Playing Bauhaus – Modernist Utopia in Video Game Design and Theory

(Originally presented as an essay for the MA Digital Games Design course at The Surrey Institute of Art & Design.)


‘Videogames will shape the worlds we will all inhabit tomorrow.'

Steven Poole (2000:241).

Originally from the book Trigger Happy – The Inner Life of Videogames (Poole, 2000), the quotation above summarizes a great deal of what this essay is about: the similarities between the modernist discourse and the positions adopted by videogame theorists and designers today, along with possible causes and implications of what seems to be a nostalgic take on the modernist's ideals. In that single sentence, Poole makes explicit the ambition of using technologically fuelled design to positively change society in a modern, utopian fashion; but also leaves space for at least one postmodern aspect of the medium, for it's about the worlds , and not just a single one, that it will help to build.

While being reinforced by the work of several theorists and practitioners, the basis of this comparison will be Paul Greenhalgh's twelve principles of modernism as defined in his introduction to Modernism in Design (Greenhalgh, 1990). For the sake of clarity, those twelve principles will be recombined into six groups of two. The brief analysis of videogame titles and texts on the subject will also help to illustrate some of the arguments, by demonstrating how a modernist-like agenda is built into both theory and design of videogames. However, before engaging into this analogy, another one will occur – even if in more general lines: the one between the historical contexts where modernism and current game studies took (and take) place.

Even if different modernist schools often disagreed and discussed between themselves about particular issues, they still had a common set of principles guiding them in a similar direction (Greenhalgh, 1990:6). While this essay deals with ‘general game studies', the term ‘ludology' will also be used. Employed for the first time by videogame theorist Gonzalo Frasca to describe the ‘ yet non-existent ‘discipline that studies game and play activities'' (Frasca, 1999), ludology is the dominant division of video game studies, being the most prominent works and researchers of this area related to it or its principles – in a similar way of the modernists.

Finally, while I refer to ‘the modernists' primarily as the groups located in the first half of the twentieth century, the ideals of the philosophers of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, for their modernist nature, will be eventually used for comparisons.

(Fig. 1: Pac-Mondrian – a game that relates modernism to ‘classic' game design)

Historical Contexts

Avoiding the cliché that history repeats itself, common characteristics of the Post-First World War and the late 1990's / early 2000's could indicate the potential of a return, or a rereading, of modernism during the latest period. Both periods share aspects such as: a scenario of international turbulence; emergence of new technologies, new production paradigms and significant boost in the globalization process. Now and then, the last characteristic is closely related to the other two. Much like after the First World War, which anticipated the rise of the modernists, the current international scenario struggles with the conflict between transnational organisms and nation-state identities – both of them being, at the same time, weakened and strengthen in the process (McGrew, 1992:82).

The birth of new technologies and production systems during both periods might also be taken in consideration: the modernist project was interested in using new technology and materials to make life better, fighting the discomfort caused by a certain lifestyle using the technology made possible by it. The same apply to videogame design, as it goes beyond mere entertainment. Quoting Steven Poole: ‘videogames are clearly part of a project that began more than a century ago, and whose aim was to domesticise the machine' ( Poole , 2000:171). Then, it was an adaptation needed to go trough out the age of industrialism and fordism. Now, the world may face a similar moment, as it goes trough a ‘transitional period - one that is taking us beyond industrialism' (Allen, 1992:171). If this transition signifies either a break or a continuation of traditional forms of industrialism is still an open debate, but it will certainly take us to ‘a less tangible form of economic power organized around the 'clean' technologies of information and microelectronics' (Allen, 1992:171). Some downsides of industrialization, such as the stress caused by working conditions (at least for great part of the workforce), will not be solved, leaving similar problems as the ones faced by the modernists in their attempt to make modern life better.

Finally, the process of globalization, empowered by the aforementioned new technologies and the means to produce them, makes international boundaries blurry. So now, as in the Post-First World War period, the ‘growing recognition (…) that planet earth is a single 'place' has reawakened intellectual interest in the Enlightenment' (McGrew, 1992). Thus, the hope of finding a universal solution that could be employed to solve all sorts of transnational problems.

