If by “medium”, we mean any substance that is used to convey information in some way, then without a doubt games can act as a medium. Moreover, as with all media, games have a unique set of affordances to them, which are not captured well by any other sort of media. One of these affordances, echoing Katherine Hayles, is that our interactions with games, especially particularly immersive ones, can be remarkably embodied interactions. They can make us physically feel relaxed as in Cloud, or they can make us feel regret as in Regret. Studying games is, therefore, a valuable enterprise for two reasons: it lets us nail down precisely what are the possible affordances of the medium of video games, which can let us utilize the medium to the best of its abilities, and studying games can shed another perspective on the “real” world as well. For example, taking the perspective of McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, by looking at the real world itself as a game, another perspective on reality is opened to us by which we can address some philosophical questions.
Ian Bogost, in the text How To Do Things With Video Games, defends the idea that games are a serious multifaceted medium in the following quote:
Games – like photography, like writing, like any medium – shouldn’t be shoehorned into one of two kinds of uses, serious or superficial, highbrow or lowbrow, useful or useless. Neither entertainment nor seriousness nor the two together should be a satisfactory account for what videogames are capable of. After all, we don’t distinguish between only two kinds of books, or music, or photography, or film. Rather, we know intuitively that writing, sounds, images, and moving pictures can all be put to many different uses. (5)
This is not to say that the value of video games as a medium for entertainment should be downplayed. As a child, I often played the video game series Kingdom Hearts with my sister. Although for sure it provided us with countless hours of entertainment while we explored several different virtual worlds in the quest to save Sora’s best friend Kairi, we also unconsciously internalized several moral lessons about friendship, teamwork, and perseverance. An interesting empirical, psychological question in the vicinity here about video games as a medium is this: how well do they serve, particularly in children, as an educational tool for the teaching of important life lessons? Several of these lessons are already imparted to children through storytelling, but there is no reason to think video games can not participate in this. In fact, new research is now confirming the utility of video games in this area. For example, a study done in the University of Victoria, which took a total of five years and studied gaming in teens aged 13 to 17, found that “playing video games can make children more ethically and morally aware” (Vincent). Studies like this provide a much needed contrast to the popular opinion expressed in the media that video games only promote morally bad behavior, e.g. violence.
We may also ask whether video games can be used as an artistic medium. Although it is true that the question, “Are video games art?” is latent with vagueness, I am absolutely confident in its answer, and I suspect that most people who have played enough of the right games are as well. The first point to make is that many video games explicitly hire artists to aid them in creating their virtual worlds. So if we understand the question of whether video games are art operationally, we get the easy answer “yes”. However, to be completely convinced of this fact, one only needs to look at examples. For example, we may look at some particularly big video games put out by Blizzard Entertainment, World of Warcraft and Diablo III. Each is set in a very elaborate fictional world, and the corresponding games literally created entire virtual worlds for them. These worlds are completely filled with artistic details, from the creativity required to dream up and design templates for countless different species of creatures, to the beautiful game mechanics of lightning, meteors, totems, teleportation, etc. At the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, there are games like Parallax which are much more minimalist, but they still manage to be awe inspiring in their artistic creativity. A final example of a game in the genre of “art games” is Antichamer, a game which lets players explore non-euclidean geometries with extra spatial dimensions!
What can we learn from games when we look at them from a critical context? Can there be a critical theory for video games? These are the sorts of questions that McKenzie Wark explores especially well in Gamer Theory. One interesting theme to explore in the relation between games and reality is the notion of teleology, or purpose. Most games, though not all, have goal structures that are built into them from the outside. One has to beat the bad guys, maximize the number of points one has, get from point A to point B, etc. Is this fact shared by reality? Here we get embroiled in deep philosophical questions. For example, if certain religious traditions like Christianity are true, then the answer seems to be yes. We even have a reward system for whether you accomplished God’s goal or failed, i.e. heaven and hell! However, even in this picture, we can always step outside. Why does God have the purposes he has? Are there some objective purposes that are even placed on him, or are God’s purposes ultimately arbitrary? If the first option, where did those objective purposes come from? Is this not heading off to an infinite regress? If the second option, why should we care about God’s purposes if they are ultimately arbitrary? Reasoning like this, it might be tempting to come up with the conclusion that the notion of an ultimate, objective, external purpose is simply incoherent. If there were any such thing, it would either have a higher objective external purpose and we would have an infinite regress, or it would seem to be arbitrary. If this objective purpose came out of nowhere, why shouldn’t we invent our own purposes in our lives? This is the fundamental thought behind the philosophical school of Existentialism, which we have found can interestingly be arrived at by thinking about the nature of gaming. Not only can games be enjoyed by children for the sake of pure entertainment, games can be studied by serious philosophers to achieve new insights into the nature of reality. This is the remarkable range of affordances that the medium of gaming provides.
Blizzard Entertainment. Diablo III. 2012. PC
Blizzard Entertainment. World of Warcraft. 2004. PC
Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
Hayles, Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2012. Print.
Parallax: Steam Greenlight Trailer. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.
Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts. 2002. Play Station 2
Vincent, James. “Video games ‘can make children more morally aware'” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.