At the 2009 Digital Games Research Association conference, I participated in a panel organized by David Thomas, “You Played That? Game Studies Meets Game Criticism.” The other panelists were William Huber, Margaret Robertson, and José Zagal. The panel posed the following question:

What is game criticism? How should the academy claim its place alongside game journalism as a productive voice in game criticism? Who does it serve? How should it be done? What should game criticism be?

What follows is my position paper on the topic, as it appeared in the conference proceedings.


Even though Marshall McLuhan devotes a few pages to games in Understanding Media (covering the way games extend man the social animal), he doesn’t account for either the computer or the videogame, neither of which had gained popular adoption when he was writing in the early 1960s. The computer makes an appearance as an example of tetrad analysis in Laws of Media (1988), but that discussion focuses on information retrieval and bureaucracy, still signals of the lumbering hands of a notion of computing that was already a quarter-century old.

Might we conclude: videogames are the first creative medium to fully emerge after Marshall McLuhan. By the time they became popular, media ecology as a method was well-known. McLuhan was a popular icon. By the time the first generation of videogame players was becoming adults, McLuhan had become a trope. When the then-new publication Wired Magazine named him their “patron saint” in 1993, the editors didn’t even bother to explain what that meant. They didn’t need to.

By the time videogame studies became a going concern, McLuhan was gospel. So much so that we don’t even talk about him. To use McLuhan’s own language of the tetrad, game studies have enhanced or accelerated media ecology itself, to the point that the idea of studying the medium itself over its content has become a natural order. We can see this plainly in the history of intellectual conflict in game studies: despite their purported disagreement with one another, both ludological and narratological approaches pose questions of form, not of content. Widespread interest in games and literacy has focused on the ways games model good learning principles in general, no matter what topics the games cover. Participants in game studies have become overwhelmingly social scientific in their backgrounds and approaches, asking fundamentally media ecological questions about how players use games to socialize, problem solve, negotiate, and so forth.

McLuhan doesn’t care about “content”; such is the core premise of his famous aphorism, “the medium is the message.” As philosopher Graham Harman puts it, for McLuhan “isolated figures are banned from the outset” [“The Tetrad and Phenomenology.” Explorations in Media Ecology 6:3 (2007), p. 194]. McLuhan is so unconcerned about content that it doesn’t even register a blip on the obsolescence quadrant of the tetrad about the tetrad itself in Laws of Media. As a post-McLuhan discipline, game studies has unknowingly adopted this stance. We rarely talk about specific games, we rarely do criticism, because that’s not what media studies is all about. Media ecology can claim a rousing victory in the example of game studies.

The problem is, McLuhan gets it wrong, wrong in part anyway. While the “properties” of media are important, so is the “content.” If we use McLuhan’s own logic on his very thinking, we might say that media ecology reverses into criticism. It treats individual works as important and meaningful, each one possessing its own properties that both combine with and resist those of the medium that encloses it. Perhaps this is a starting point for what game criticism might look like, should look like in the future. And what it should do is to take McLuhan more seriously, to recognize that his thought has become the ground on which the figure of our work rests. Here we need not worry about embracing McLuhan, as the tetrad does all we need: it reminds us of the ambiguity and oscillation of singular principles and innovations. It encourages us to treat videogames as a medium and to treat individual videogames as their media in their own right. Further, it encourages us to treat the two together, as both SuperNintendo and Kirby, both TCP/IP and World of Warcraft, both PC Baang and Starcraft. That’s the work that would be smart, and exciting, and useful for the future.

published September 2, 2009