Video Games as Media Texts

This past week, the book Everything Bad Is Good For You ended up back on my reading list. I first read this book about a year and a half ago and it has become a favorite. Johnson’s arguments for the ‘sleeper curve’ are interesting and, I think, well thought out. What really gets me excited about the book though, are Johnson’s thoughts on why we participate in media and the importance of brain functionality/chemistry in why we choose one media instance over another. His ideas on these subjects corroborate my own thinking and support several of the concepts I hope to study further as part of my upcoming thesis work. I am a strong believer in his emphatic statement that “it’s not what you’re thinking about,… it’s the way you’re thinking that matters” (p. 40). I believe computer games and virtual environments hold enormous potential for teaching cognitive and critical thinking skills.

I recognize that my strong agreement with Johnson’s statements could lead to a very one sided, overwhelmingly positive, viewpoint on my part. As a counterbalance, I try to make sure my reading materials reflect multiple viewpoints. But I have noticed an interesting trend recently, I am seeing a lot more articles touting the positive aspects of gaming than there were even just a year or two ago. I am not sure if this is just because a generation that grew up with video games is now of an age to be entering the scholastic field or if video games have now become prevalent and common enough that initial reactions are developing into a more balanced body of literature. But I think I am not the only one noticing this trend… I recently stumbled across what I thought was a very interesting article about Obama and Microsoft. It seems even our government is turning to video games. Is this a positive or negative?

One thing that Johnson did not do particularly well in his book is define what exactly constitutes a video game. I found the What is a Videogame? chapter from James Newman’s Videogames book to be a really good paring that was helpful in defining the classification, even if I felt it was a little outdated. However, after reading it, one thing I would like further information on is Newman’s statements about arcades. Not having ever been much of an arcade user I am not sure if these statements are still current. Are arcades still a common place for folks to congregate? It certainly seems like there are not as many of them around as there use to be. I was also curious about the statements regarding the physicality of arcades. With home equipment that is significantly improved such as the Mario Cart steering wheel, Dance Dance Revolution mats, and even the Wii remote, has the physicality of the arcade been replicated in the home to a degree that the need for arcades, in terms of physical platform, have been negated?

Beyond wishing for further, current information, there were three other statements Newman made that I found myself questioning. The first was idea that games are played in favor of other media texts that are in some way consumed. Is a game not a form of media text? It seems to me like games are something that can be consumed. They have stories and characters and challenge and conflict much as a good novel or TV program does. And, just as reading one book changes how you interpret the next one you read, so too does playing one video game change the way you address the next one. Video games contain plots and environments that must be worked through and ‘digested’. The hands-on interactive nature of video games by no means diminishes, at least in my mind, the idea of a game as a media text.

The second statement I questioned was the thought that good games don’t feel contrived or, as Newman put it, “they don’t feel like a ‘game’ at all.” While I think there is some validity in this and it might relate to why some people find video games addictive, I don’t fully agree. I think there is a different mentality for most folks when they play a game. For example, players are often willing to take chances they would not normally take and participate in activities they find, in reality, distasteful. Newman’s statement also made me think back to an article I read on Foursquare. One of the interviewees mentioned that they liked the application because it made life feel like a game. To me this seems to offer a clear statement that there is some difference between our ‘normal’ thought processes and those we use when gaming.

The final statement I questioned was one that seemed to be implied in several instances throughout the chapter. As Neuman was discussing video games he seemed to convey the opinion that video games are not art. I know a lot of game designers who would take exception at this statement. I think there is a lot of art that goes into creating a game, the obvious stuff like character design and graphics but also the art of play and narrative, generated by both the designers and the players. Additionally, I think the user/viewer reception of a game occurs much like the reaction to more traditional art. Both are often described using the word flow, as Newman did. I would be interested in doing a survey of opinions on this matter… do most people feel that video games are art or not?

Overall I would have to give my reading choices for this week a thumbs up. But the best part was the excuse they gave me to get my DS out and play a round of Sim-City Creator. Normally it gets packed away during the semester because I just don’t have time to play. Thursday night I manged to get myself up another level… in the middle of my gaming my mother called to ask a question and she could hear the tinny video game music in the background. She asked (facetiously) if I was playing games on a school night. My answer, “but mum, its homework!” :)