Lit 80, Fall 2013

Changed The Game

September 29th, 2013 | Posted by Shane Stone in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Are video games a medium?

There is an apparent answer isn’t there?

Although you may think there is, it is a controversial debate with both supporters and opponents. In fact, when I told my roommate what my assignment was he immediately responded “video games don’t teach anybody anything” and he asked me to explain why I thought they did. Rather than replying I told him to read my blog post.

My method of answering this question is based on the definition of medium. According to Merriam-Webster the definition of medium is “a means of effecting or conveying something.” Based on this definition I suggest that video games should be included under the umbrella of media.

From cave paintings to motion pictures, forms of media have co-evolved with society to more accurately and effectively communicate “something” to people. Similarly to any form of media, video games send direct messages, but what sets video games apart from other forms of media is how they communicate them. Video games are an interactive form of media that allows players to be a part of the game and to make choices. Yes, one can argue that in board games like dungeons and dragons this is equally true and that with proper imagination a reader can become part of a book just as easily. However, in How to Do Things with Video Games Ian Bogost highlights that “videogames are computational, so the model worlds and sets of rules they produce can be far more complex” and much more realistic (Bogost 2011). The dungeon master asking you to slay a dragon is much different than a mission given to you in Call of Duty. Missions in these games challenge your morality. In 2009, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 presented a controversial mission entitled “No Russian” where the user is told to massacre hundreds of civilians. This is different than the dragon because the player has to pull the trigger, witness the pain, and hear the suffering of the victims. However, game play allows for the user to not participate and act as a bystander (which is arguably just as bad). Decisions like this make gamers reflect on themselves and who they are. Not all the lessons of video games are as deep and thought provoking though. Pokémon for example, allows players to control an avatar that is an adolescent traveling the world with animal-like companions. Through this journey the player learns about independence, fiscal responsibility, and the importance of treating “animals” with kindness.

Image from Flickr

Image from Flickr


Understanding the relevance of video games as a medium is not limited to lessons learned, but includes how video games are impacting society. Scholars in the field of media ecology have started investigating the effects video games have on life. In McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, he proposes that “the game…is the sole remaining ideal” in life, and the world we live in is “gamespace” (Wark 008). He elucidates his point by describing the world of “The Sims.” In this world there is no such thing as idle time because every action is just a part of the overall plan to advance the life of your avatar. Although video games are more notably abstract, you find more parallels between our world and The Sims’ world than expected. In today’s society, more and more people are focused on advancing their lives to achieve a goal, but when “[they can do what [they] secretly wanted to do all those years ago… [they]can’t remember” what it was (Wark 017). The game’s designer, Will Wright explains how “The Sims” also acts as a parody of consumerism because players spend all their time acquiring objects that are meant to save time. Just like in “The Sims”, today’s society is overwhelmed by the compulsion to have the next big thing, but all of this time spent on these objects defeats their initial intent to save time. It is not just what games are saying about our lives that needs to be studied, but how these games are affecting our psyches and lives. The most popular topic in this genre is the potential correlation between violent video games and shootings in America. Is this truly the case? Or is this as baseless as schools banning Catcher in the Rye after the Lennon shooting? Millions of people have read Catcher in the Rye or played a violent video game and only a small percentage have participated in a shooting. Rather than focusing on this, I believe that the attention should be shifted to studying military training, especially those of drone pilots. Earlier I discussed how video games challenge our morality, but is it possible that games could potentially dull that sense? Pilots use video game simulations during training, and then when they execute missions their stations resemble that of a hardcore gamer. Bogost argues that technology is “changing how we perceive, conceive of, and interact with our world… it structures and informs our understanding and behavior” (Bogost 2011). By making it a less realistic scenario, is the military using technology to isolate morality from killing? (Though one could use this same argument to defend that video games correlate with shootings, there is an inherent difference between the two. This is intentional training, with the purpose of training to kill).

With the introduction of more mobile technology, video games are no longer limited to time spent at home. Sony has allowed for game play to transfer from console to handheld and the Facebook app has allowed for players to harvest their “Farmville” crops on the go. With the ability to keep this connection with video games at all times it has become harder to “jack out” and return to reality (Gibson 1984). Perhaps the break suggested by Wii during gameplay is not just advocating exercise, but jacking players out to remind players what reality is. As video games become more accessible, it becomes a medium for a more diverse population. Although gaming was once thought to represent a niche audience, times have changed. Video games are “woven into everyday life,” but not everyone is aware (Bogost 2011). Unfortunately, as suggested in The Matrix, “no one can be told [this]. You have to see it for yourself” (The Matrix 1999). So now this leaves you with one question. Which pill will you take?


