The Video Game as a Medium

In this article I elaborate on Video Games as a medium with its own unique characteristics. My overall claim is that calling this medium “hybrid” or “difficult to categorize” does not reflect so much the nature of the medium itself as it reflects the confusion of those who try to understand it. The video game is, despite all the complexity that it is associated with, a medium that can and should be defined without thinking of it as a hybrid of all media that preceeded it. The article starts with my suggestion to use the term ‘media-instance’ to overcome the complexity that surrounds the video game medium. Then I continue to examine the video game medium and try to define the raw material that distinguishes it from other types of media. Finally I examine how this raw material is assembled and articulated in order to create a meaningful aesthetic experience for the user. Enjoy!

Introduction: Some Initial Definitions

Just at the beginning of this article, I would like to suggest the term mediated games to address those games that depend on the mediation of a human or a machine in order to be played.

Human-Mediated Games

A well known example for human-mediated games are Fantasy Role Playing games, in which players are positioned in and guided through the game world and story by a narrating mediator, the so-called Dungeon Master (or DM). As someone who delivers us information from a world that we as the ‘ordinary’ players cannot directly access, the DM really deserves to be called a “Medium”. She is no different from those people that claim to establish contact with the dead and bring us news from them. As such an omnipotent “Medium”, the DM is in control of the game world and the ways in which event unfold. It is her narration that situates the players within the game and creates meaningful context for play. It is through this mediation that players become able to analyze their situations, make their decisions and take their actions.

Machine-Mediated Games and the Video Game

Machine-mediated games reached unexpected heights with the advent of digital technologies and the use of computer hard-and-software. For sure, the personal computer is today one of the most popular of these mediating machines when it comes to games. Game consoles, handhelds, the internet and mobile phones can now be listed as other computer hard-and-software-depending platforms for mediated games. Seen from this perspective, the video game, being an software artifact which can be designed for all of these platforms, could be defined in its broadest sense as a mediated game built upon and around computer hard-and-software.

The Video Game: Nature of the Medium

Video games are software artifacts. They are mediated and played through software-aided media, which involve computer technology as a central component in the process of this mediation. These media have been often described as hybrid or trans-medial because of their complex configurations. The palette of available platforms such as personal computers (workstations, laptops), game consoles (often used with a TV set), mobile phones, the internet (requiring a workstation and a browser application, but recently also accessible through game consoles and mobile phones), and handheld devices, as well as the various types and formats in which these platforms appear in the markets, is quite impressive. And as impressive as it is, it is also difficult to cope with their variety.

The category ‘computer-mediated games’ seems to be helpful to overcome this confusion. It also allows us to address particular configurations of this category, which can be thought of as “instances” of a general “prototype”. Once these instances are configured, they will show differences which form the basis for unique possibilities and limitations in creative use, although they would not transform into a totally different category of media.

Video games are software artifacts that are mediated through these uniquely configured media-instances. It’s important to understand the relation between a software artifact and a particular media-instance. This is central in assessing the creative potential that is present in a given pairing.

The Raw Material of Video Games

Video games as a software artifacts result from the creative use of their own raw material. They are software systems with certain structures or architectures that contain data files and run with the help of algorithm-defined procedures. These systems can be designed to initiate, run and terminate themselves by their own means. They can also articulate input into their processes and provide output. The procedural and reciprocal nature of these software artifacts bears a creative potential by itself, which enables the creation of content with certain style features and narrative qualities. This opens the ground for an immersive experience for its users.

The ‘Media-Instance’

However, this creative potential is framed by the qualities of the media-instance that is at work and for which the video game is developed to perform on. Media-instances are variants close in their configuration to the general computer-aided media prototype: this prototype is basically made of a processor, data storage, input/output devices, and an operating system that maintains the relations between these parts. In other words, the media-instance that is chosen to run the video game software, is a computer-aided medium that itself performs under the guidance of another software, the operation system. The technical parametres of the media-instance at target, like its data storing capacity, its access speeds to these data, its flow volume at a given moment along the internal communication lines, and its processing power, will all have an impact on the aesthetic dimensions of the design of the software artifact.

