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Video Games as Media

February 16, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Tale of Tales' (The Path) Michaël Samyn explores the interplay between games and existing media, urging developers to have a full understanding of precisely what the elements of the medium they're working in add up to.]

Frank Lantz once argued that games are not media -- because they "do not carry an idea from one place to another." I tend to agree with him. But I like to add that "video games are not games."

A Different Kind of Games

When it comes to traditional games -- board games and card games, as well as children's games and even sports and dancing -- Lantz is clearly right.

Games establish a set of conditions within which humans play. Any meaning or message that comes out of the game is generated by the players, and was not enclosed in the game's design.

Video games have been similar to some of those traditional games for a long time. But there have always been remarkable differences. From the very beginning, many video games could be played by a person on their own. Many did not require opponents or partners, as most traditional games do.

Some of the best traditional games have no author.

(Girls playing Hide-and-seek. Photo by Jacques Lessard.)

Video games have also been almost exclusively designed on purpose by individuals or teams. While the origins of many of the best traditional games are vague and complex -- they are essentially authorless. And finally, at least for over a decade already, the presentation of video games on computers is often immeasurably more elaborate and sophisticated than anything we've seen in any of the other games, many of which can be presented through arbitrary tokens.

There's a tendency among developers to dismiss the visual presentation of a video game as "eye candy" or "skinning" or the evil necessary to appeal to a larger market. But what if we would take this presentation seriously instead? What if we look at video games as simulations of fictional realities, as representations of humans and their behavior, as aesthetic spectacles of images and sound and text and motion? Don't they start looking very similar to a medium then?

A Medium Unlike the Others

To be sure, video games are a medium unlike any before. The central role of the player and their ability to interact and change the presentation, makes video games rather unsuitable for the kind of expressive or informative art that we are used to associating with media. But what if we look at this capacity for change as an opportunity rather than a restriction?

Building fictional worlds around the player.

(Assassin's Creed by Ubisoft)

Why would we want to tell a straightforward story like other media do? Have you seen a Hollywood film lately? All stories are the same, apparently. Why would we want to tell this same story again? And what about the desperate attempts of the more artistic directors and writers to cut their stories apart and make absurd associations for the sake of escaping the terror of plot? Pathetic! But at least they understand that there is a problem. They just don't know that we have the solution.

And neither do we, apparently.


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