Works Cited
Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.
The Matrix. Prod. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. By Andy Wachowski and Larry          Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. Village Roadshow Pictures, 1999.
Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

Game(r) Critique

September 29th, 2013 | Posted by Kim Arena in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Just like many other technological elements, video games act as a medium that are capable of portraying themes, emotions, lessons, judgments, truths, and many other factors that can teach us things about the world, ourselves, and others. In the introduction to How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogot states, “We can understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does” (3), and games play a much larger role than just providing entertainment, whether we are aware of this or not. Games can be used as to train people—more emotionally and mentally than physically—for real life situations. Army soldiers play video games to prepare their reaction times and emotions for battle and astronauts utilize virtual reality for flight simulation. In both cases, the participants are able to undergo real life experiences minus the reality, thus ultimately removing the aspect of death. And it’s not to say that this doesn’t have an affect on their experiences, as there is a survival element within all of us that is activated in the presence of near-death situations. Yet, being able to prepare for the other emotional aspects tied into such scenarios can prove advantageous. But games don’t have to be “educational” to prove a point, and the point that they prove may not even be intentional.

I know from playing games I have experienced real-life emotions—such as an increase in heart rate, sweaty hands, an increase in concentration—in response to situations, regardless of whether or not those situations are considered “realistic”. In that moment, you are immersed in the game, you are the avatar, and it is that life that is your focus. But just because you are removed from reality doesn’t mean that you cannot learn from these “artificial experiences”. In fact, games provide a means for us to explore the world (or worlds) and experience perspectives that reality may inhibit us from perceiving. There are elements of a game, such as multiple dimensions or “power-ups”, which do not exist in our reality yet that still allow us to connect to the world in ways similar to how we would connect to our world, to aid us in challenges and direct how we approach problem solving. The study of games and reflection of ourselves—within the constraint of the rules of the game’s creator—could offer interesting insight into us as humans and the way we approach different situations and react to scenarios.

Games don’t have to be “life-like”, such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, or the Sims, all of which simulate real-life situations. I found that I learned more from the ones that removed me from the realism and placed me in a situation where I didn’t feel like I was in a game, or even experiencing it. Take for instance Storyteller, a relatively simple game that involves moving three characters around a fixed setting. The game seems simple, yet it became more interesting as you began to realize how moving the characters affected the ending. As I continued to play around with the characters, I began to see a pattern of which combinations would produce which endings. I had become a “god”, capable of manipulating the fate of the three characters. This is how the game became more than just a game; this is where it became a medium. It provides us with an interface through which we can examine our own morals and the consequences—without having to “actually” experience them. But just because it isn’t “real” doesn’t mean the game doesn’t invoke emotions. As I toyed with the characters, I realized that I was experiencing different emotional reactions to the different endings, and these reactions demonstrated how I perceive relationships and the subsequent actions that I took. Once you have created one story, and thus generated an ending, you can continue to manipulate the characters to change that ending. I found that the endings the included the death of one of the characters (usually marked by a blackened sky) made me go back and automatically try combinations that would reverse the black sky. However, in the relationships that ended with two of the characters alive (and with hearts and a blue sky), I was content and almost reluctant to change anything, regardless of whether the third character was dead or alive. These characters do not have names, do not have a back-story, are not portrayed as good or evil, and do not speak. I was judging them based on how I had placed them within the setting and on the resulting outcome, an outcome dictated by an algorithm. Though I was the “god” I was still confined to the rules of the game. It didn’t matter who they were or the intricate details that would play a role if they actually had “lives”. Yet I still cared about them, and sought to have a happy ending, even if that required the death of one. What does that say about me as a person? Am I that quick to judge, that quick to take sides? Am I that indifferent towards one life if it means the happiness of two others? These are all things I began to think about as I continued making combinations, and it was through the medium of this game that I was able to recognize these aspects of my self.

Storyteller is a simple game, a prototype even, and yet I was able to discover traits and think differently than I had before. If such a simple medium were able to provoke such an outcome, it would seem that the game as a medium holds truths and insights that go beyond beating an algorithm. You don’t just play a game, you experience it, and just as you learn from experiencing life, you learn from the game.

The same can be said for “The Company of Myself”, through which you learn the story of a lonely character’s life as you progress through levels. Each level begins with a quote from the character, aimed at giving you a hint for completing the level but also depicting the sad reality of the characters isolated life. The character is alone for most of the game until he falls in love with another character, Kathryn. For a few levels, you work with both of these players together, and through this you experience the bond between them as they help each other, and thus the gamer, progress to each level. However, at one point you are required to sacrifice Kathryn in order to complete the level. When I was playing, I experienced a sense of guilt for having been responsible for her death, yet conflicted because there was no other way to complete the level and continue going with the game. This guilt that I felt is shared by the character, as demonstrated through his quotes at the beginning of the levels. The game portrays a story in an interactive way that forces you to experience questions and sympathize with emotions in ways that another medium, such as a book or medium, could not. While those allow you to feel emotions and connect with the characters, you are detached from the story, whereas the video game element allows you to immerse yourself in the story, to be the one making the decisions–and it is that factor that affects how we perceive and reflect on the story we are given.

Games reflect elements of our lives and are models of our experiences, thus they will be different for each person who interacts with them. Games serve as a medium through which we can reflect on ourselves based on the reactions and decisions we make through game play. Life itself can be considered a game—both have goals, achievements, rules, challenges, and consequences and require contemplation of morals and values. When we play a game, we are playing a role with our actions, constrained by the rules of the game, yet free from the confines of death, as death is not as absolute in a game. But just because we have a reset button doesn’t mean we don’t treat a game as we would treat our own life.

Bogot, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.