Home Consulting Games Writing Personal Links

The Medium is the Message

This article was published in 1994 in Journal of Computer Game Design, Chris Crawford's now-defunct journal.

In the last fifty years, the United States has moved from a text culture to a video one. People no longer get their information and acculturation mainly from books, newspapers, and magazines, but from movies and TV. As with any technological shift, this has had important and unexpected impacts on society.

The nature of political discourse is one. Even a brief, tabloid discussion of a public event delves into its causes and implications, while TV coverage is restricted to a few seconds or minutes, a single clip, that emphasizes interesting visuals rather than real implications. It is no wonder that our politics is now based on emotion rather than intellection.

The nature of fiction is another. Written fiction, by its very nature, deals with the thoughts and feelings of the story's characters; readers develop empathy. Film, again by its nature, deals with interesting visuals and cannot portray a character's feelings except by its outward expression. There is violence aplenty in written fiction, but rarely is violence celebrated, because violence hurts people, and written stories inherently must explore the hurt. In film, there is violence aplenty, too, usually portrayed in loving, effective visuals. In film, violence looks like fun. And it's no wonder that violence in America is on the rise.

Text challenges the intellect; the reader must make sense of what he reads, must think for himself. Film cultivates a wholly passive audience, an audience that sits numbly before the screen and absorbs what transpires.

It may well be that electronic interactive arts, of which gaming is now the predominant form, will dominate the next fifty years, and we will move from a video culture to an interactive one. What effects will that have? And can we anticipate them, and possibly hope, through current action, to ameliorate the unpleasant ones?

Interactivity has at least one positive feature; interaction itself. The passivity of viewing -- which results in political passivity, in intellectual incuriousness -- is replaced by something else. The most popular form of interactive entertainment, at present, is the cart-based computer game. It cultivates one skill, at any event: fine motor coordination. This is better than complete passivity, but the lack of any intellectual depth to video games is troubling.

Video games have another troubling feature: they inherently involve struggle between the player and an opposition, a struggle almost invariably expressed through violence. And it is violence even farther removed from the emotions of those affected by it than screen violence. Characters' expressions never change, characters have no moral scruples, and game success depends on being unfazed by the violence around you.

Some argue that it is best to eliminate violence entirely from art: this is nonsense. To see this, think of a Shakespeare attempting to labor under such a stricture. How would you write Macbeth without violence, or King Lear Violence is not the problem; glamorization of violence, violence without emotion is the problem.

One artistic challenge creators of interactive entertainment should pose themselves is: how can the new medium be used to affect the user's emotions? How can the thoughts and feelings of characters be conveyed? In principle, the multimedia nature of the medium can make it more powerful, in this regard, than simple text. If text is what is required, after all, we can have that; we can also have characters' voices, visuals, sound effects. It isn't yet clear, however, what use of these technologies can get the user into the minds of the characters he sees on the screen.

Intellectual depth is another problem. It is natural that, in as antintellectual a nation as America, the first expression of interactive art should be antintellectual as well. And certainly, the typical Nintendo game is mind-stunningly dumb: a twitch game, in the argot. Yet there are also games like Wright's SimEarth, Crawford's Balance of Power and Meier and Shelley's Railroad Tycoon that force players to think, and that even teach them something. Another question creators of interactive products must address is: how can the new medium be used to encourage intellection?

Of course, the most intellectually interesting interactive products will not be entertainment: the first true hypermedia encyclopedia, for instance, will be an enormous boon to society. And anyone who can figure out a way to sift through and interact with the enormous volume of data on the Internet without having to read reams of crap and spend hours doing searches and FTPs will have something really useful.

But it's worthwhile, also, to think about how one implements intellectual depth in entertainment products. Entertainment, after all, is a powerful thing. People use entertainment products voluntarily, and are far likelier to learn from them and internalize the lessons than they are from products they are forced to use in school, or experience for a few brief moments in a museum setting. And intellectual depth is not antithetical to entertainment; the novel is still a better way of exploring human psychology, for instance, than the science of psychology itself. The nature of text encourages thought; and readers who think enjoy needing to do so to grasp what they read. Can this be true of interactive products, also?

Let's look at the earliest games of genuine intellectual depth: board wargames. I would maintain that Zucker's Napoleon's Last Battles, for instance, allows the player to understand Waterloo better, in many ways, than any book on the subject. A book can only describe; a game can portray. The map shows the terrain. All the military units of the battle are represented by pieces, whose strengths indicate something about their combat abilities. Initial deployments show where the competing forces began the battle. The ebb and flow of reinforcements, and the clustering of combat around terrain features, shows how and why things happened as they did in the course of the battle. And the ability of players to experiment with alternative strategies helps them understand the mentality and decisions made by the actual combatants.

Board wargames may seem far removed from the coming interactive forms; but in a way, they presage the development of interactive art. Any game is interactive; and board wargames involve visuals and algorithms as well as text. It is a shame, therefore, that even now, a dozen years into the computer gaming revolution, there are few games with the intellectual depth of boardgames from the late seventies.

In principle, multimedia can do this this kind of thing far better. We could allow the player to access individual unit histories; we could zoom from the overall campaign of 1815 down to a tactical scale, showing how combat worked at each level, we could provide a sense of the diplomatic context, we could cross-reference with written histories for those who want to explore further.

This suggests another challenge for developers of interactive entertainment: Can we develop a product that explains a subject better than any print or visual work on the subject? We need something with more intellectual depth and detail than a book -- easy enough, actually, since a book is linear and must focus on its thesis, while hypermedia lets readers explore details tangential to the work's main concern. We need something that lets us interact with the situation and explore alternatives, that lets us 'game it out' and shows us thereby the constraints the system operates under. And we need something that gives us the emotional impact and visual understanding of film and photography. And we need to make it entertaining.

All at once.

McLuhan says: the medium is the message. And after fifty years of video, we know what messages film and TV hold, messages largely destructive to the politics, intellectual engagement, and solidarity of our society. Here, at the inception of a new medium, it is worth taking some time to consider what messages it may hold, and how we can steer the development of the medium so that its social effects become constructive.

Return to Articles page.

Home Consulting Games Writing Personal Links

© Copyright 1994 by Greg Costikyan.