At the end of August, Frank Lantz of Area/Code posted a really intriguing thought piece to Game Design Advance that asserts that "Games Are Not Media", which is an expansion upon a similar thought grenade that Lantz lobbed into the audience at last year's Game Developers Conference. Here's how he sets up the piece:
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.
As it so happens, this is something that GAMBIT US Executive Director Philip Tan and I have been going around and around about since before GAMBIT opened its doors. (Philip prefers to describe a game as a single session of constrained play, like a baseball game, whereas I prefer to describe a game as the thing that has rules, pieces, players, instruction manuals [or not], discs [or not], and so on as required.) Philip and I have finally come to some more or less common ground on this topic, partly due to a long conversation at lunch over Lantz's provocation. So some congratulations are in order Lantz certainly achieved his goal of getting people to talk about it. The only problem is, how Lantz addresses what he perceives as common assumptions which lead us to believe that games are media is brilliant, but it's those common assumptions he's perceiving which I'd argue are incorrect.
As a matter of fact, I will now spend the next several thousand words arguing that very thing...
Prelude: A Statement of Tactics
Before I begin, let me first say that I have a great deal of respect for Lantz, and Area/Code is doing some bloody terrific work in the transmedia space. It is partly due to that respect (and partly due to my own argumentative nature, as demonstrated by one of my undergraduate degrees being in Philosophy) that I cannot let this essay slip by without weighing in on the matter. (Sorry, Frank.)
Lantz structures his article by listing an assumption (which I've placed in italics) and then attempted to demonstrate why that assumption is wrong. This is a well-proven and sound rhetorical approach, but I'm going to take another well-proven and sound rhetorical approach and show that the very assumptions Lantz tackles are themselves incorrect and that by disproving these assumptions Lantz does not, by extension, demonstrate that games are not media. Below I've taken Lantz's structure one step further by quoting Lantz's listed assumption and his arguments, and then added my own responses beneath each one.
1. Media Is Not New
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?
Right off the bat, Lantz sets about building a decent argument, but his assumption is wrong. The term 'media' most certainly does not strongly suggest the telecommunications tech of the late 20th century. The term new media "strongly suggests the electronic telecommunications technologies of the 20th century", sure, but in order for something to be considered new media, it must stand in relation to an old media.
Here in the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, the study of 'Media' frequently refers to the Internet, video games, or television but it also includes everything from radio to theatrical performance to oral storytelling to puppetry to painting to photography, and may even include cave painting or textile design. Lantz incorrectly conflates "new media" with "media", which is obviously problematic. Lantz is absolutely correct in his assertion that "as long as we have existed as a species games have been a meaningful and valuable aspect of people's lives", but one could just as easily argue that as long as we have existed as a species media have been a meaningful and valuable aspect of people's lives. (Readers interested in this type of history should look into Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens, Roger Callois' Man, Play and Games or Brian Sutton-Smith's The Ambiguity of Play all of which can be found, I might add, on Lantz's excellent Game Design list on Amazon.com.)
While video games may be considered "new media", games as a whole are, if anything, among the oldest of the old media. Simply demonstrating that not all games are new media does not prove that games are not media.
2. Media Does Not Go In Computers
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.
Again, Lantz erroneously conflates "games" with "video games" in much the same way that he conflates "media" with "new media". It's true that people may assume that video games go in computers or, at the very least, in some kind of digital device like a PC, a game console, a mobile phone, et cetera but asserting that everyone assumes that "games go in computers" is clearly wrong. Even our so-called "digital native" children of today still grow up playing tag or hide-and-seek, not to mention checkers, chess, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Apples to Apples, poker, I spy, go fish, and a near-endless parade of other decidedly non-digital games. Add to this the recognition that television shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or even Survivor are, in some way, shape or form games further shows that this assumption is clearly incorrect.
What really blows this assertion apart, though, is the extended assumption that games of football, basketball, or baseball would "go in computers". While EA is certainly doing its best to make sure that anyone who thinks of a football video game thinks of this year's edition of Madden, any reference to "a football game" is much more likely to think of two teams of big, burly real-world guys kicking the crap out of each other on a real-life field. (Go Bucks.)
