The digital era has produced many new ways for people to receive, transmit, and interpret all types of data, ideas, experiences, etc. These new tools, such as television and more recently the internet, have drastically and forever changed our perspective and even how we think about information and its dissemination. Given the extent and magnitude of their societal affects, these digital age media have been the subject of critical analysis both positive and negative. Since digital age mediums largely serve as replacements for print material, critiques on them tend to focus on how they work in comparison to their print correlates and their affects on us as humans. Video games are no exception to this trend. Like other digital forms, video games are now woven in to our society as a valid medium for information exchange worthy of scholarly consideration.
Digital media allows for easier navigation through data when compared to print, which is limited to elements like footnotes and tables of contents. Additionally, digital interfaces also create the possibility of influencing how information is perceived by individuals and, consequently, what it is taken to mean (Hayles 4). Simple tools like hyperlinks and page tabs contribute to this affect, but it is features like layout/design flexibility, video, and animation that make digital media distinct from traditional print. They are able to accomplish things that more traditional media cannot by nature of their design. With this definition in mind, video games are a medium of their own because they can make unique contributions other media cannot.
Bogost argues that “we can understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does” (Bogost 3). Subtracting the word relevance from the above statement, I agree that looking at what the medium does is certainly the best way to understand it. I also agree with Bogost’s later critique of McLuhan’s suggestion that we look at properties of a medium and ignore individual messages. He writes, “Instead of ignoring it, we ought to explore the relationships between the general properties of a medium and the particular situations in which it is used” (Bogost 5). I think this advice about what it means to ‘look at what the medium does’ is particularly relevant for video games. It might be easy to get caught up in the abstract or technical aspects of video games when talking about their potential. However, as a popular phenomenon, what video games are actually being used to do in society matters too. It is important to be realistic.
The message and content of polarizing and wildly successful video games like Grand Theft Auto certainly influence how video games are perceived in society and can influence the trajectory of the medium’s development, usage, and purposes. Regardless of whether or not the argument that these games are harming children in whatever ways holds any merit, this belief can damage the credibility of video games as a legitimate way of distributing or generating knowledge worthy of scholarly examination. The belief that video games are just for entertainment is already common and it might prevent the critical study that video games deserve. This notion is being combated by the recent growth in educational or fitness games. On the ‘properties of the medium’ side of the analysis, the creation of more interactive systems, like the Nintendo Wii, have helped popularize this trend. Regardless, it is a shame that people are taking this black and white approach to video games as useful and serious or useless and for entertainment because games like Grand Theft Auto offer many interesting areas for inquiry. Even if these games have no instructional value, one reason they are still worth studying is because of the interpassivity or surrogate self that exists in these role-playing games. Interpassivity serves to provide emotion transfer/extension and also an opportunity for self-creation/editing/exploration by proxy (Wilson 4). What does it mean that this is occurring within the context of a hyperviolent and unrealistic environment? Perhaps video games are serving as an outlet for some sort of built up rage or need for violence that some people might have. One reason video games are worth studying is because they can help us better understand the human psyche.
Returning to the issue of how to assess the relevance of the medium, I think this can only be done by points of comparison. What can video games do that other media cannot or what do video games by nature do better than other media. One example we talked about in class was the ethical dilemma presented by the game The Company of Myself. In this game, the player must kill his wife in order to advance and ultimately beat the game. Perhaps due to the surrogate self affect, all of us hesitated at this point in the game and had to think about if we actually wanted to kill wives and if there was any other way to advance. We all eventually decided to kill her and move on; it became an issue of our lives versus someone else’s life and we all chose self-preservation. While over simplified, this example makes it easy to see how video games can be used to simulate and start conversations about ethical situations in ways that other media cannot. This is valuable because simulating real world scenarios can be a useful tool for learning or assessment. Although not REALLY a game (more like a short animation), Passage provided an interesting and unique way of representing concepts like free will. The player only has the option of moving forward in life and has no control over what happens to him. The character eventually dies with no explanations or meaningful occurrences. Video games allow for all new ways of presenting information and ideas. Studying video games will allow us to better understand which techniques work the best and thereby allow us to increase their effectiveness as teaching tools.
A lot of what video games do is remediation. They take bits of representation from other media and repurpose them to populate the game (Wark 32). As we saw in the above examples, this remediation is still valuable because often the video game format can be a better form of representation and allows for new nuances of the material to be uncovered. However, I think that as video games are becoming more sophisticated, we are moving beyond video games as just remediation of old data. Video games are now able to create and display new types of data inconceivable in other media. For example, another advantage of video games we discussed in class was their ability to play with space and time better than other media. The game Portal made us manipulate space in ways we would never consider otherwise and Braid played with our understanding of time. While it could be argued that films like Inception are equally as capable of making us consider time and space in new ways, I don’t think films as a medium can quite match video games when it comes to manipulating senses because of the active engagement involved. Video games are definitely a medium of their own and should be studied to learn more about ourselves and to learn new ways to improve ourselves.
Bogost, Ian. How To Do Things With Video Games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011.
Hayles, Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012.
Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007.
Wilson, Laetitia. “Interactivity or Interpassivity: A Question of Agency in Digital Play.”Fine Art Forum 17.8 (2009)