Gaming, scrolling, icons, bloat, Wagner and the alphabet: directions in comparative media

Gaming is probably the media industry currently most fully adapted to the digital world. Music and books are the most discussed examples of media change; by comparison the development of board games into the massive gaming industry now seems (retrospectively) the most ‘natural’ and the most invisible. Is this why in popular language use – always the best index of cultural reception – the epithet computer is now less used before games? Clearly there must still be some residual feeling that games on its own isn’t unambiguous enough, hence the useful and expressive gaming. (Devotees of Google ngrams can see the data of the relative recent fortunes of videogames, computer games and gaming here.)

Of all the digital media, including now e-books, the trajectory of the gaming industry seems most clearly heading towards intense, immersive and ‘realistic’ media experiences. There is clearly a highly abstract or non-representational trend in gaming too – I am thinking of Tetris and the side-scrolling convention (e.g. the Super Mario Bros series) where the background moves sideways. This is presumably at some point derived from Far Eastern non-perspectival pictorial traditions, for example Zhang Zeduan’s (1085–1145) astonishing Along the River during the Qingming Festival. On the whole, though, I think gaming shows a strong drive towards sensory literalism, an attempt at one-to-one matching of the media experience to ‘the original’. In the two-dimensional visual sphere this is usually called realism, though since Cubism even we in the West can hardly take it simply for granted.

The latest in the Propagandum ‘Unreproduceable images’ collection – please click to see a larger version! Zhang Zeduan’s masterpiece from the Song Dynasty. Western perspective systems based on the solipsistic viewpoint of a static observer do not apply. Please also note that since 2010 a 3D interactive version on tour has also been attracting massive crowds: see Image from Wikimedia Commons

Within gaming there is also a strong emphasis on sensory input: the typical game design strategy is to max out the volume (in both senses) of sensory information, which necessarily requires the latest computers to process the number of bytes. Please note that the ideas-in-use here seem to ignore the stage of apperception or cognition – what do our brains do with the information input from our senses?

The Romantic poets referred to this active faculty of understanding as imagination, and it was certainly not literalistic or passive. Friedrich Kittler would probably claim that these poets were reacting to available technical means of inscription; William Blake earned a living as a professional engraver and was, 150 years earlier, strikingly articulate about what Walter Benjamin would in 1936 call ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’.

By comparison with gaming, the medium of written language is an abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction – spoken words, as de Saussure suggests, signify not by mimetic realism but simply by virtue of each’s differentiation from its others; then the code of written alphabetic language uses symbols that parted company from their Phoenician ideographic originals more than 3000 years ago – when alf [A] = ox (at 180 degrees?), bet [B] = house (n.b. Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’), gimel [C] = camel (with one hump, nowadays turned 90 degrees anticlockwise …)

Please note, though, that I am not trying to disrespect gaming’s project of information immersivity, particularly by contrast with with the ‘high’ cultures of poetry or literacy; in fact, Wagnerian operas and King’s College Chapel aspire to similar overwhelming multimodal information overload. I am simply pointing out there are different strategies – in every kind of culture – for communication. These strategies do different things, have different implicit models and have different results.

This reminds me of the debate about bloat. Icons on computer desktops are so lavish and literalistic – with 3D modelling, chiaroscuro effects, and drop shadows; they glow, throb, flash, click, disappear in a puff of smoke – why? I don’t think they help us memorize the contents better, simply because they don’t reflect the contents of the icon in an expressive way. For all its faults at least the old C: prompt had the decency to acknowledge it wasn’t the primary reason for our interaction with the computer. In that sense ‘code’ is a literally alphabetic and non-representational mode of communication: abstract, minimalist, elegant, generalizable, flexible, difficult to start with, but becoming more natural with familiarity …

Iconic modes of communication are ipso facto non-literate. The much-vaunted immersive iPad media experience is perhaps based on a shift from static literacy to dynamic visuality. If the pre-release rumours are true, the iPad 3 will have better-than-HD screen resolution. What is the direction here? How can the iPad (and the Kindle, and all the other e-readers if/as they ‘upgrade’ their technical specifications) be both a literate and non-literate device? Boundarylessness is a confusing and disorientating non-place; as Jeff Beck says in ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’, it is ‘everywhere and nowhere’. How will people in the e-books industry know where to draw the literacy versus realism line when they write or produce ‘enhanced’ e-books? Will they end up like interactive films or games? Will they just seem like clunky and rather earnest computer games?

Gaming’s preferred sensory channels are necessarily those mostly readily transmissible through digital replication: sound and vision, currently evolving (fairly easily) to surroundsound and (with more difficulty) to 3D and the representation or enactment of movement in and through space.

Touch, smell and taste would be literally sensational but are at the moment digitally unreproduceable. Firstly the Wii and more recently Kinect are important stages towards engagement with the simple and enjoyable movement of our bodies. Gaming is otherwise astonishingly physically unexpressed – I am continually amazed to see my children play for hours and hardly move more than the muscles in their fingers. Mind you, reading is very static, but there again reading has never aspired to be anything otherwise.

The antithesis of gaming is going to the gym – it produces feelgood endorphins but it numbs our minds, at least the bits of them that forget how quickly time goes past when we play games or read. I’m guessing a workout fantasy game would be a major success – though I’m not sure how games designers would get round the sensory input stage. Wi-fi 3D projector goggles with stereo headphones and gyroscopically stabilized accelerometer? I presume games designers can in theory connect body movements to computer via Kinect and have 360-degree ‘landscapes’, with sound ‘coming from’ a specific location, but there has to be some consistent reference point for the gamer’s perception of being-in-space. And then there would be a lot of trashed living rooms …

I’m on quite a large bet with my elder son that this will happen by Christmas 2018. Anyone know of this kind of thing in the pipeline?

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at
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