Furthermore, the assertion that "we think of video games as media because they're something you play on a computer" strikes me as particularly overreaching. Since when does media need computers? Do we not think of books as media? What about scrolls of papyrus? How about records or 8-tracks, or rolls for a player piano? What about film, be it for a movie or a still camera? All of these are media and they do not "go into computers". Simply put, demonstrating that not all games go into computers does not prove that games are not media, because not all media goes into computers.
That said, I agree wholeheartedly with Lantz that we should think of games not as things that go into computers, but of computers as things that can go into games. The first time I saw this argument on Area/Code's website I nearly stood up and cheered. That was when I first became a fan of Lantz's company, and the continued demonstration of this philosophy by Area/Code is why I remain one.
3. Media Is Not Content
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.
This one is harder to challenge, because Lantz is both right and wrong. Let me break this down a little.
A useful exercise when dealing with concepts like this is to swap out the word 'books' for the word 'games'. Take the tired, worn-out and largely abandoned game-centric (frequently referred to as the 'ludologist', for better or for worse) versus story-centric (equally frequently referred to as the 'narratologist', equally for better or for worse) debate, the oversimplified version of which went something like this:
GAME-CENTRIC: "Games do not tell stories."
STORY-CENTRIC: "All games tell stories."
Both arguments become clearly nonsensical when you swap out the language:
GAME-CENTRIC: "Books do not tell stories."
STORY-CENTRIC: "All books tell stories."
Looking at it this way, the game-centric position is clearly wrong because, like books, some games tell stories, and the story-centric position is clearly wrong because some games do not tell stories. Think about books: phone books do not tell stories. That's not their purpose. Similarly, a game like Tetris does not tell a story. (Some die-hard story-centric theorists argue that Tetris tells the story of falling blocks, or argue that this can be seen as a metaphor for stacking up corpses like cordwood [I am not making that up], but both of these feel like more extreme overreaching to me.)
So let's do the language swap for Lantz's challenged assertion: Books are content. Well, no. Books are media, a tool to contain content. Books are not themselves content. Similarly, DVDs are not content, CDs are not content, and games are not content. These things are media that contain the content. So the question is, what is the content? In a book it's frequently a story (as in a novel) or a collection of data (as in a phone book). In a game, that content might be perceived as the game's rules, or as a story that unfolds through playing the game, or even the gameplay itself. These are all arguments for another time I'd argue that it's possible for a 'game' to be the medium that contains Philip's session of gameplay as its content but the key point is that arguing that "games are not media because games are not content and media equals content" isn't going to get us anywhere, because 'media' actually does not equal 'content'.
It's also worth noting that Lantz opens up a huge problem in his argument with this one simple concession: "Ok, obviously a lot of video games do work like this, but it's also obvious that a lot of them don't." By saying this, he weakens his argument because he's essentially conceding that some video games are content so if he's arguing that games are not media because games are not content, by admitting that some games are content he's also admitting that, therefore, some games are media. But, as I've just pointed out, "media" does not equal "content", so all of this is pretty much moot.
4. One Failed Message Does Not Disqualify An Entire Medium
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.
This is where things get really, wonderfully juicy. Philosophically speaking, all it takes to disprove Lantz's implied argument that "Games are not media because games do not subscribe to the message model of meaning" is trotting out one game that does subscribe to the message model of meaning, and as counter-evidence I'd like to introduce as exhibit A every Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and other delightfully story-centric role-playing game ever released. As long as one game does subscribe to the message model, then it disproves Lantz's argument and you'd better believe that at least one game out there most certainly does. Many players are audiences, and in fact are willing audiences I myself prefer the linear, "on rails" type of RPGs over non-linear "Western" RPGs because of the value I place on a really wonderful story. I willingly and happily concede a good degree of my agency because I want to experience the story the storyteller is constructing for me, and I want to experience it in a video game as opposed to a novel or a film because of the greater degree of immersion afforded by video games.
