The Forgotten Medium

The original Danish-language version of this article appeared in the magazine Samson, April 1999.

The research done on computer games up till now is quickly perused. This in spite of the popularity of the interactive medium and an economic success that surpasses that of the film industry. This article seeks to explain this disproportion and to lay a few modest building blocks to the foundation of a new field of research.

“Let there be no doubt about it: these games are not harmless fun, as some think, but rather digital poison.” exclaimed Senator Joe Liebermann in the American Senate last year. The target for his verbal weaponry was the apparently increasingly more violent computer games of the time – certainly a popular target when the army of worried parents and pedagogues take aim with the loaded bazooka of guilt transference. But if the discussion were to be characterized by one keyword it ought to be exactly that: Doubt. Researchers deliver relativistic statements, but there they are, the boys, hour after hour glued to the screen without showing the least bit of interest in the parental arsenal of character building activities ranging from brisk strolls to books filled with learning. Had it only been the television set that attracted them but no, it is something far more mysterious; an activity where the boys themselves are the active ones and where red slime monsters occur with the regularity of real world train delays.

Surely, this must be dangerous?

In the discussion concerning children and young people’s relation to computer games this question has been the most commonly articulated. It is, however, notoriously difficult to answer and scientific research has all but ignored the subject. The computer games industry may have surpassed the film industry in revenues but still, it isn’t really something one has wished to get involved in. First of all this restraint calls for an explanation. Afterwards this article will present a sketch of the history of the computer game – a necessary foundation for the possible introduction of theory and methods of analysis.

The blind eye of media research

New fields of research are difficult to deal with. Research is the building upon a foundation of experience, the abandonment of earlier hypothesis and the revision of old theories. When such a foundation does not exist there is no discussion, no experts to refer to, let alone place oneself in opposition to. Consequently there is a certain inertia in the broadening of research fields. It is just plain hard to start something new.To this we must add that the computer game exists in an academic no-man’s-land.

On one side the character of the phenomenon as an audiovisual experience places it within the field of film or communication science. But if the interactive texts are studied in their context of use the theorizing seems to belong to pedagogy/psychology or perhaps to broader cultural research such as sociology. Even if a modest theoretical perspective is chosen one encounters problems. In a text analysis it can be hard to capture a phenomenon that leans towards issues of mass communication but at the same time doesn’t seem to make sense without a focus on the interpersonal aspects and questions raised by the interactive multimedia experience.

Finally, the history of the phenomenon plays an important role. Computer games come with strong fast food connotations. The birth of the games into a masculine pubertarian environment has placed them solidly among the lowest low of popular culture – an area that has not traditionally enjoyed great academic interest. With the convergence of media studies and cultural studies and the more general rehabilitation of phenomena of popular culture, however, this is about to change. Hopefully this article may speed up the process however slightly.

The dangerous pictures

The mass cultural connotations of the visual media still bring them into conflict with a more traditional concept of quality and artistic as well as general value. At the same time playing is not traditionally seen as a very productive activity (or at least as an activity pertaining specifically to childhood). In a childhood environment of professional caretakers the children sense an opposition towards the idea of the machine as toy. The reason for this, according to child culture researcher Carsten Jessen, is that the pedagogues “do not perceive the computer as an appropriate activity for small children. The computer is viewed, as is television, as a sort of ‘passive entertainment’, which may make the children antisocial, reduce the scope of their imagination and have destructive effects on playing.”

The hostile attitude may in part be traced to Herbert Krugman who, in the sixties, performed a series of EEG experiments on children to measure their brain activity while they were watching television. The quite controversial experiment showed that the alpha waves of the brain of a television viewer corresponded to those of a sleeping person and were quite different from those of a (book) reader.

These results where popularized by Jerry Mander in an all-out-attack on the television medium (Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, 1978) and were highly compatible with Neil Postman’s description of the dangers of using television for educational purposes other than showing the harmful nature of the medium. These television pessimists picked up on the thoughts of Marshall MacLuhan’s description of how the visual medium brought along a regression to a pre-textual form of thought and therefore was a threat to the dominance of rationality.

