Endgame : Garry’s Mod and the Qing Eclipse

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (without host publication)peer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jun 2017


TitleChinese DiGRA 2017
LocationThe Hong Kong Polytechnic University
PlaceHong Kong
Period2 - 4 June 2017


In recent years, art historians such as James Cahill and James Elkins have proposed a novel theory about Qing dynasty landscape painting. They argue that artists of this period turned landscape painting into such an intense self-referential process that history folded in on itself to produce a game-like aesthetic of irony and kitsch. Elkins describes this period as the ‘Qing Eclipse’, where artists were consciously rearranging fragments of their own visual history to the point of absurdity, and that this aesthetic was emblematic of a complex period in Chinese history. (Elkins 2010) The popular computer game Garry’s Mod (GMoD) employs a highly analogous structure to what Elkins and Cahill describe, as it is based entirely on a user-generated rearrangement of objects from other games. In this paper I argue that the mode of landscape experience in GMoD is not only similar to Qing dynasty landscape painting, but that its vision of landscape as a recycled historical amalgam is a power expression of contemporary relationships to the physical environment. 
Cahill and Elkins present Qing dynasty landscape painting as a proto-postmodern form of re-sampling and recycling. Elkins described Qing dynasty landscape painting as moving from a form of improvisation based on historical stylistic precedent to a sampling of visual motifs ad absurdum. (Elkins 2010) p.77 James Cahill argues that this recycling of ideographic motifs is the defining feature of Qing painting, and that it resulted in a ‘post-post historical’ discourse, where instead of simply manipulating and reorganizing the approaches of the past, Qing artists defined their relationship to history as a form of absurd repetition. (Cahill 2005) p.21 What both Cahill and Elkins point to is a landscape practice where the worlds represented by painters ceased to be about a sense of historical progression, and became an ironic game of exaggeration and kitsch. (Elkins 2010) p.128-9 Elkins concludes his analysis by adapting the ‘endgame’ mode of chess, where with few pieces remaining on the board, a decisive outcome is thwarted, and devolves into an endless reshuffling of pieces. For Elkins, the endgame of Qing dynasty landscape painting was an endless reshuffling of visual motifs based in a limitless supply of historical material. 
Garry’s Mod is a sandbox physics game that allows multiple players to construct 3D environments from a first-person perspective, using the prop libraries from games such as Counterstrike, Half-Life and Team Fortress. Originally built as a mod from Half-Life 2, it allows players to access game assets drawn from the Source engine, as well as custom props created by the player community. Within these continually reconstructed environments, players have created a variety of meta-game activities, such as role-playing games, chasing games, first person shooters and free-form online sandbox environments where playing and building are indistinguishable. GMod facilitates a self-conscious ironic resampling of game objects by a game community. This has strong methodological parallels to the model of Qing dynasty painting described by Elkins and Cahill. As a landscape text, GMod is a modular platform for the endless construction of landscape environments using a structured, yet continually expanding vocabulary of objects. The play and appreciation of these spaces draws heavily on the humorous repurposing of props, characters and functions from popular game titles.
The field of computer game studies is a crucial site for studying contemporary relationships to the physical environment. A number of scholars within game studies have written about the experience of landscape in computer games. By linking GMod to theories derived from Qing dynasty landscape painting, I will rely on an intersection of computer game studies and landscape theory. Geographer Jay Appleton once described landscape theory as “the backcloth of human history”, because of its ability to bring together fields such as geography, anthropology, art history and philosophy to discuss the processes by which societies shape the physical environment and how the physical environment shapes them. (Appleton 1975) p.2 By analyzing the landscape of  Garry’s Mod according to theories from Qing dynasty painting, I will locate this game within landscape studies. To achieve this, I will combine a player-based analysis with a consideration of the socio-historical context of the player to form an initial critique of GMod. I will compare these findings to Elkins and Cahill’s analysis of Qing dynasty painting to see whether the parallel can be productive and informative. Finally, I will bring this combined analysis back into the field of landscape studies to question how the modes of interaction within GMod reflect on contemporary relationships to the physical environment. 

Research Area(s)

  • Qing dynasty, Garry’s Mod, landscape

Citation Format(s)

Endgame: Garry’s Mod and the Qing Eclipse . / Nelson, Peter .
2017. Paper presented at Chinese DiGRA 2017, Hong Kong.

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (without host publication)peer-review