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Games Are Not Media

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At last year’s GDC I spoke in Richard Lemarchand’s microtalks panel, the theme of which was “my idea of fun”. In retrospect, I should have talked about competitive Galcon which is, in fact, my idea of fun. But instead I made the dubious decision of giving a 5 minute presentation on the idea that games are not media. Since then, I have been asked several times to provide a better explanation of this rather strange claim, so I’m going to give it a shot.

I should start out by explaining the purpose of the claim. It’s meant to be a provocation. I want to challenge certain habits of thinking and talking about games. I’m not attempting to clarify a small point about our critical language or clean up a detail about our conceptual framework. I want to give these things a rude shove and shake us out of a bunch of comfortable and familiar assumptions so that we can look at games with a fresh eye.

I’m not going to present a carefully constructed definition of the word “media” and try to show that games don’t fit. Instead, I want to point out some common associations the word tends to conjure up and show how games challenge them. I know it’s difficult to talk about games as a subject without using the word media. I find it hard myself, and I’m sure there will be many situations in the future where I’ll use the term. But when I do I will feel an uncomfortable twinge that will remind me of the ways in which the word is a poor fit, and I hope to instill a similar impulse in you.

Assumption #1 – Games are brand new. The word media strongly suggests the electronic telecommunications technologies of the 20th century. This reinforces the conceptual gap between digital games and the long history of games that predate them. When we say “games are still in their infancy” we are expressing this vision of games as media. But let’s consider video games within the larger context of games as a whole. For as long as we have existed as a species games have been a meaningful and valuable aspect of people’s lives. So we are forced to ask ourselves – is adding computers to something an excuse for making it worse?

Assumption #2 – Games go in computers. We think of video games as media because they’re something you play on a computer. They fit into a computer or a console the way a DVD fits into a DVD player or the way a TV show fits into a Television set. They are “computer media” in the literal sense of a shiny CD-ROM. But I think this view too strongly reflects our particular historical circumstances, our arbitrary position in the vast timeline of games. Computers are big, complicated, interesting devices. But eventually our fascination with computers as objects goes away, because what’s really interesting is computation – the complex processes and relationships made possible and amplified by networked software. Ubiquitous, pervasive, always-connected computation will start to shift our focus away from computers and game consoles as devices and eventually we stop thinking about games as something we put into computers and start thinking about computers as something we put into games.

Assumption #3 – Games are content. The idea that games are media reinforces the idea of games as a form of content that the user consumes. I buy a rectangle that contains entertainment content. I put that rectangle into my machine and I consume it. I don’t consume it passively, it’s an active form of consumption. None the less I consume it up and then go back to the store for another rectangle full of content. Ok, obviously a lot of video games do work like this, but it’s also obvious that a lot of them don’t. Many games are less like content that players consume and more like hobbies they acquire, languages they learn, disciplines they study, and communities they join.

There are clear market pressures that reinforce the idea of games as consumable content, but market pressures change and there are opportunities to profit in new ways by thinking beyond the idea of a game as a piece of content that gets consumed. Soccer is a massive global industry, but you don’t buy Soccer. Soccer is not content and you don’t consume it. And Soccer is not media.

Assumption #4 – The message model of meaning. A medium is something that carries information from a source to a destination. As such, it strongly implies a certain model for how something is meaningful that I call the message model of meaning.

This one is especially important because there’s a lot of contemporary interest in whether or not games are meaningful and if so, how. The message model of meaning implies that games are meaningful the way stories are, they are a kind of statement. Statements are messages from a sender to a receiver. But a game is not a statement. Lots of communication takes place in and through games, but most of it is not communication from a sender to a receiver. Players are not an audience. Unlike messages which transmit meaning, games are like meaning-machines or meaning-networks. The meanings of a game emerge out of a process in which the game creators are one participant, constructing a space of possibilities and crafting our entry into it, and the players are participants, exploring the system and asking and answering questions about it, and the system itself is like a participant, bringing its own material reality to the process.

