The Medium of the Video Game

[ Film, Media, and Popular Culture ]

The Medium of the Video Game

Edited by Mark J. P. Wolf

Foreword by Ralph H. Baer

The first thorough investigation of the video game as an artistic medium.



33% website discount price


6 x 9 | 223 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-79150-3

Over a mere three decades, the video game has become the entertainment medium of choice for millions of people, who now spend more time in the interactive virtual world of games than they do in watching movies or even television. The release of new games or game-playing equipment, such as the PlayStation 2, generates great excitement and even buying frenzies. Yet, until now, this giant on the popular culture landscape has received little in-depth study or analysis.

In this book, Mark J. P. Wolf and four other scholars conduct the first thorough investigation of the video game as an artistic medium. The book begins with an attempt to define what is meant by the term "video game" and the variety of modes of production within the medium. It moves on to a brief history of the video game, then applies the tools of film studies to look at the medium in terms of the formal aspects of space, time, narrative, and genre. The book also considers the video game as a cultural entity, object of museum curation, and repository of psychological archetypes. It closes with a list of video game research resources for further study.

  • Foreword: Ralph H. Baer
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Mark J. P. Wolf
  • I. The Emergence of the Video Game
    1. The Video Game as a Medium (Mark J. P. Wolf)
    2. Super Mario Nation (Steven L. Kent)
  • II. Formal Aspects of the Video Game
    1. Space in the Video Game (Mark J. P. Wolf)
    2. Time in the Video Game (Mark J. P. Wolf)
    3. Narrative in the Video Game (Mark J. P. Wolf)
    4. Genre and the Video Game (Mark J. P. Wolf)
  • III. The Video Game in Society and Culture
    1. Hot Circuits: Reflections on the 1989 Video Game Exhibition of the American Museum of the Moving Image (Rochelle Slovin)
    2. Play It Again, Pac-Man (Charles Bernstein)
    3. Archetypes on Acid: Video Games and Culture (Rebecca R. Tews)
  • Appendix: Resources for Video Game Research (Mark J. P. Wolf)
  • Index
  • About the Contributors

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The year 2001 marks the thirtieth anniversary of commercial video games, which began with Nolan Bushnell's coin-operated Computer Space arcade game in 1971. Initially seen as an experiment, novelty, or toy, the video game grew into an item of mass consumption during the 1970s and quickly expanded through the 1980s and 1990s into a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. During its first thirty years, the video game market has rapidly expanded and has proven to be powerful competition for film and television; and as films like Super Mario Bros. (game, 1985; film, 1993), Street Fighter (game, 1987; film, 1994), Mortal Kombat (game, 1992; film, 1995), Wing Commander (game, 1990; film, 1999), and Tomb Raider (game, 1996; film, 2001), and so on, have shown, a source of material for films and television as well. During the 1990s, home computers and CD-ROM drives took over a large sector of the gaming market, although game systems such as Super Nintendo, Virtual Boy, X-Box, Sega Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, and others continue on in the game-console tradition. Newer technologies like DVD-ROM now feature games, and "level editors" allow players to design and play their own levels of games like Doom (1993). And stand-alone arcade-style video games found in malls are also keeping pace with games of increasing speed and complexity, moving into ever more detailed three-dimensional environments, virtual reality, and simulator games.

Despite three decades of development, there has been relatively little scholarly study of these games, or even an acknowledgment of the medium of the video game as a whole. Acceptance of the medium as an art form is still in its early stages. Yet film and television industries realized the potential of the new medium as early as the mid-1970s, when they sought to have a hand in the video game market; CBS Electronics and 20th Century Fox made their own game cartridges, and several dozen movies and television shows were adapted into game cartridges for the Atari 2600 system alone. As audiovisual entertainment whose content is largely representational, video games have a lot more in common with film and television than merely characters, settings, and plotlines. During production, producers of video games sometimes hire the same special effects houses that film and video makers use for animated sequences and motion-capture sessions. In the area of exhibition, video games compete for audiences at the same sites as film and TV: most multiplex theaters have video games in the lobby, if not separate side rooms devoted to them; home video game systems use the television set itself, encouraging their owners to play game programs instead of watching broadcast programs; and video rental companies, such as Blockbuster Video, also rent games and game systems. In record stores, alongside compact discs of film soundtracks, there are now CDs like Duke Nukem: Music to Score By and the soundtracks to Myst (1993), Riven (1997), and other games. And there's even competition at the Academy Awards, with the 1998 nomination of an animated sequence from the game Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus for Best Animated Short.

Theoretically, many of the same issues and concepts in film theory can also be applied to video games, and video games are themselves becoming more like film and television, embedding video clips within the games, or like many laserdisc, CD-ROM, and DVD-ROM games, relying on video sequences almost entirely. Many games now use recorded sounds rather than just computer-generated ones, and they have elaborate opening and closing sequences, in an attempt to create a more cinematic experience (including long crawls of end credits). And as graphics grow more representational and detailed, product placement and imbedded advertising may also become as common in video games as they are in movies (for example, Sega's Top Skater (1997) features over a dozen billboards for Coca-Cola). Video games are also rated just as films are, due to violence, nudity, and adult themes. Whereas films are rated by the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association), many video games are now rated by the AAMA (American Amusement Machine Association). Naturally, then, video game theory finds its roots in film and television theory.

