That games are a form of media is hardly a question. As McKenzie Wark writes in the third chapter of Gamer Theory,
Games have storylines like the historical novel, which arc from beginning to end. Games have cinematic cut scenes, pure montages of attraction. Games subsume the lines of television just as television subsumed cinema and cinema the novel. But they are something else as well. They are not just an allegory but a double form, an allegory and an allegorithm. Appearances within the game double an algorithm which in turn simulates an unknown algorithm which produces appearances outside the game. (Wark 67)
Games in fact implement all of the power of classical literature, whether it is novels through in-game text and plot or film and theater through cut scenes and videos. Therefore they must be considered a medium so long as novels and cinema are considered media, leaving us with the question not of whether or not games are a medium, but instead whether they are a useful one.
As Bogost argues, “we can understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does.” (Bogost 3). Games can certainly be used for a variety of things, falling all along the spectrum of entertainment and artistic statement. That games can be made for the purpose of entertainment is clear, but we also find that games such as “The Company of Myself” make use of their specific medium to express their theses in ways that could not be done otherwise.
“The Company of Myself” makes use of player agency (or at least an impression of such) to put the user into the shoes of the narrator in ways that other media can’t quite achieve. In the introduction, the narrator explains:
I know that you don’t want to hear me describe my admittedly less than fascinating lifestyle, so instead, I’ll describe my day with a much more interesting allegory.
The user then takes control of a character who, feeling forced to solve problems on his own, makes use of many copies of himself in order to face various challenges. The only point in the game in which the character cooperates with an entity other than his own self-copies is during a short series of challenges he resolves with the help of what appears to be a girl he once knew. The narrative text never makes explicit the nature of this new character, but through the mechanics of the game the user discovers that the girl is incorporeal, suggesting that she is no more than a ghost or a memory. The medium of the game allows for the user to make this discovery for himself, rather than having to be told, which is a powerful artistic tool. Furthermore, at a later point in the game the user is forced to “kill” this memory in order to progress, placing him inside the narrator’s mind in a way that only the player’s agency in games can allow.
We later discover that the narrator did in fact murder his girlfriend and now lives in the psych ward of a hospital visited only once a week by a psychiatrist. The “reality” of the game world and the allegory of the narrator merge, and the user is pulled into the two through a powerful first person perspective and what is now true empathy.
The Game “Cloud” makes an artistic statement in a different way. The game acts as a commentary on gaming from within the genre itself; specifically it challenges the idea that games need to be fast-paced or have long term goals. Slow-paced with a distinct focus on the scenery within the game, “Cloud” consists simply of the player’s avatar flying through the clouds. The game is both beautiful and relaxing, but it has no clear, immediate goals or challenges.
In order to place games in a critical context, we reexamine Mattern’s criteria for evaluating digital work (Mattern). Most importantly of these, for any game to be critiqued as a work of literature, it needs to have a clear thesis supported by the structure and function of the game. In the example of “The Company of Myself”, the game mechanic of working with copies of oneself, the incorporeal girlfriend, and forcing the user to murder the girlfriend in order to progress all function to support the theme of loneliness and put the user into the mind of the narrator. With “Cloud”, the game makes its statement about games simply by inviting the user to play a different type of game. Examples of games fitting this criterion are sparse, but these two games demonstrate that games are in fact a valid medium for literature.
One weakness that games in academia have today is that there is currently very little in the way of a system for formal peer review and consultation. While many games are open source, they are rarely reviewed in a critical context. However, this is not necessarily a permanent weakness of games as academic works. It is simply a fact about the current state of games in academia that would need be changed in order for games to be truly critiqued.
Given the rich possibilities for incorporating literary elements into games such as player agency and game world design, games provide an excellent field for serious academic study. While the study of games is still young, the large set of high quality, unstudied games makes it a promising field. Bogost comments, “Yet most of us haven’t begun to think about games in this way, as a medium with many uses that together pervade contemporary life, and as a result, interesting adoptions of the form have been labeled illegitimate or simply ignored.” (Bogost 7-8). Over the next few years, this should and likely will change as more scholars recognize the literary power of games.
Bogost, Ian. How to do Things with Video Games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 12-13. Print.
Mattern, Shannon Christine. “Evaluating Multimodal Work, Revisited.” Journal of Digital Humanities. 1.4 (2012): n. page. Print.
Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. 67. Print.