For our first session, my professor and I discussed Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” While I’m still struggling to find a voice for this blog, please humor me with five thoughts that crossed my mind as I re-visited this text. First, do video games have an aura?
For Benjamin, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (38). The authenticity of a work is entirely dependent upon its origination; this makes perfect sense. Original works, the true originals at least, have a distinct uniqueness to them that Benjamin refers to as the “aura” of the work. However, modern video games ostensibly have no “original” form—as in, there is no one true copy of the video game itself.
What we players get instead is a copy of the work for our own enjoyment, to play at our leisure. Although new historicists and many others can obviously argue the game does have its own place in time (just look at any modern shoot’em-up), there is no modern concept of the “original” in video games anymore—but there used to be.
Take the classic arcade cabinets of the Golden Age: Space Invaders (1978), Pac-Man (1980), Centipede (1981), Donkey Kong (1981), and that’s naming only a few. Each of these games had hundreds of game cabinets produced and probably nearly as many refurbished at this point. However, did these classic games emit an aura in the way Benjamin suggests a work of art should? Do they still?
It’s hard to say. I know, that’s a cop-out answer. Historically, video games, like film, began as a social and communal act. Friends would gather at an arcade and consume the games just like the machines were consuming their pocket change—quickly, with an insatiable hunger. The cabinets themselves were viewed as entertainment, much like modern video games. But these cabinets offered the unique experience of interactively creating individual entertainment within a community. Each game had its own aura; players developed preferences between dodging barrels and shooting centipedes (or that damn spider, I hate that spider). Players and non-players enjoyed the games in multitudes of venues and were regularly enthralled with the technology in front of them.
Contrary to Benjamin’s claim that “by making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence,” mechanically reproducing more cabinets only enhanced the game’s experience because it opened it up to a larger audience. Although this is typically regarded as a positive aspect of mechanical reproduction, it does seem to infringe upon the aura of the original in some regards. But here’s the beautiful thing about video games—the originals are never truly available for the public, so it is never threatened by reproduction; rather, mechanical reproduction enhances it because more people can experience it.
The aura of the game, unlike other media, exists in the idea of the individual game, rather than the game itself. This is unlike the artworks Benjamin considered, but if the aura rested with the original game itself, it’d be a buggy mess that no one could make sense of. Instead, the aura rests within the player’s experience of the game and interactively making the events unfold in the final, finished version that is immediately distributed to the public. As a twenty-something that was born after the Golden Age of arcade games, I still feel giddy and excited when I walk into my local arcade and stand in front of that Centipede machine, which is nestled between both Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. This is exactly why each of the big game companies offers a backlog of the classics for digital download (another form of mechanical reproduction, somewhat unique to video games, that we’ll discuss in part two). This is exactly why used game stores can still exist. Players love the experience of these classics, of actually playing them.