This doesn’t mean that games are meaningless, far from it. And it doesn’t mean that the creators of games can ignore the expressive dimensions of their game or that they can’t use games for rhetorical purposes. What it does mean is that we need new models for thinking about how games mean that move away from the idea of an audience consuming a media object, that move away from meaning being transmitted from a sender to receiver and towards the model of a conversation in which the meanings are not known beforehand, a way of actively discovering things about ourselves, and the world, through a process that is deeply collaborative – a collaboration between creator, player, and the world itself.

Take for example EVE Online. When it was created it wasn’t a game about terrorism. But a year ago members of the GoonSwarm alliance declared a “jihad” and began executing suicide attacks on non-combatant players who were mining minerals in what was up to then considered completely safe territory. By exploiting the game’s insurance system which let them recover most of the value of their sacrificed ships, the suicide bombers were able to produce a significant impact on EVE’s economic infrastructure without much cost to themselves. For these players, the targets of their self-proclaimed holy war, and the game designers who ended up modifying the game rules to deal with the situation, EVE Online became a game about one of the central conflicts of our time, a game about the complicated relationship between war, religion, economics, and the rules of engagement, as well as an exploration of the ethics of game actions and the limits of good taste.

So, the provocative phrase “games are not media” can be broken down into these smaller claims – games are not brand new, they don’t go in computers, they aren’t content that gets consumed, and they aren’t messages.

Some people have pointed out that you could make the same claims about other cultural forms – movies, music, literature, these things are also more like hobbies and languages and disciplines and communities then they are like content that we consume in order to receive the messages that they carry. I think that’s exactly right. We’ve lived with games forever, but we are only now starting to aggressively explore them as meaningful culture. Doing so forces us to create new conceptual models to understand the ways they produce collaborative and emergent meanings, and these new models can, in turn, give us greater insight into the way so-called linear media works.

10 Comments

  1. Hi Frank!

    I really like this piece. I agree with both the letter and spirit of your argument here when it comes to the need to jettison assumptions about “media” when it comes to games.

    Here’s where I disagree, or probably disagree:

    1) Video games are new because their rules are (usually) disclosed gradually through play and experimentation. They are unlike the games we’ve been playing for millenia, because their rules are not disclosed in advance. The rules of the game emerge through interaction with their systems (the kind of dialogue that you described so well when you were debunking the content-consumption model)

    2) games are content, in the sense that they make a credible claim to representing a states of affairs through the use of rules in concert with visual and auditory elements. (On this point, I think of what jon blow said about Braid: he was trying to represent a very complex truth using game mechanics)

    Other games, like board games, can do this too in an extremely abstract way (catan simulates colonization, right), but video games are *about* a world in a way that other games are not. this is partly a matter of visual fidelity but it’s mostly a matter of computational power.

    anyhow this was a great read.

    Monday, August 31, 2009 at 1:25 am | Permalink
  2. Frank,

    I appreciate that you put this in the form of a critique. From your introduction and from the exact assumptions you attack, it is clear that your ideal audience is one that thinks uncritically about the meaning of words, the cognitive grouping of phenomena, and the history of play. I like that you contextualize this provocation as a ladder that becomes useless once ascended, because much of your actual audience is already quite beyond the assumptions that you lay bare.

    The question then becomes: why throw away the word “media” instead of popularly refiguring it–as the people you mention in the final paragraph already have?

    Monday, August 31, 2009 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  3. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Iroquois…

    >> Video games are new because their rules are (usually) disclosed gradually through play and experimentation.

    Some video games are like that, but most? It doesn’t appear to be particularly true of Rock Band, Wii Sports, Counter Strike, Bejeweled, The Sims, Mario Kart (I’m just trying to think of popular video games.)

