Games Are Not Media

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.