Video Games and Images of Power at the Warburg Institute

Written by Rita Aloy-Ricart |
Augusto Prima Porta, first century AD. Vatican Museums.

The Warburg Institute Library collects a variety of material to promote cross-disciplinary research in understanding the influence of images within culture.

In this blog post, Occasional Student, Rita Aloy-Ricart, takes us through her journey at the Institute, highlighting how the resources available have enriched her research into the portrayal of power in video game imagery.

Research trips are an important part of PhD research. In my case, when thinking about the different centres or universities in which I could undertake one, there weren’t many options available for the combined study of Art History and video games. I could either choose a centre that would provide me with a knowledge of video games, or another that would strengthen my background in Art History, but it was difficult to find an institute where I could balance both. Whichever place I chose, either of these topics might be somewhat absent. In the end, I opted for a place specialising in Art History and that also covered a range of more specific subjects - the Warburg Institute.

My research focuses on the survival of the image within video games; that being, how certain iconographies, or, more generally, figures from the historical-cultural tradition, survive through the videoludic image. This is the reason that I thought the Warburg Library would be of great help when it came to analysing video game characters and images, since it could provide me with the background I needed to carry out such an analysis. It is true that at the beginning of my research I was sceptical about what I would find and how I could relate the information to my case studies. But as I come to the end of my time as an Occasional Student, I have found that everything I consulted exceeded my expectations. Foremost, I find the thematic organisation of the Library very helpful and, although at first the different system may seem overwhelming, I found it very easy to locate the books I needed. Also, the fact that you can walk around the Library freely and search – which other libraries often don’t allow – is great, because when I reach for the book I want, next to it there is another book that I didn’t know about but that I am likewise interested in.

Stained glass window of Zachary Comstock leading the people to the City of Columbia. BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games, 2013.

One of the images from the video game ‘BioShock Infinite,’ on which I am currently working on for my thesis, may be taken as an example. It includes a character that is shown in such a way, due to its compositional scheme, that it reminds me of the image of Noah leading the animals into the Ark. As I have previously studied biblical images, I can confirm this similarity. However, I needed more than a mere association of schemes – more than this image from the video game reminds me of.

El embarque en el arca de Noé, Michiel Coxcie, ca. 1559. Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

In the Warburg Library I have found not only countless images with similar compositional schemes, but also the theory that reinforces this association - that is to say, literature on the continuity of gestures in art; on the use of images from the past across the centuries and in various media; on the legitimization of figures of power through their association with mythical heroes; and on the visual culture, which in general, has provided me with a solid theoretical basis for my work.

Monumental statue of Zachary Comstock.
Monumental statue of Zachary Comstock. BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games, 2013.

In ‘BioShock Infinite,’ there is another image of the same character that consists of a monumental statue, in which he is depicted with his arm raised, holding a sword, and his other arm outstretched. When I first saw it, although I could not cite any specific images exactly like it, I knew I had seen it somewhere before. It is certainly a gesture that denotes power and has a lot of continuity in the history of art. At the Warburg Institute, there is a book titled Gesture and Rank in Roman Art: the Use of Gestures to Denote Statues in Roman Sculpture and Coinage (Classmark DAC 2202). Here, I found a large number of sculptures, coins, and reliefs that repeated this gesture, and it was commonly associated with figures of power in Ancient Rome. Therefore, in terms of significance, it was closely related to the case of study, again, providing me with the theoretical basis I needed to analyse such an image.

In this regard, I have also benefited greatly from the Warburg Institute's Photographic Collection. It works similarly to the Library and you are free to browse through the drawers and folders. The subject classification is also interesting and very helpful in order to find what you need. I came away from the collection with numerous images that I could include in my research, having almost – may Aby Warburg forgive me for daring – compiled my own little Mnemosyne Atlas.

In this regard, I have also benefited greatly from the Warburg Institute's Photographic Collection. It works similarly to the Library and you are free to browse through the drawers and folders.

My research deals with video games and fictional characters, but I also like to talk about historical characters, for instance, the prominent Borgia Family. At the Warburg, besides having found historiographical information related to the family, alongside primary sources, which I will of course reference, I found the following book: The Borgia Family. Rumour and Representation (Classmark HNC 500). It was exactly what I was looking for - an analysis of the family through the eyes of later authors, artists, historians, from the sixteenth century to the present day - and which included cinema and video games. The result is a compilation of how their image has been culturally constructed in the popular imagination.

These are some of the many examples that I have worked on at the Warburg Institute. Despite video games being my object of study, I analyse the transmission of images, so the Warburg Library has been perfect for this. I would, therefore, encourage all researchers working on a similar topic to come to the Institute, as they will find a vast amount of material to work with on a variety of subject matter – from medieval to modern.

Rita Aloy-Ricart graduated from the University of Valencia with an MA degree in Art History and Culture. She is currently a PhD candidate at Jaume I University, where she is working on a thesis focused on the conventions of the image of power in videoludic language. Rita is a member of IHA (Iconografía e History del Arte) Research Group and part of the R+D+i project working on "La receptión artística de la realise visigoda en la Monarquía Hispánica."