    To the degree it is a major aspect of games it’s primarily a result of a single-player structure where you have the player vs. computer-controlled opponents whose abilities and strategies are hidden information, or the player solving a puzzle in the form of a level they are trying to traverse. In neither case is it really the rules that are being revealed over time. Consider the experience of playing a new action platformer – you hit the buttons to figure out what’s jump, what’s shoot, you run around a bit to see how the avatar handles. From that point on you aren’t really discovering new rules as much as exploring the extrapolations of those rules in a variety of situations and in conjunction with different materials, which is what you do with any game.

    In any event, I’m not sure it’s an inherent property of video games as much as a stylistic choice. It’s very popular among artgames, for example, in many of which once the player “gets” the mechanics the game is basically over. I’m not really crazy about it as a style, since I think most of the really cool stuff in games happens once you understand the basic rules and you are exploring the possibility space.

    >> games are content, in the sense that they make a credible claim to representing a state of affairs through the use of rules…

    This idea of games making claims is very interesting. I don’t fully understand it although I’m not prepared to step into that particular ring without some better weapons ready-to-hand. Suffice to say that what you describe sounds a lot like the message model of meaning to me.

    Simon…

    Even if you think critically about all those things the word media can’t help but have a bunch of associations it brings with it. I like to think that *I* think critically about those things, and I know that I have all those associations with the term, because that’s where I got them. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have a fine-grained and subtle and complex understanding of how media works when we stop and think about it, it’s just that when I think intuitively, in broad strokes, about the spectrum of things in the world that are more or less like “media” I want to wrench games away from one end of that spectrum towards the other end. I’m not suggesting we throw any words away. I just want to promote the twinge. I know it’s kind of a messy rhetorical gesture, with all that stroking and wrenching and twinging, and for that I apologize!

    Monday, August 31, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Frank, I was never fully on board with the “games aren’t media” when I heard you make this argument in passing… but fully laid out, I get the argument now and I think you’re on to something.

    Monday, August 31, 2009 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  5. Awesome. Finally put to words! I love this.

    Would you say that single player video games are like mostly like media then? Which is mostly what people have been talking about (until somewhat recently), right?

    This gets me all wound up and excited because you are opening doors where I didn’t really see there were doors in the first place. I always feel like I and others run into issues when adhering to the message model of meaning/interpretation (e.g. the descriptions seem like they completely miss and don’t even acknowledge most of the experience of playing). For example, how a player feels (complicated sensations beyond victory or defeat) performing game related tasks is far more important to the overall experience than what the game itself is technically simulating. Film scholars sort of acknowledge this kind of thing in early film studies with extended essays on the sensations of the close up, etc. Closest thing to this with games is Pilgrim in the Microworld.

    So if you ditch the message model (or at least put in on the side for a bit), do you have some other method for understanding games? The substitution of hobbies for media doesn’t seem to help here.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 6:34 am | Permalink
  6. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Mike…

    >> Would you say that single player video games are mostly like media then?

    Single-player highly-narrative games that you play through one time seem the most “media-like” to me. They also tend to dominate a lot of our critical and theoretical discussions.

    >> So if you ditch the message model (or at least put in on the side for a bit), do you have some other method for understanding games?

    The method I try to pursue and want to encourage starts with a committment to deep play, which is maybe roughly analogous to the idea of close reading in literary analysis. This means attending closely to the reality of your cognitive and emotional experience as you explore a game, as you learn it, try to figure it out, try to understand it, to improve at it, and so on.

    You can’t play every game deeply, and that’s fine, most games I play I play lightly, we all do. But I am most interested in meanings that emerge out of a game when it has woven itself into your life and you have become fluent in it.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  7. Matthew Weise wrote:

    Everything you say makes sense, but regardless I don’t see why we shouldn’t refer to video games as a medium. What and what does not constitute a “medium” is always socially constructed. You could argue that film and television are technically the same because they are both the moving image, but that doesn’t stop us from referring to them as different media. You could point to similar ambiguities regarding theater, dance, radio, music, etc.