MacLuhan saw the visual media as involving the user in a much more unreflexive manner than the distance demanding and rationality-motivating book. But in contrast to MacLuhan who had made serious reservations and primarily had sought to start a debate on the new media his heirs were overwhelmingly critical and unconditionally worried about the harmful effects of television. Their popular scientific work may be considered to bear much of the blame for the educational distrust of visual media.

One may, however, also have to look for the explanation in the classical misgivings about commercial popular culture. Furthermore it is possible that this new unknown sphere of youth culture is perceived negatively by the older generation because it symbolizes something uncontrollable and unknown. In the words of psychologist Eugene Provenzo: “Concern on the part of parents and other members of the adult community may in fact reflect their fear of losing control over youth populations.”

The history of computer games

Carsten Jessen and Lis Fauerholdt probably represent the most serious research done on the subject in Denmark. With a media ethnographic focus on concrete situations – for example the Introduction of Doom II (ID soft, 1994) in a youth club – it has been possible to attack (if not downright falsify) some of the commonly accepted premises of the debate. No, computer games are not used to replace human interaction and no, there is no obvious link between the apparent themes of the games and subsequent behavior patterns of players. The qualitative approach has hereby proven its relevance. What one may specifically miss at this point is the quantitative basis for generalizing the conclusions.

There is also a need for the understanding of the history of the phenomenon. Even Jessen and Fauerholdt display a fumbling insecurity when seeking to describe the experience of playing. The game Doom is describes as having a three dimensional interface and it is claimed that the playing experience may be “compared to walking with a video camera held to the eye and seeing the world through it”.

Now computer games have something in common with film – both are two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional world. There is therefore nothing particularly three-dimensional about the interface and there is nothing new about the ability to move into the picture. What powers of explanation the video camera hold isn’t obvious either. But the confusion illustrates the need for a common frame of reference.

The very first computer game was Spacewar from 1961. It was an explosive feat of invention but the popularity of the game was limited by the fact that it could only run on mainframes the size of two-room apartments. Spacewar went through innumerable changes but it was basically a dogfight between two spaceships in a sharply defined space. This space, the locked screen, was to limit the activity of the player for many years to come.

Ten years after the birth of Spacewar arcade games started to become common. Most often, however, you had to go to specially established arcades that were built in connection with other leisure activities such as movie theaters and malls. Unique among those compelling game boxes was Space Invaders (Taito, Bally Midway, 1978). The popularity of thiis game broke the confinement of the arcades and brought the machines out of the subcultural semi-darkness and into restaurants and caf´s.

Meanwhile creative programmers started to surpass the traditional limits. It was obvious that the single screen picture was unnecessarily restraining and in an attempt to break the rigid boundaries of game depth the late seventies saw the arrival of the adventure game with the prototype Adventure as founder. The game was available to North American Universities with access to ARPAnet (a precursor of the Internet). Adventure (AKA Advent or Colossal Cave) worked by a completely textual interface describing the action and environment of the protagonist (in response to commands such as ‘go north’ or ‘look at tree’).

This textual interface (parser) was important as it allowed the player to interact with the game in a far more complex fashion than previous multiple-choice-interfaces (where one might for example be asked to choose between three options). Adventure was, however, obviously poorly designed to part the arcade guests from their quarters so the development split into two tracks.

With the development of more exploration oriented games it became obvious that a more mature audience was ready to spend days and nights completing these purely textual and generally inflexible constructs. Apparently these players hungered for interactivity – for the possibility of active participation. Companies such as Atari started to tentatively probe the potential market for home based game machines. And the demand was hard to miss. So the arcades and the home consoles developed in a parallel manner over the years – in commercial competition but especially as mutually supplementing phenomena. Technological innovations have almost always been initiated in the arcades but the personal computer games have bet on the development and complexity of form. Companies such as Atari have wisely sought to spread over both markets.

The 1980′s saw an almost violent development of the adventure genre, which was supplied with graphics and a more accessible interface. The action genre pushed the capacity of machines ahead and reached a peak with Gauntlet (Atari, 1985) which permitted four players to play simultaneously. It’s interesting to note how the possibility of ‘constructive’ teamwork made Gauntlet at least as popular as the traditional kill-or-be-killed multiplayer type.

