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how to do things with videogames

media microecologies

Where Reality is Broken founded itself primarily on research in positive psychology, How to Do Things with Videogames introduces us to media study, which is more properly the research paradigm underlying new media studies and videogame studies in particular.

Bogost begins with Marshall McLuhan, who is one of the foundational figures in media study (Wikipedia). The principle behind the familiar refrain (quoted in our reading), the “medium is the message” is that it is important to study the media technologies that participate in any communication practice: from the pigments and frames of portrait paintings and the typewriters and presses of modern novels to the cameras and screens of cable television and the laptops and search engines of web browsing. As Bogost writes, “Where once our understanding of media was limited to their representational aspects (the meaning of a photograph, film or novel), McLuhan’s influence helped steer scholarly, journalistic, and public attention toward the effects a medium exerts on society.” Of course this attention is not always done with much expertise or subtlety, as in the way the popular media might portray the effects of the web on our ability to pay attention, videogames on violence, or texting on grammar. However, more sophisticated work certainly gets done. In literary studies, for example, the history of the book as a technology has become a central area of research.

Bogost’s approach integrates a study of the medium with a study of the message or content. It’s an astute move as medium and content are not always easily distinguished. For example, Bogost co-edits an scholarly series at MIT Press on the subject of “Platform Studies,” which examines the role of hardware, specifically gaming consoles. This is a relatively new venture. A slightly more mature area of study is called “Critical Code Studies” (Wikipedia), which is the humanistic study of source code. So the hardware is the medium and the source code is the message/content? Maybe. Sort of. The video game you play is the message/content and some intersection of software and hardware is the medium? OK. Or is the video game (World of Warcraft for example) the medium (with its environment, AI subroutines, gaming engine, etc.) and the interactions of players the content? It gets harder to figure out where to draw that line.

To be clear, this is McLuhan’s point, as he wrote, “the content of any medium is always another medium.” This is where we head toward an ecological approach to media. Let’s stick with a videogame example, Minecraft. As I think I mentioned, I set up a Minecraft server for my son and his friends. So my iMac upstairs is the medium on which the game is being played. In which direction shall we go? Towards the operating system and hardware for the server? The electricity the is the medium which drives the computer? The wires that deliver the electricity? The power station and turbines generating the electricity? Etc., etc. Or do we go the other way, through the router with its open port allowing network access to my iMac? The Internet with its wires, hardware, and software protocols? The computers on which my son and his friends access our server? The light projected from the monitor to their eyes? Their nervous system and cognitive functions that allow them to process the images on the screen? The cultural and linguistic structures that assist them in making meaning of the images? Indeed, McLuhan makes the point that media technologies operate as an extension of our central nervous system. Following upon such observations, one encounters the work of Edwin Hutchins and Andy Clark who articulate concepts of distributed cognition and extended mind respectively.

However with Bogost’s book we are going to focus less on the cognitive/psychological aspects than we did with McGonigal. Instead, we will turn, in a more literary way, toward the formal and cultural operation of the games themselves. As we are reading the first five chapters (Art, Empathy, Reverence, Music and Pranks), I’d like to see you go into depth with one fo these “things to do” and come up with your own example of a video game that undertakes that activity. Ultimately our task here, along with Bogost, is to explore the rich variety of ways that videogames interact with us.

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About Alex Reid

Associate Professor and Director of Composition in the English Department at the University at Buffalo

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