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.
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.
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.
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.’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
(Video 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.
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
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.