Human-Machine Interplay as a Specific Difference

The most revolutionary side of this new form of mediation is its potential in enabling participation of humans to the mediated process. Users of this medium are enabled to situate themselves into the mediated process and influence its progress. During this process, their impact on the game world, and their position in it becomes part of the ‘mediated’. The user’s presence within the realm or the virtual world that the software generates, becomes a mediated presence, which is communicated to her through output devices. Input devices such as keyboard, mouse, various types of controllers, and the interface (in contrast to the surface or screen of traditional visual media); and various output devices such as monitors, speakers or TV sets, become the essential parts of the medium and its processes of mediation. Together they shape the reciprocal dimension of the medium.

As complex as the configuration issue seems to be, once its components have been decided and put in place, we can speak of a media-instance with its own unique creative qualities, possibilities and limitations. The given configuration of the media-instance is what the video game as a software artifact falls in line with, and together they define the boundaries of creative use. The various ‘lines’ are where we must look closer at if we want to explore the nature of the video game as a medium.

Where Software and Media-Instance Intersect

The way in which the software artifact and the media-instance fall into line with each other will change the way in which the software artifact, its data and its algorithmic procedures are designed. The relation between the both is the first step in estimating the potential of the creative use of the medium. Put simply, the outcome of each different pairing would be a different video game with different styles and narration.

As the relations between software artifact and media-instances are explored, refined, merged and redefined; as valuable experience regarding the nature of the medium is gained through hands-on practice in the industry; as commercial and business aspects push developers towards technical and content-related standards; we see conventions emerge out of the reservoir of creative uses of the video game, which lead to the establishment of various genres.

On the other hand, new discoveries in creative use, and rapid change in technology continue to create chances to achieve things that haven’t been tried or even thought of before. Since computer hard-and-software is the basis of both software artifact and medium-instance, future developments in hard-and-software will continue to have a deep impact on the nature of the medium and its creative potential.

Once we have seen where the creative potential of this new “cultural form” lies, we see that we indeed speak of a unique medium, despite its many ‘instances’. We do not speak of a hybrid, nor do we speak of something trans-medial. This way of perception is actually what is creating confusion around the medium, not the medium itself.

Simulated Representation:
The Articulation of Things Present

In its broadest sense, the video game can be seen as a simulated representation, mediated through an ‘instance’ of a computer-based medium. This simulated representation becomes possible through the strengths of one of the raw materials of the video game medium, the algorithm, which enables both reciprocity and articulation. Of course, a video game does not just consist of algorithm-based instructions or programs. It also draws back on a variety of stored data like images, animation, text files and sound, and also input, which must be articulated into the process as well. In that sense, video game as a software artifact consist then of three basic components, data, input and instructions. But it is the processes of assemblage and articulation that give presence to the simulated representation.

‘Levels of Signification’

In order to understand how this assemblage and articulation takes place we can borrow a theory from Linguistics: The notion of ‘signification levels’, developed as a model by French Linguist Emile Benveniste. This notion has later been also utilized by Roland Barthes in his study on the structure of narratives.

Levels of Signification in Video Games

Levels of Signification in Video Games

If we approach a video game from the perspective of this model, we can distinguish two layers of articulation in the process of the creation of meaning:

1)On one hand, there is a paradigmatic (or analytical) level, which contains a number of elements which are by themselves denoting nothing more than what they are: an image, a sound, an instruction.

2) On the other hand their is a syntagmatic (or synthetic) level, in which the neutral paradigmatic elements, as they climb up vertically, create new meanings. These are meaning that they alone would not be able to create.

In other words, if the elements on the horizontal axis are combined, they rise up onto a new level that produces meaning. Assemblage and Articulation are therefore the processes that create meaning.

Here, this article on the video game as a medium comes to an end. Thanks for the patience that you showed throughout the read. I hope you enjoyed all of it. Until another time, take care!

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