Digital Games and the Anamorphic- Eugénie Shinkle

Abstract: Eugénie Shinkle’s piece Digital Games and the Anamorphic Subject reassesses the visual lineages that prefigure contemporary gaming forms. Games, in the process of locating gamers in space, draw on the tradition of anamorphic art exemplified by Holbein’s The Ambassadors. Recasting the regimes of vision and attention in these terms facilitates new insights into gaming subjectivity.


The digital game interface is the portal between the player and the game form – a junction point between input and output, hardware and software. Designed to draw together eye,body, and gameworld, the game interface is a complex system comprising both graphical and physical elements such as screens, keyboards, joysticks,controllers, and other peripherals. This complexity has yet to be unpacked in any detail by the field of digital game studies, however, where the graphic interface often stands in for a more thorough rendering of the game interface as an embodied instrument. In a recent article, Mia Consalvo (2006) describes the interface as ‘any on-screen information that provides the player with information concerning the life, health, location or status of the character(s), as well as battle or action menus, nested menus … or additional screens that give the player more control over manipulating elements of gameplay’. Here, and elsewhere, the digital game interface is acknowledged as a physical instrument but theorized as a predominately visual technology.

The history of the digital game interface is typically traced through two historically potent technologies of vision. The graphic interface used in most digital games is the rectangular frame inherited from Western painting and Hollywood cinema. The spatial architecture and visual appearance of nearly all 3D videogames is derived from the perspectival schema developed by Leon Battista Alberti in the fifteenth century. A picture constructed according to the rules of classical perspective is a simple form of graphic interface, enabling the subject to access a virtual world ‘behind’ the plane of the image. Most digital game software – and much of the hardware as well – is structurally married to linear perspective, and theoretically aligned with the logic of classical representational space. [1]

In adopting the graphic interface as a proxy for the game interface in a broader sense, the field of game studies has also taken on board much of the historical and epistemological baggage amassed by the perspective paradigm and the classical theories of representation that followed on from it. Key among these is the form that is ascribed to the gaming subject. More often than not, the latter is assumed to operate in the mode of ‘scopic Cartesianism’ – to behave as a static, monosensory agent, focused on the image in front of it and experiencing the gameworld primarily, if not exclusively, by means of vision. According to the classical schema, what takes place outside of this circuit is not part of the gameplay experience. Few gamers, however, restrict themselves to a fixed viewing position during gameplay, and the introduction of more physically involving interfaces like the Wii and the EyeToy suggests that the classical inside/outside dialectic with its immobile, decorporealized observer, no longer offers an adequate account of the gaming experience (if it ever has). This in turn suggests that the field of game studies requires a different subjective model, one that takes into account the specifically embodied nature of the digital game interface, and of the gameplay experience itself.

Rather than proposing an entirely new model of subjectivity, however, the following discussion re-examines the classical circuit of representation with a view to a broader understanding of the kind of subject that it suggests. I will revisit two signal moments in the history of Western representation – Filippo Brunelleschi’s perspective experiment of 1429, and Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors (1533) ­– examining the way that the classical inside/outside dialectic is challenged or refuted in each of these works. I will go on to suggest that the classical subject of representation can be rethought in terms of an anamorphic subject – a subject that inhabits simultaneously the classical circuit of representation, and the wider environment within which the latter is situated.

Anamorphic images – concealed images in pictures, revealed only when the subject moves away from the intended viewing position – are discussed in almost all treatises on perspective up to the end of the eighteenth century, and are widely recognized as a means of proclaiming the limits of perspectival representation. As a concept of transformation ­– from the Greek anamorphoun, to transform or ‘form again’ – anamorphic images require the viewer to experience the picture as both image and object. In demanding this sort of dexterity on the part of the subject, they pose a challenge to the inside/outside distinction that is generally assumed in classical theories of representation, and counter much of the received wisdom concerning the way that such theories work. Rather than the distanced and immobile subject typically implied in classical models, the notion of anamorphic subjectivity suggests that the relation between subjects and technologies of vision is something more proximate, and more pliable.

As a technology of vision, linear perspective is an abstract relation – it exists as a system of rules rather than a material object. As a paradigm, its influence extends far beyond the pictorial realm and the era within which it was initially conceived. As a cultural formation, linear perspective traverses history, functioning as a model for thought, ‘leaving [its] mark on the most diverse fields of endeavour, and [remaining] resolutely unembarrassed by being declared “obsolete”.’ (Damisch xx) Even today, the perspective paradigm carries considerable epistemological weight, acting as a metaphor for human vision and subjectivity in discourses ranging from science to philosophy.[2] Running through the history of perspectival representation, however, is a parallel and far less conspicuous awareness of the perspective interface as a kind of physical machine.

In fact, the earliest recorded use of single-point perspective – an event that is often singled out as the origin of Renaissance perspectival space – involved a physical machine. In 1429, Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi built an experimental device consisting of a simple apparatus: a mirror held in one hand, and a small painted panel, pierced at the vanishing point by a small hole, held in the other. Placing their eye against the reverse side of the panel, and holding the flat mirror directly opposite so as to reflect the painted image in it, the viewer was treated to a magically realistic and apparently three-dimensional view of the Baptistry of San Giovanni.

This demonstration can be understood, as Hubert Damisch has noted, as a phenomenological reduction – an intentional act that isolates the viewer from the surrounding environment and from their own corporeal body, both of which, Damisch claims, are excluded from the scene of representation.[3] This interior/exterior dialectic was also articulated in the image itself. The painted panel showed a closely cropped view of the Baptistry, framed only by segments of the facades of the two buildings on either side. The sky above the Baptistry was not rendered in paint, however, but reflected, from outside the image, in a sheet of polished silver which Brunelleschi had inserted at the top of the panel. In contrast to the precise rendering of the buildings, sky-dwelling forms such as clouds appeared strangely imprecise, without stable boundary or location. Visible from within the illusion only as the reflection of a reflection, the clouds represented the limits of perspectival representation – an excess that could not be described or contained by the rules of perspective.[4] This excess – understood as the amorphous; that which lacks definitive shape or form – is typically attributed, within classical theories of representation, to the human body and the realm of