Originally Published 05/08/2015

When one tries to answer the abundance of questions that surround games and the making thereof, it is easy to become dumbfounded with twists, turns and, ultimately, more questions. This is why with video games, like any other art form, we seek, analyse and formalise our responses to such questions. One such way of discussing these issues is by relating games to other forms of media; therefore I would like to examine games within the spectrum Lev Manovich’s theory of New Media (2001). In this short post, I aim to explain why games are a form of New Media, but more importantly, why it is essential that they be considered a form of New Media.

Manovich’s principles of New Media introduce us to some very broad topics and generalist philosophies that are created to cover all digital media. However, when we look a little closer, it is not hard to begin to draw parallels between Manovich’s theories and games. Firstly Numerical Representation, it is not hard to understand and see, very simply, that video games can be broken down into code. ‘Media becomes programmable’, video-games have always required the knowledge of programmers along with the use of a computer in order to function and therefore conforms to being easily broken down into 1’s and 0’s. This leads us to his second principle of Modularity, the nature of code requires an interfacing between man and machine and thus we have our programmers, responsible for communicating with our technology. Video games are made up of modular piece upon modular piece, a section of code to draw the shape, another to track an objects movement, one for camera control, for shaders, and so on we go. Again Manovich leads us into his third principle, Automation, through the use of modular numerical representation we are left with something that can be easily manipulated and automated. The continued result of these principles is Variability, Manovich’s fourth principle; automated modular numerical representation gives us a new media object which can exist in multiple versions. The final principle, Transcoding, incorporates all of these principles and the cultural results thereof.

A simple way of trying to understand these is by looking at a single game, like The Binding of Isaac (McMillan, Himsl, 2011). The Binding of Isaac is a game comprised of numerical code, 1’s and 0’s, it was created through a series of modular code snippets devised by programmers. Using the player’s movement as an example which, through modular code, has been automated, we are left with a variable amount of directions for the player to move. This can be examined further when we look at the variable modular environments that the games modular code generates, or when we consider the potential enemies which may show up, what they are automated to attack with or the variety or attacks/defences players may find. Thus, the complexity of New Media has come full circle, even more so when we consider the transcoding that takes place when we begin to consider this games impact on the players experience by interfacing with all these principles.

When tasked with looking at video games as New Media and trying to understand these broad philosophical concepts, we may find ourselves feeling like students from Dead Poets’ Society, begging for our Robin Williams to come along and tell us to tear out the ‘understanding video games’ pages of our text books (Weir. 1989). However, Manovich illustrates the potential of looking at games through this lens, during one of his lectures where he examines the way in which New Media affects culture, especially towards the end, where he takes a look at analysing patterns among data sets within games (L.Manovich, 2010). It is this layer of transcoding, the result that New Media had on our culture, that is worthy of our time.

We still have no formal way of studying video games. The fact that it was easier to find an APA system for referencing a movie than it was for finding a game already indicates the value people assign to video games.  WatchMojo illustrates the juvenile way people sometimes respond to video games in its Top 10 Video Game Controversies. Another good example of this behaviour occurred when South Park’s The Stick of Truth was released; the game itself was the subject of much controversy, but not nearly as much as the satirical South Park TV show.

So why is it important that we begin to see video games as an art under the banner of New Media? By doing so we can begin to develop further ways of formalising our study of video games, thus preventing so many misconceptions of video games being perpetuated by main-stream media and we open ourselves up to looking at video games through different lenses. Perhaps by doing so, we can begin to see The Stick of Truth for the satire that it was meant to be, or Grand Theft Auto as a socio-political statement of the classism that occurs in America and the “No Russian” mission from Call of Duty tackling the issue of the abuse of military force.

 

 


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