Postmodern aspects of Videogames

It might be safe to conclude now that, in more than a way, both historical periods are quite similar to each other. However, videogames also have a postmodern nature that cannot be disregarded. Videogames are made of made-up, hyper-real worlds with all kinds of juxtapositions – including their fusion (and confusion) with the real world. A good example of this would be a game like Ultima Online (Fig.2), a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (or MMORPG, for short). As many others of its kind, Ultima Online allows the player to engage in an open-ended world with thousands of other players at the same time. As often happens with Role-Playing Games, through the impersonation of an avatar, the player has his own identity filtered and present in the game (see Gee, 2003 and Turkle, 1996). Nevertheless, as pointed out by ludologist Espen Aarseth, the fusion does not stop there: it happens in both directions. Later, disconnected from the game, the player can buy equipment for his avatars, or even other avatars, on auctions websites as eBay. The game world has ceased to be ‘fictional'. It is real, even if only imaginary (Aarseth, 2004).

(Fig. 2: MMORPGs like Ultima Online blur the boundaries between games and reality)

In addition, in videogames the role of the ‘reader' is much more powerful, compared to other sources such as films and printed media. To Sherry Turkle, the concept of authorship within a game of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs, a kind of text-based Role-Playing Game) is ‘not only displaced from a solitary voice, it is exploded' (Turkle, 1996:355). The exploration through multiple paths and solutions would be something to be rejected by the modernist thinking, and so the notion that ‘you are what you pretend to be' (Turkle, 1996:360).

This degree of freedom allows the player to make his own moral choices – and be rewarded for doing it. Since one of the most appealing aspects of games seems to be the ability of making different choices, this freedom is supported by researchers as Janet H. Murray and Emma Westecott. Murray, in Hamlet on the Holodeck , pointed out that interactive stories need some kind of ‘moral physics' that escapes the definitions of ‘right and wrong' (Murray, 1998:207). Westecott stated that ‘It is important to note that the designer should not make the moral decision for the player' (Westecott, 2003:131). Designers have the same concern: Will Wright, designer of The Sims (Fig.3) - the best selling computer game ever, where you control characters to fulfil their needs in a contemporary suburban-like neighbourhood – once stated that he is ‘actually much more interested in building a vessel that players put their own values in' (Laurel and Wright, 2003:256).

(Fig. 3: The Sims: a blank canvas to the player?)

Judging by all that, Jean Baudrillard's The Ecstasy of Communication would probably suit videogames better than Television, his original object of study. He even scratches the surface saying that ‘Simulators of leisure or of vacations in the home – like flight simulators for airplane pilots – become conceivable' (Baudrillard, 1985:128). Aware of it or not, it is about videogames that he is talking about.

Apparently, the postmodern nature of videogames should clash with the use of it for purposes related to modernism. However, as it will be clearer after the next sections, all these postmodern characteristics can be either embraced or twisted in order to fit a more modernist approach.

Applying Greenhalgh's 12 Principles of Modernism to Videogames

This comparison will start with principles of Decompartimentalisation (1) and The Total Work of Art (2). In a similar way to the ‘project of modernity formulated in the 18 th century by the philosophers of the Enlightenment' (Habermas, 1980:9), the concern of the Modern Movement was to ‘break down barriers between aesthetics, technics and society' (Greenhalgh, 1990:8). Videogame theorists, specially the ones who consider themselves as ludologists, attempt this same sense of decompartimentalisation today. Researcher ITU Copenhagen Espen Aarseth's lecture on the subject of video game theory was entitled Games and the Study of Games – Between Art, Society and Technology (Aarseth, 2004). The notion that videogames combine all this elements contributes to the idea that games are The Total Work of Art. In fact, the Zero Games Manifesto by Emma Westecott states that ‘The game is the Great Work', a status close enough to the bauhausian idea of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk' – in fact, the number of techniques required to complete a videogame resembles the Bauhaus pedagogic structure (Fig.4). Westecott's statement also attempts to finish the debate over the question if videogames are art or not by simply stating that they are bigger that that.

(Fig. 4: The Bauhaus pedagogic structure)

The notions of Technology (3) and Progress (4) are also revisited. While the modernists regarded the opportunities of using technologies that made possible mass production and prefabrication as a way to improve people's lives, game researchers and developers see a similar opportunity in new media technology: through games and latest technology, people can have their lives improved (or empowered).

However, the actual use of game technology for betterment of humanity – except for education and social skills development (see Turkle,1996 and Gee,2003) – is frequently postponed to the next generation of hardware and software. Even not being strictly connected to videogame studies, linguistic theorist James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy , shares this belief by saying that ‘much of what I have to say here will simply get ‘truer' as the games get even better' (Gee, 2003:9). This belief, combined with the programmed obsolescence aspect of new media, serves the purpose of predicting better games and interactive media, instead of actually building it using available resources.

