computer plays in it, such a comparison is worthwhile, to make clear the mixture of abilities and skills that a multimedia student must develop. Not an essential skill, or even required background, some knowledge of the history of thought is recommended. However, philosophy is not a very popular subject, and many seem to easily do away with philosophical abstractions and apparently tedious theory, even though these same philosophical abstractions may provide better understanding of the forces that are at work.

Concluding our manuscript, we will in this section briefly trace the evolution of the notion of aesthetics to our current day understanding, starting with the idealist transcendental conception of aesthetics as the abstract a priori form of experience, ending with semiotic theory that emphasizes the social determinants of aesthetic experience. Our discussion, is based on our studies in the past,  [Creativity], almost forgotten. The outline given below includes the references to the material we originally studied. However, for reference, links to relevant online material are also included.


  1. transcendental -- abstract form of experience,  [Kritik]
  2. speculative -- criteria for beauty,  [Urteil]
  3. phenomenological -- self-conscious subjectivity,  [Phenomenology]
  4. psychoanalytical -- sub-conscious meaning,  [Witz]
  5. pragmatical -- art as experience,  [Pragmatics]
  6. hermeneutical -- understanding of the senses,  [Hermeneutics]
  7. semiotics -- social construction of meaning,  [Semiotics]
To my mind, the epistemological understanding of aesthetics as the pure form of sensuousness, as expressed in  [Kritik], is most fundamental in understanding the notion of aesthetics in the context of interactive systems, since it allows us to characterize the dimensions of sensuous awareness delimiting our experience of art, architecture and interactive systems. The epistemological or transcendental characterization of aesthetics describes, in other words, the a priori principles of sensuousness, that determine our perception of reality, by imposing organisation and form on the chaotic multitude of appearances. As phrased in  [Kritik], appearances consist of material, which is a posteriori given, and form, determined by the a priori nature of our mind.

As dimensions of pure sensuousness, or aesthetic awareness, Kant distinguishes between space and time. In  [Urteil], the notion of aesthetic judgement is introduced. Our ability for aesthetic awareness allows us to recognize and appreciate beauty, however Kant emphasizes that any attempt to conceptualize the judgement of beauty is doomed to fail, or may at best be determined empirically, in an ad hoc manner.

Later thinkers in the idealist school took over Kants conception of aesthetic awareness as the receptive side of our mind, in search for knowledge, and emphasized the relation between truth and beauty,  [Erziehung]. In particular  [Phenomenology] characterized beauty as the sensuous presence of Idea, and he identifies our need for truth and beauty with the intrinsic movement of self-consciousness. In other words, aesthetic awareness in not a dis-interested a priori ability that allows us to organise our perceptions and to recognize and appreciate pure form, rather it is intentional and through self-reflection subject to recurrent improvement and change, continuously looking for truth and beauty, that is meaning. We may note here that psychoanalytic theory has contributed to understanding the hidden dimensions of meaning,  [Witz].

Hegels conception of aesthetic awareness is surprisingly close to the idea of pragmatic aesthetics as expressed by  [Pragmatics], a representative of the anglo-saxon school of empiricist philosophy which is in many ways irreconcilable with the German idealist/phenomenologist school of thinking. Essential in Dewey's thinking is the notion of qualitative immediacy and the unification of awareness and judgement in the experience of art, where Dewey stresses the re-creating role of the subject/recipient in experiencing art. In this way, the experience of art is instrumental, according to Dewey, to reconcile the individual with his environment.

A similar concern with the existential role of the experience of art, and consequently aesthetic awareness, may be found in hermeneutic thinking of the 20th century, where for example  [Hermeneutics] speaks of beauty bridging the gap between the ideal and reality. However, by that time art is no longer pure but must as aesthetic art be appreciated with a certain degree of distance, that is its judgement is no longer direct, governed by pure sensuousness, but regulated by reflection and to a certain extent disciplined appreciation. This position may, however, be attributed to the role of the arts in the 19th and 20th century, and even, as argumented by  [VirtualArt], be seen as an opposition to the mass media of the 19th century, which strived for direct sensuous immersion, for example in life-like panoramas.

The influence of convention and social context has been studied in semiotic theory,  [Semiotics], and in our time, where we are concerned with the influence of the old and new media, and media literacy is (again) one of the urgent topics on our political agenda, the relation between sensuousness and reflection is again of interest. We believe that the semiotic perspective is of particular importance for the design of interactive systems. Nevertheless, to summarize this section, for our epistemological understanding of aesthetics the original notion of sensuousness as the receptive side of our faculty of knowledge still seems to provide a good starting point. However, both an analytic view of aesthetic awareness, which for example forces us to think about the difference between aesthetic experience and a drug-induced state of mind,  [Aesthetics], and a recognition of the moral dimension of beauty,  [Meditations], may serve us in establishing the value of aesthetics for the design and appreciation of interactive systems.

Assuming a notion of aesthetics as a logic of sensibility, we may, in summary, distinguish between three dimensions of form, extending Kant's original proposal, as indicated below:

dimensions of aesthetic awareness

  • spatial -- topological relations, layout of image
  • temporal -- order, rhythm, structure
  • dynamic -- interaction, reflection, involvement
The dimension of dynamics clearly is the great unknown, and more in particular it is the dimension we have to explore in the context of interactive systems, not in isolation but in relation to the other dimensions, not so much to establish definite criteria, but to understand the forces at work, or in other words the relevant parameters of design.  [Imagination] gives an existential foundation for the dimension of dynamics, by observing that the human body is instrumental in gaining awareness, as the centre of both obscurity and reflection from which consciousness emerges, through selection and action.

It is in the existential dimension of aesthetic awareness that we come most close to the experience of the new digital artefacts, since it concerns both involvement and human action. Interestingly, and in apparent contradiction with  [Presence], cited previously, to establish a foundation for the aesthetics of interactive systems  [Interaction] seek refuge with pragmatist aesthetics as it promotes aesthetics of use rather than aesthetics of appearance. Again, although we agree with the gist of  [Interaction], we wish to emphasize that the contribution of pragmatist aesthetics is not its focus on use, but the role of experience in understanding and appreciating aesthetic artefacts, that is the active role of the subject in becoming aware of its meaning.

(C) Æliens 04/09/2009

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