The strategy genre developed in the late eighties as a more flexible and variable variant of the adventure game. Early triumphs such as Pirates (Microprose, 1987) and SimCity (Maxim, 1989) established the genre as a significant alternative to the adventure genre which now (with certain significant exceptions) has slipped into the background.

The chief reason for the (relative) decline of the adventure game is probably the development in the last five years towards still more open and user-autonomizing game structures. Wolfenstein 3D (ID Soft, 1993) was not only a technically superior action game but also marked the arrival of a completely new concept of the structure of the computer game.

This digital change of paradigms may be described as an expansion of interactivity. Not only is the player the force behind the plot. He, and I do of course mean he, is now also empowered to negotiate the frame of this plot. Modern action and strategy games may of course be played as they are but the creative player can now construct his own levels, his own sound effects, down- and upload add-ons and changes from the Internet.

Not only has this development placed some of the artistic responsibility with the player but the player has also moved himself in search of networks. Modern computers are of course connected and this gives the games a whole new potential. Several thinking beings may now act in the same fictive world at the same time. Omnipresent Internet caf´s testify to the importance of this new quality. Complex worlds may now be explored together, fearful battles may be fought without danger to life or limb.

Chasing the effect

The last sentence is worth noticing because many are not satisfied with life and limb. The debate concerning computer violence circles to no small degree around the children’s souls and the effect of violent images upon said soul

A particularly revealing comment comes from former member of the [Danish] Children’s Council Frode Muldkj´r: “Image violence floods our children through film, video, computer games, Internet, and commercials. Isn’t it a strange society that just says that those things have ‘little or no effect?’”. I, however, would personally like to ask if it isn’t a society at least as strange that just says that we should, on principle, be afraid of that of which we really know nothing.

The question of violence is, as sociologist Henrik Dahl has put it, the Loch Ness Monster of media research. We have searched and searched and only found what corresponds to unfocused photographs of dubious contours. But as I hope to have hinted at the violence question is but one of many possible scientific perspectives. The exceptionally gender-specific appeal is well worth examining just as the skill evolving aspects and social function of games have to this date have only been touched upon sporadically.

The road ahead

All the dangers of text analysis lurk around the corner for the person who tries to analyze the themes of the games. The existing efforts to construct complex structuralist analysis or psychoanalytically inspired readings have resulted in nonsense and largely irrelevant abstractions.

When J. Staalby in a Danish thesis (Computerspil, tekst og tegn. RUC, 1995) hunts the connection between the graphical appearance of Doom and Jaques Lacan’s theories about the perceptions of young children the result is somewhat strained. When media researcher Jens F. Jensen tries to lay bare the structure of Space Invaders using the narrative schemas of Propps developed to understand the structure of Russian fairy tales the explanatory value is rather limited. The players often use the computer as a toy whereupon the theme of their play is projected – rather than the reverse.

It is to a high degree still the child who defines the frames and direction of the playing or in the words of Carsten Jessen: “It is, however, worth noticing that the program does not control the content of the play activity. It is the children themselves who define the space and content that the playing develops and this often happens in contrast to that which the programs explicitly calls for.”

As an equivalent of the ’subversive’ reading of reception analysis it can be noted how the players often find great satisfaction in using the games in ways that are totally unpredictable to the outsider. The intertextual element of games also plays a significant role – a role which is of course completely overlooked when bloody images such as the above one from Doom flood the debate on a tidal wave of moral panic.

The fact that computer games refer ironically to each other is almost as a matter of definition hard to spot for the outsider. And ‘outsider’ is an apt description of the main characters of the debate and the, often educationally oriented, experts appointed to protect children and young people from inappropriate influence.

As I have implied the media ethnographic perspective seems to hold the greatest power of explanation. This method has shown how games are often used socially and it has been suggested that the games must be seen in connection with a focus on the general nature of play. Further along this path is materializing the promising perspective that the reason why human beings play in the first place is the possibility to acquire skills in simulated situations.

It is probable that one when applying this perspective will come to the conclusion that certain computer games may in fact contribute with more contemporarily relevant skills than both brisk strolls and books filled with learning.

Further reading

  • Carsten Jessen:
  • The arcade game museum Videotopia:
  • Thesis on interactive fiction:
  • Survey of Danish computer game player habits:

With thanks to Rachel Dalton