Are games media or design objects?

In a recent post on the Edge blog — which, if you con­sid­er your­self a games design­er, you absolute­ly must read — Matt Jones asks:

Why should pock­et cal­cu­la­tors be put on a pedestal, and not Peg­gle?”

He writes about the need for games to be appre­ci­at­ed and cri­tiqued as design objects. He points out that the cre­ation of any suc­cess­ful game is “at least as com­plex and coor­di­nat­ed as that of a Jonathan Ive lap­top”. He also spec­u­lates that rea­sons for games to be ignored is that they might be seen pri­mar­i­ly as media, and that main­stream design crit­ics lack lit­er­a­cy in games, which makes them blind to their design qual­i­ties.

Read­ing this, I recalled a dis­cus­sion I had with Dave Mal­ouf on Twit­ter a while back. It was sparked by a tweet from Matt, which reads:

it’s the 3rd year in a row they’ve ignored my sub­mis­sion of a game… hmmph (L4D, fwiw) — should games be seen as design objects? or media?”

I prompt­ly replied:

@moleitau design objects, for sure. I’m with mr Lantz on the games aren’t media thing.”

For an idea of what I mean by “being with Mr. Lantz”, you could do worse that to read this inter­view with him at the Tale of Tales blog.

At this point, Dave Mal­ouf joined the fray, post­ing:

@kaeru can a game be used to con­vey a mes­sage? We know the answer is yes, so doesn’t that make it a form of media? @moleitau”

I could not resist answer­ing that one, so I post­ed a series of four tweets:

@daveixd let me clar­i­fy: 1. some games are bits of con­tent that I con­sume, but not all are

@daveixd 2. ulti­mate­ly it is the play­er who cre­ates mean­ing, game design­ers cre­ate con­texts with­in which mean­ing emerges.

@daveixd 3. think­ing of games as media cre­ates a blind spot for all forms of pre-videogames era play”

@daveixd that’s about it real­ly, 3 rea­sons why I think of games more as tools than media. Some more thoughts: @moleitau”

To which Dave replied:

@kaeru re: #2 all mean­ing regard­less of medi­um or media are derived at the human lev­el.”

@kaeru maybe this is seman­tics, but any chan­nel that has an ele­ment of com­mu­ni­cat­ing a mes­sage, IMHO is media. Tag & tic-tac-toe also.”

@kaeru wait, are you equat­ing games to play to fun? But I’m lim­it­ing myself to games. I.e. role play­ing is play, but not always a game.”

At this point, I got frus­trat­ed by Twitter’s lack of sup­port for a dis­cus­sion of this kind. So I wrote:

@daveixd Twit­ter is not the best place for this kind of dis­cus­sion. I’ll try to get back to your points via my blog as soon as I can.”

And here we are. I’ll wrap up by address­ing each of Dave’s points.

  1. Although I guess Dave’s right about all mean­ing being derived at the human lev­el, what I think makes games dif­fer­ent from, say, a book or a film is that the thing itself is a con­text with­in which this mean­ing mak­ing takes place. It is, in a sense, a tool for mak­ing mean­ing.
  2. Games can car­ry a mes­sage, and some­times are con­scious­ly employed to do so. One inter­est­ing thing about this is on what lev­el the mes­sage is car­ried — is it told through bits of lin­ear media embed­ded in the game, or does it emerge from a player’s inter­ac­tion with the game’s rules? How­ev­er, I don’t think all games are made to con­vey a mes­sage, nor are they all played to receive one. Tic-Tac-Toe may be a very rough sim­u­la­tion of ter­ri­to­r­i­al war­fare, and you could argue that it tells us some­thing about the futil­i­ty of such pur­suits, but I don’t think it was cre­at­ed for this rea­son, nor is it com­mon­ly played to explore these themes.
  3. I wasn’t equat­ing games to play (those two con­cepts have a tricky rela­tion­ship, one can con­tain the oth­er, and vice-ver­sa) but I do feel that think­ing of games as media is a prod­uct of the recent video game era. By think­ing of games as media, we risk for­get­ting about what came before video games, and what we can learn from these toys and games, which are some­times noth­ing more than a set of social­ly nego­ti­at­ed rules and impro­vised attrib­ut­es (Kick the can, any­one?)

I think I’ll leave it at that.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is an independent designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

4 thoughts on “Are games media or design objects?”

  1. I think I’m with you with this. And I’m say­ing that despite my idea is that games are a very good way to deliv­er a mes­sage through mechan­ic and to be expe­ri­en­tial spaces. But, as you say, they are more a tool where mean­ing can emerge.

    In this sense, I think it could be right to say that games, per se, are not a medi­um, but that game mechan­ic could be used as a medi­um to con­vey a mes­sage and a point of view and to make the play­er expe­ri­ence that. Just like Ian Bogost says in Per­sua­sive Games. I’m also think­ing Bren­da Brathwaite’s Train.

    So, I will say that games are not media, but they could be the con­tain­er of an expe­ri­en­tial medi­um. Can we say the same thing in a clear­er way?

  2. Dig­i­tal games as we know them now are weird hybrids. Ulti­mate­ly, they can be either media, objects or both. The most impor­tant thing is to be aware of these dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, and not be lim­it­ed by just one frame. Since ‘games as media’ is such a dom­i­nant frame at the moment, I tend to high­light oth­ers. But it would be a mis­take to say they can’t be media, it’s more inter­est­ing to look at how they can be media, and how they can be oth­er things (objects, rit­u­als, habits, toys, etc.)

  3. I’m glad to see such a clear expla­na­tion of what I think is a very impor­tant point of view. I also think it’s far more inter­est­ing to look at games in this way. I’ll keep this post in mind when I want to explain this thought.

  4. Thanks Noël, glad you find these notes use­ful. Do you write about these kinds of things at Bash­ers?

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