Function (5) and Abstraction (6) are retrieved by the concept of Gameplay. The ‘game ontology' (Aarseth, 2004), Gameplay is supposed to be the essence of the game – the ‘pure' form of the game, stripped out of its over-distracting graphics and cut-scene movies.

As for its sense of abstraction, Aarseth stated that, once playing Tomb Raider, he could play ‘through and past' Lara Croft's avatar (Wikipedia, 2004) – gameplay is felt the same way, and semiotic levels should not be important in the analysis of gameplay. This position would even count with the support of Umberto Eco as he states that ‘ The aesthetic text is like a multiple match played by different teams at a time, each of whom follows (or breaks) the rules of their own game' (Eco, 1976:271). In his definition, gameplay escapes different interpretations: it is interpretation itself. However, gameplay is not everything in a game – and it is somehow represented, as the game is not abstract. In fact, some theorists make semiotic analysis of games, such as Steven Poole on Pac-Man ( Poole , 2000).

The emphasize on gameplay rather than the game's symbolic elements is not exactly a new practice: the Bauhaus chess set (Fig.5), designed in 1924 by Josef Hartwig, attempted to do the same by making its pieces in the shape of the movement that, by the rules, they are allowed to do.

(Fig. 5: The Bauhaus chess pieces emphasise the gameplay)

As previously argued, Truth (7), the absence of illusion or false impression, is supposed to be a complicated subject to defend within an area made of virtual worlds – computer games are all about hyper-reality. However, new media's level of sophistication, supported by an even more immersive breed of games, seem to turn the concept of illusion upside down by fusing this virtual reality into reality and exploring the relationship between them. As said Slavoj Žižek, ‘The ultimate lesson of virtual reality is the virtualization of the very true reality.' (Žižek, 1996: 295). And in fact, as pointed out by Poole , ‘in videogames (…) everything is fanatically, obsessively ‘true' in three dimensions.' ( Poole , 2000:224).

As for theology (8), the neo-platonism of the modernists echoes in computer games design as it tries to model the perfect, ideal simulation. Also, like in Plato's Republic, narrative and narratologists are not particularly taken in consideration, although ludology was originally conceived to complement narrative studies (Frasca, 1999). As game studies tries to approach a more scientific posture, narrative is discarded since, as pointed out by Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition , they ‘do not deliver real knowledge' (McLennan, 1992:321-2).

From the Zero Games Manifesto, the statement ‘We will celebrate the universal dialectic of the binary code' (Westecott, 2003:134) indicates a tendency to Internationalism / Universalism (9). The binary code can be used as a metaphor of the purity and free-of-different interpretations nature of gameplay. The Anti-Historicism (10) can also be detected in the great number of games about the re-writing of history and the writing of future. One of the finest examples would be the highly successful strategy game Civilization II (Fig.6), where the player, commanding a civilization from the beginning of the times, has to defeat all others by force or winning the ‘space race'. As Civilization II, ‘ modernity was about conquest – the imperial regulation of land, the discipline of the soul, and the creation of truth.' (Turner, 1990:4). Beneath a layer of postmodernism – the juxtaposition of styles – there is the very modernist message that all cultures share basically the same needs and goals (to be achieved trough progress and technology), being differences between them irrelevant. Ultimately, Civilization II gives the player the possibility of rewriting history and writing the future.

(Fig. 6: Civilization II: Universalism and Anti-historicism in games)

Finally, the notions of Transformation of Consciousness (11) and Social Morality (12) have their counterparts inside the design and theory of videogames. There is a trend in the intentional use of videogames for these purposes. Websites as (‘videogames with an agenda') and agree with the Zero Games Manifesto statement that ‘games are too powerful to be regarded as merely entertainment' (Westecott, 2003), focusing on their educational and ideological potentials. In fact, Videogames with an Agenda was the name of an exhibition held at the Curzon Soho, in London , from October to November of 2004. The exhibition counted with games produced by companies such as Frasca's Newsgaming , and appropriately called Persuasive Games, of Ian Bogost, editor (along with Frasca) of WaterCoolerGames, and whose clients include political campaigns.