    I agree that people shouldn’t misuse the term ‘media’, but I also wouldn’t ignore how video games have been positioned within the existing socio-economic and cultural mechanisms of our society. I would agree that “games” are not media, but video games often are constructed as such and function as such, the same way other so-called “media” are. So why fight it?

    If you’d want to get technical I’d say the computer is really the “medium” of video games, but I usually consider this distinction implicit in any reference I make to the “medium of video games”. As long as we don’t get too carried away with our claims I don’t see why this should be a problem.

    In terms of criticizing the characterization of games as a medium, I think you are on firmer ground in regards to the content/message issue. But I still think you run into problems when you bring computers in. Sports not being “messages”, yeah sure. But video games, even the ones that do function more like sports (like Counter-Strike), are still authored artifacts with hard-coded rules and audio-visual content… both of which are “delivered” via a computer. So unless you are willing to argue that computers are not a medium I think you’d be hard pressed to prove that games somehow fail to take on any of the properties of the media they are filtered through.

    I suppose I’m not really disagreeing with you, but I just think there are some circumstances in which “games” can be considered “media”. We just need to be clear about exactly what those circumstances are.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 8:21 pm | Permalink
  8. Hi. Directed here from Michaël Samyn’s recent Gamasutra article.

    I’d like to add to your Soccer analogy. Soccer is a massive industry because Soccer is mostly Paraphernalia, and most of it not even directly related to the sport. In fact, I was just listening to Cuauhtemoc Blanco, one of Mexico’s soccer stars, selling Pepsi.

    But, as mentioned on your previous paragraph: it’s a hobby you acquire, a language you learn (try explaining offsides to a non-fan), a discipline you study, and a community you join.

    Just my 2 cents. Great thought piece.

    Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Permalink
  9. Guillermo wrote:

    I’m working on a thesis about this and quite frankly I find these statements well, hum, challenging.

    First, games are videogames are different. But you already know that, just pointing it out. The point is videogames might or might not be new, I can’t find any relevance on that but game are for almost every purpose an unknown form of expresion, media, art, entertainment, whatever, you name it. We are still learning and trying to stablich a basic structure so we can break it up later. We don’t know anything about games yet so in a way they are new specially because the real gaming revolution is starting, it didn’t start with pong or tetris it started when story transformed in more than a context.
    Second, game might not go in computers but videogame do. In everyway. It’s not about and specific format or machine, is about what gives them existence, in book is paper (and now digital paper with digital ink) with games is a computer or something that also works with code and 0′s and 1′s.
    Third, it is not helpful at all that you compare videogames with football. Im sure there is a better comparison there but anyway, games are content. It’s interactive content if you want but they are content. We can see them like movies containing multiple endings. One that the director wants to put in and the rest that has to be there for the player or viewer to explore. You don’t get the CDrom because it is a CD ROM nor a english game becasue it is in english and you want to practice your english, you get it becasue of it’s content and everything inside the game can be consirede as content. Cd Roms with minigames to learn english are not videogames, they are pedagogic tools wich use concepts exploited by games but that existed a long time ago, like gamification.
    And the fourth statement is correct but argueable. It completely depends on the game. You can make a game in order to be a statement, just like a movie. Or a game with no statements at all. It’s up to the designer.

    The problem with games is that they are a big big industry with many player involved. Videogames, I think, can’t be study as a whole, as a concept, they should be studied and conceptaulized to specific genres.

    Im sorry about my english, Im writting this bad and fast becasue I had to.
    thank you

    Monday, December 2, 2013 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  10. Elle wrote:

    I agree that video games aren’t media in some sense, but my question is, how would you respond to those that say violent video games encourage violent behavior?
    If this statement has any truth then that would mean a person would have to consume and use video games as informative and giving messages, exactly what you said they aren’t doing.

    Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 3:19 am | Permalink

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