Think of all the things you can do with a photograph. You can document the atrocities of war, as photojournalists sometimes do. You can record fleeting moments in time, as did documentarians like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. You can capture the ordinary moments of family life, as many people do at birthday parties or holidays for an album or shoebox archive. You can take a snapshot reminder of a home improvement project in order to buy the right part at the hardware store. An automated street intersection photograph can capture license plate for future ticketing, and a pornographer can capture a nude body for future titillation.
One way of getting a sense of the maturity of a medium is by looking at all the different things we can do with it. All photographs share certain properties—all bend light through an aperture to inscribe an emulsion or digital sensor. But the uses of photography vary widely. It is this breadth and depth of uses that makes photography a mature medium.
We can think of a mature medium as a continuum or a spectrum, stretching like a line from purely artistic uses at one end (documentary) to purely instrumental uses at the other (the hardware store snapshot). In between the extremes of art and tools are innumerable possible uses. In every medium, no matter its maturity, many of these uses are known and well explored, while others are new and emerging.
Understanding the properties of a medium helps us distinguish between them and influence the sorts of things they can do or produce. Photographs allow light to be recorded on photosensitive surfaces. Telegraphs allow words to be transmitted over long distances. Paintings allow pigmented substances to cover surfaces.
Marshall McLuhan suggested that we study these properties of a medium rather than the individual things produced by them, thus the famous aphorism “the medium is the message.” McLuhan’s point was that the things a medium does to a culture are more important than the content they convey. For example, McLuhan argued that the printing press ushered in an era of visual culture, and that the mass-produced book homogenized experience and knowledge.
Videogames also have properties that precede their content: games are models of experiences rather than textual descriptions or visual depictions of them. When we play games, we operate that model, constrained by its rules: the urban dynamics of SimCity; the feudal stealth strategy of Ninja Gaiden; the racing tactics of Gran Turismo.
On top of that, we take on a role in a videogame, putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else: the urban planner, the ninja, the auto racer.
Videogames are a medium that lets us play a role within the constraints of a model world. And unlike playground games or board games, the videogames are computational, so the model worlds and sets of rules they produce can be far more realistic and sophisticated. These properties of videogames—computational models and roles—help us understand how videogames work and how they are different from other media.
But such an understanding only gets us so far. Videogames suffer under the weight of many misconceptions. Some of these are all too familiar: questions about whether games promote violent action or whether they make us fat through inactivity.
One that some people have tried to overturn is the idea that games are only for entertainment. So-called “serious games” claim to offer an alternative: games that can be used for serious purposes like education, healthcare, or corporate training.
But games, like photography, like writing, like any medium, shouldn’t be shoehorned into one of two kinds of uses alone. Neither entertainment nor seriousness nor the two together should be a satisfactory account for what videogames are capable of. After all, we don’t distinguish between serious and entertainment books, or music, or photography, or film. Rather, we know intuitively that writing, sound, images, and moving images can all be put to many different uses.
A voice can whisper an amorous sentiment or mount a political stump speech. A book can carry us off to a fantasy world or help us decide where to eat dinner. A film can shock us with a factual account of a genocide or help us practice aerobics.
It is time to take the same attitude when it comes to videogames. We must no longer be satisfied to understand and support games as leisure or productivity or nothing. We must do with games what we do already, implicitly, with every other medium we use to create or consume ideas. We must imagine videogames as a medium with valid uses across the spectrum, from art to tools and everything in between.
The good news is, we don’t have to wait for a renaissance in videogames to start doing this. We just haven’t been thinking about games as a medium with many uses, so interesting examples often get labeled illegitimate. Sure, there is lots of unexplored terrain along videogames’ media spectrum, but there are lots of examples that already exist.
There are games used as social satire, like Rockstar’s Bully, which depicts and critiques high school social dynamics. There are games used as propaganda, like America’s Army, which the US Army uses as a recruiting and publicity tool. There are games used for specialized advanced education, like the Sloan Foundation’s Virtual U, which teaches Ed.D. students about running a university.
There are games used for therapy, like Call of Duty, which has been repurposed for psychological use as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. There are games used as a way to experience music, like Harmonix/MTV’s Rock Band, which turns pop songs into performances. There are games used to train employees, like Cold Stone: Stone City, which helps franchise ice cream store workers get a feel for the correct portion sizes of different flavors.
There are games that get us in the holiday spirit, like Sims 2: Happy Holiday Stuff , which adds Christmas items and actions to the popular PC game. There are games used to organize political acts, like A Force More Powerful, which offers strategies on nonviolent conflict and how to build resistance movements. There are games used for political campaigning, like John McCain’s Pork Invaders, a simple web game about pork barrel politics.
There are games used as an interface for work, like Seriosity’s Attent, a Microsoft Outlook plug-in that turns email into an attention game. There are games used for advertising, like Burger King’s Sneak King, an Xbox 360 title in which the player takes the role of the restaurants creepy mascot to deliver food. There are games used for autobiography, like artist Jason Rohrer’s moving little title Passage, which subtly characterizes the strange permanence of life’s choices.
There are games used for exercise, like Nintendo’s Wii Fit. There are games used for religious practice, like youth ministers’ unique way to play Bungee’s blockbuster Halo 2 as a witnessing tool. There are games used as editorial, like Points of Immigration, a game about a proposed immigration bill, which the New York Times published on its op-ed page. There are games used for meditation, like Journey to Wild Divine, which uses a biofeedback controller to encourage calmness. There are games used as pornography, like Jenna Jameson: Virtual Sex Machine, a sex simulator featuring the popular (former) adult superstar. There are games used as documentary, like Escape from Woomera, a recreation of the Australian Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre. There are even games used as mindless distraction, like Bejeweled or Microsoft Solitaire, which many play just to fill the time during a conference call.
When we acknowledge videogames as a medium, the notion of a monolithic games industry, which creates a few kinds of games for a few kinds of players, stops making any sense. As does the idea of a demographic category called gamers who are the ones who play these games.
The point is not whether games qualify as art or not. Nor whether games are useful tools or not. Rather, the point is that there are lots of other things people can and do accomplish with videogames. Some are well-established, like entertainment, and some are emerging, like meditation. No matter, all of those uses taken together make the medium stronger and give it greater longevity.