If the previously mentioned freedom of the player is actually present in games, one may ask how there could be any imposition of social morality. The answer would be ‘in more subtle levels'. Even if chosen by the player, no moral choice would be completely absent of the designer pre-judgment, since he, and not the player, will stipulate the emergent outcomes for those choices. Poole tries to remind his reader of this fact: ‘ Remember, in a videogame you can only perform such actions as the programmers have allowed for ' ( Poole , 2000:71). A good example of how different choices might actually have a common agenda would be the First Person Shooter / Role-Playing game Deus Ex . After completing this game by taking down an evil high-tech elite corporation that rules the world in a not-so-distant-future, you can choose from three different possible endings: (a) let a sophisticated AI machine govern the world, (b) ‘reset' the planet back to the state of several smalls low-tech villages or (c) be part of the elite that rules the world and try to make it a ‘good' elite. While the game was highly praised for presenting different choices, all of them actually follow the same modernist vision: (a) the belief in technology (b) the erasing of history and (c) the ‘good' elite that modernists regarded themselves as being.

Analysing The Sims , Frasca tell us that ‘ unlike the modernist auteur, Wright's control over the game experience is limited to setting boundaries to potential actions rather than defining sequences of actions'(Frasca, 2002). However, Instead of the death of the author, we have the birth of another kind of authorship. The authorship of systems that, according to Murray , must be distinguished from the ‘ derivative authorship ' left to the player (Murray, 1998:153) . One of the most criticised sides of modernism movement – the notion of the Genius – could also be infiltrated in this kind of discourse. Like modernist architects, game designers may sometimes see themselves as the ‘ god-like creators of a brave new world ' (Ward, 1997:118).


The reincarnation of the ideals of modernism in a postmodern media, if a paradox, is also a positive sign. Game designers and theorists are benefited by this, since it helps them to avoid the flaws that made the modernist plan unfeasible. This new media embraces plurality and the choices of each ‘player'. It embraces multiple solutions, identities, and thus, ‘ different forms of social structure and community construction ' (Westecott, 2003:131), in a much more flexible way than the now ‘ traditional ' modernists would. If there is something that cannot be taken away from games, is the active participation of the player. If some vicissitudes were also borrowed from the modernist period, they can be regarded as side effects of a challenge quite similar to both movements: promoting their objects of study and practice to a serious and worthwhile topic. If now videogames are being taken more seriously, it suffered from having a frivolous status – hi-tech toys – in the past. Something like the shift of design from decorative to functional is attempted. Are videogames able to take the same bold step? The consistency and volume of practical and theoretical production indicates that ‘yes'. The fact that theory and design are somehow looking at the same direction is another good sign.

The final question is ‘ should games be so seriously taken?' After all, they are about, as says game designer and theorist Eric Zimmerman, ‘the creation of delightful experience, rather then the fulfilment of utilitarian needs' (Zimmerman, 2003:176). However, in Homo Ludens – one of the most comprehensive books on the nature of games and play written - philosopher Johan Huizinga shows us how important are games in the development of culture. ‘Play' was crucial in the development of civilization, having helped to build the foundations of law, war and poetry, among other subjects (Huizinga, 1971). On the other hand, Marshal McLuhan states that ‘ Art and games enable us to stand aside from the material pressures of routine and convention' (McLuhan, 1994:238). Games have, then, a self-reflexive nature (also noticed by Frasca in his thesis Videogames of the Oppressed ) that can be really useful in the way the world is constructed.

As it is often said, it can be too soon to evaluate the proper impact that games will have in our society in the future. As in games design, is not the potential, but the implementation that should be looked after. Bauhausian furniture is still not affordable by the masses, and planned cities are surrounded by chaotic urban spaces. The broad scope and range of videogames can actually help to find better solutions for tomorrow's everyday world; so there is hope that, just like the opening quotation, another statement from the Zero Games Manifesto is correct: ‘ Games have the potential to change the world'. If not, we will still have, at least, an endless network of utopias to play with.


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Fig.1: Pac-Mondrian by Prize Budget for Boys . ( 14 December 2004 )

Fig.2: Ultima Online: Age of Shadows by Origin Systems. . ( 14 December 2004 )

Fig.3: The Sims by Maxis .,3/gameId,860/gameShotId,89785/ ( 14 December 2004 )

Fig.4: Bauhaus Pedagogic Structure. ( 14 December 2004 )

Fig.5: Bauhaus Chess by Josef Hartwig . ( 14 December 2004 )

Fig.6: Civilization 2 by MicroProse .,3/gameId,15/gameShotId,9948/ ( 14 December 2004 )