That said, Lantz's argument also doesn't hold water because it implies that any "media" that doesn't subscribe to his message model of meaning isn't actually media. Many theorists of art, literature, performance and music would happily pull up a chair and argue this point for hours, not to mention some of my fellow linguistic philosophers. Just because we don't know what message a work is trying to convey - or even if there is no transmission of a message being attempted - doesn't mean that the entire class to which that work belongs suddenly becomes disqualified as media. If that were the case, any instance of non-narrative filmmaking would suddenly disqualify film as a whole from being considered as media.
Similarly, Lantz's argument seems to suggest that the failure to convey a particular message should keep that work, and by extension its entire class of work, from being considered media. This is clearly problematic is the entire class of painting disqualified from being considered as media when the first viewer fails to understand what Pablo Picasso was attempting to convey through Guernica? What about the scores of pieces - particularly modern art pieces - that subscribe to the thinking that the meaning of a piece is largely dependant upon who's viewing it? Just because Shakespeare didn't intend there to be a feminist reading of The Tempest doesn't mean that a reader (or audience member) now can't have a feminist revelation of the work and write up that feminist interpretation of the work as a thoroughly compelling doctoral thesis.
At the end of the day, Lantz seems to be saying "games aren't media because games aren't messages", which breaks down to "all media must contain messages", which is dangerous. A work of modern art may be deliberately oblique about its meaning, or may contain no meaning at all, but we don't say that just because it contains no message that all painting is not media. Similarly, the act of painting a house is radically different from painting a canvas; the act of painting, therefore, can be considered both related to media and not related to media or, in other words, the act of painting has the potential to be media. But just because some painting is not media does not mean that all painting is not media. Therefore, saying that "all games are not media because some games do not have messages" clearly cannot be correct.
Really, the moral of this section is that attaching so much qualifying importance to something as ephemeral and subjective as 'meaning' is incredibly dangerous (and largely overly philosophical and academic).
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.
Which can then each be refuted by saying, "media is not brand new", "media does not go into computers", "media is not content that gets consumed", and "media is not defined nor disproven by the successful transmission or containment of a message".
Lantz concludes with this kind of strange final paragraph:
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.
This reads like others have made counterarguments similar to mine, and Lantz is simply nodding and accepting them without attempting to address them or, worse, is simply ignoring them. In a way, he may be right to do so as Lantz himself admits, the key point of his essay seems to be not to convince, but to provoke, and as I already admitted several thousand words ago, he's certainly succeeded on that front.
Still, let me leave you in a better frame of mind. My current philosophy is as follows (and here, the boldfaced text is my own):
Like books, music, performance, and pretty much everything else, games have the potential to convey content, and thus are potentially media. Like books, music, performance and pretty much everything else, not all games tell stories or convey messages. Attempting to make sweeping statements like 'games are media' or 'games are not media' are equally foolish because what they are really saying is 'all games are media' or 'all games are not media', which is as clearly pointless as saying 'all books are media' or 'all books are not media'. Learn to be comfortable in the ambiguity. Think about what type of experience you are trying to create, and then create that experience to the best of your ability. To paraphrase Cat Stevens, "If you want to be media, be media." Just be really damned good media.
And that, philosophically speaking, is all I've got to say about that for the time being, anyway. After all, if there's one beautiful thing about philosophy and academia, it's that even overly-sweeping answers like mine don't stay uncriticized for long. I'm sure there's a doctoral thesis in there somewhere.
(Note: after I wrote this essay, none other than the good Dr. Ian Bogost posted a very solid essay to his blog titled "Videogames Are A Mess", which was the text of his keynote lecture at the 2009 Digital Games Research Association conference at the beginning of this month. In it, Bogost points out quite rightly! that the whole "what is a game?" question is, at heart, a largely misplaced ontological question. In truth, games are many, many things all at once even more than books, movies and so on, as I've argued above. Games are, quite simply, a mess, and one that not only can't clean up, but one that we shouldn't clean up. I agree with him games are a mess that are like a Pollock canvas, drawing their very strength and interestingness from their refusal to behave according to the traditions of older media. God bless 'em for it...
...But yes, Frank. Some games most definitely are media.)