While scholars may not yet hold games to the same academic and artistic merit as written literature, it is undeniable that games are attracting more and more attention. Games are constantly evolving and reaching new audiences, and these days they serve a wide range of purposes, from education to fitness. The gaming industry has an undeniably massive influence in the realm of modern media culture – a 2014 study found that US consumers spent over $15 billion on games in 2013 (NPD Group, 2014). In the realm of critical theory, games are gaining further attention as a medium to be analyzed. Games can be evaluated as media through the experiences that they provide for their players, and these experiences are never identical.
For many people, games are a medium providing an escape from reality. This respite from routine can take the form of simple, addictive diversions (think Angry Birds (Rovio)) or massive, immersive worlds (think Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar)). In the former type, players can forget about their lives that seem to be slowly dragging along and can instead fixate themselves on temporary rewards and short bursts of action. The latter type provides a fantasy reality, where players can shed their real identity and take on the persona of an intergalactic conqueror or a powerful wizard. However, as much as these games strive to provide an escape from reality, in many senses they reflect and imitate that same reality. For many players, an immersive fantasy experience is much more powerful if it is believable. In his book Gamer Theory, McKenzie Wark dives into this complex relationship between games and reality. Wark describes the real world as a sort of “gamespace” in its own right – a place guided by “some arbitrary blend of chance and competition” that is “losing, bit by bit, any form or substance or spirit or history that is not sucked into and transformed by gamespace” (Wark 19). While many games may serve the purpose of escaping one’s own reality, players may lose sight of the fact that their escape realities often mirror the characteristics of their true realities.
Not all games aim to provide an escape from reality. Many games seek to augment reality in a way that is both productive and engaging. Fitness games are growing more and more popular, and new technologies like Wii Fit and Xbox Kinect are providing new affordances that allow for effective training capabilities. Educators have long recognized the value of games for engaging the interest of children, but games can be used to improve knowledge in skills in all subjects for all different sorts of age groups. While second graders might play a simple farm animal game to learn about basic arithmetic, adults can use professional, interactive games to learn to speak foreign languages (Sykes). Military and government agencies use games to train individuals for difficult missions (Shaban). Even games meant for entertainment can sometimes be used for practical purposes. For example, sports analysts often use sports video games to simulate and predict outcomes (Robinson). In all of these different examples, games act as a medium to augment existing reality, and they provide engaging and powerful affordances that other media cannot deliver.
Games, no longer a niche hobby for enthusiasts, are making themselves more and more evident in mainstream culture. From an economic standpoint, the gaming industry is a fascinating and influential sector of our modern commercial culture. In 2013, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V reached sales of $1 billion in just three days, making it the fastest-selling entertainment product in history (Goldfarb, IGN). Games have demonstrated a remarkable power to influence and invade other forms of media, with countless video games spawning spin-off adaptations as books, television shows, and movies. In his book How To Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost describes how games have entered the shared realm of media, claiming that they are “as interwoven with culture as writing and images” (Bogost 7). He reiterates that video games are not just a niche part of culture “meant for adolescents”, but are instead “woven into everyday life” (Bogost 7).
In a purely technical sense, games can by studied as a medium by examining the evolution of game technology over time. From the simple graphics of Atari and Pong to the facial recognition software of modern Xbox Kinect consoles, games have come a long way – and there is no sign of slowing down. Virtual reality appears to be the next frontier for games. VR is compelling for the mystery that surrounds it, and the vast amount of potential that the technology holds. There are parallels between the development of virtual reality and the development of artificial intelligence – both are incredibly powerful fields that still have much to be explored, and both have their own haunting possibilities depicted in media. Films like The Matrix (Warner Bros.) portray a conceivable dark side of virtual reality for humans, yet this sort of portrayal might create more of a sense of excitement than a sense of fear. This sense of excitement associated with gaming is key to its growth, as developers feel a constant pressure to innovate without letting games and technologies get stale. If mediums cannot adapt, they die out (think of telegrams, record players, and VHS). Games are a dynamic and living medium that elude compartmentalization and continue to evolve at all times.
It is precisely this elusive nature of the game medium that makes it difficult to evaluate them in a critical context, although it certainly can be done. For many forms of media, like books, films, and music, consumers of content are very aware of an individual creator or other important person (fans will know who wrote the book, who directed the film, who performed the music, etc.). However, game players do not commonly associate their gameplay experience with a certain individual. The technical complexity involved in developing big-time commercial games usually requires massive companies and teams, and the independent developers who make simple games are not usually concerned with individual fame (following the principles of hacker culture). In games, the lack of a central creator or performer imparting a message is liberating. The focus is shifted to the player’s experience – games provide a world in which players can craft their own unique experiences. Some games, like Bioshock Infinite (2K Games), give players difficult ethical choices to evoke emotional responses. Puzzle games like Portal (Valve) and The Company of Myself (Piilonen) often enrich their problem-solving mechanisms with background stories that give the player a narrative context for gameplay. These enriching experiences vary greatly from player to player, and this is the true essence of games as a medium. Games should be evaluated critically for their ability to create a meaningful experience for the player and for their use of the affordances provided by the specific game technology.
Bogost, Ian . “Introduction.” How To Do Things With Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 1-8. Print.
Infinity Ward. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. 2007. PC
Nintendo. Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. 1998. Nintendo 64
NPD Group. “Research Shows $15.39 Billion Spent On Video Game Content In The US In 2013, A 1 Percent Increase Over 2012.” NPD Group, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. <https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/research-shows-15.39-billion-dollars-spent-on-video-game-content-in-the-us-in-2013-a-1-percent-increase-over-2012/>.
Piilonen, Eli. The Company of Myself. 2009. PC
Robinson, Jon. “Pittsburgh 24, Green Bay 20” ESPN.com. ESPN, 1 Feb. 2011. Web. <http://espn.go.com/espn/thelife/videogames/easims?id=6072052>.
Rockstar Games. Grand Theft Auto V. 2013. PC
Rovio. Angry Birds. 2009. iOS
Shaban, Hamza. “Playing War: How the Military Uses Video Games.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. <http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/10/playing-war-how-the-military-uses-video-games/280486/>.
Sykes, Julie M. ““Just” Playing Games? A Look at the Use of Digital Games for Language Learning.” The Language Educator 8.5 (2013): 32-35. Web.
The Matrix. Warner Brothers, 1999.
Valve. Portal. 2007. PC
Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
2K Games. Bioshock Infinite. 2013. PC