Video Games and Film and Television Theory

As media, video games are already widespread and unique enough to deserve their own branch of theory. Currently, they are best approached and analyzed using conceptual tools developed in film and television theory and media studies. The study of video games overlaps these fields in many theoretical areas, including those of the active spectator, suture, first-person narrative, and spatial orientation, point of view, character identification, sound and image relations, and semiotics. Video games often rely on a knowledge of cinematic conventions (for example, in the construction of space and narrative action, continuity editing, the use of off-screen space, and concepts of point of view), and the possibility of one-on-one interaction means video games can extend them in ways that film cannot. While films traditionally position the spectator to identify with the main character through point of view and other techniques of suture, the actions of the player's on-screen surrogate character in the video game are controlled by the spectator/player, who vicariously experiences the game through the on-screen surrogate as a participant and not just an observer. Though we may refer to film spectatorship as "active," due to the viewer's ongoing attempt to make sense of the film, the video game player is even more active, making sense of the game as well as causing and reacting to the events depicted. Many games depict their diegetic worlds from a first-person perspective, and much of what occurs is due to the intervention or curiosity of the player, although in other games, quick thinking and fast reactions are required during game play. Only when a player becomes attuned to the design of the game and the algorithms by which it operates will success be possible; thus a certain manner of thinking and reacting is encouraged. In both film and video games, an inherent worldview is embodied in how actions are followed by outcomes and consequences; when a criminal is caught at the end of the film, we can read it as a cautionary tale, and likewise, other actions can appear to be condoned or encouraged. While film or TV may influence behavior, in the video game, the player is called upon not just to watch but to act; simulation becomes emulation, and sympathy becomes empathy. Alternate endings and branching storylines also help to define the inherent worldview by rewarding or punishing certain behaviors. A look at the medium of the video game may also bring to light certain unacknowledged assumptions in areas of theory dealing with reception, spectatorship, narrative structure, and the nature of the diegetic worlds seen on-screen and one's experience of them.

The study of video games also adds new concepts to existing ideas in moving imagery theory, such as those concerning the game's interface, player action, interactivity, navigation, and algorithmic structures. The interface bridges the gap between the diegetic world and that of the player. Whether by mouse, joystick, trackball, gun, head-mounted display, or keyboard, some additional means of inputting player actions must be integrated into the design of the game. Informational graphics and nondiegetic displays are combined with game play in a variety of ways, each of which has a particular effect on the gameplay experience. Likewise, the way players' actions are transmuted to their on-screen surrogates are often designed to be as transparent or intuitive as possible, though not always. Navigation of the diegetic world also frequently figures as an important element of game play, and maps and mapping are common. Navigation also enhances the feeling of a consistent, three-dimensional space, through which one can freely move or at least have the illusion of moving. And finally, the algorithmic structures controlling the game's events and characters are gradually discerned, and knowledge of how they function is often needed for success in the game. While figuring out these structures, or solving puzzles or challenges posed by the game's author, players try to think like the designer or programmer, which sometimes forces them to momentarily take on the author's way of thinking. The interactive nature of video games, the possibility of many different outcomes, and the illusion of effectiveness and power on the part of the player can make video games potentially more attractive to people than more passive media; indeed, video games have even been shown to be clinically addictive. Public debate as to the effects of video game violence occurs alongside debates regarding violence in film and television.

Examination of all of these elements will enrich moving imagery theory, pointing out unacknowledged assumptions which may lead to a better understanding of traditional media and the way they are received by an audience. And, audiences accustomed to interactive media like video games and the Internet may also begin to regard traditional passive media in different ways as they come to seem more passive and linear or more manipulative by comparison. Yet at the same time, the illusion of freedom one has in a partially navigable video game world can serve to obscure the points of view and assumptions which in some ways are even more present than they are in an on-screen world in film or television. Worldviews and ideas may be more effectively intertwined with the diegetic world in a video game, because a player's experience seems less directed than that of the viewer of a linear, noninteractive work. If knowledge of how film operates on the spectator is still incomplete, consider how much more incomplete is the knowledge of how video games operate on players, and what their effects are. Video games have become well integrated into other cultural forms and media, and yet are often overlooked as a cultural influence, despite a long and prominent presence in American culture.

Cultural Importance of Video Games

Historically, the video game has occupied several other important positions in culture; it was, in the early to mid-1970s, the first computer that could be used by the public in the form of stand-alone games in the arcade. And shortly after arcade games, home video game systems became the first entrance of the computer into the average American household. Some early systems even used the term "computer" as a selling point; the Atari 2600 was released officially as the Atari VCS CX2600, the "VCS" standing for "Video Computer System." In this way, the video game helped to build a positive, fun, and user-friendly image of the computer, which helped to usher in the era of the home computer only a few years later. In the long run, game cartridges were a good marketing tool for early home computer systems. Many people at the time wondered if they really needed a computer, or what they would use it for, since typewriters, board games, calculators, ledgers, and other technology already served their needs. Games made the computer a recreational device instead of merely a utilitarian one.

The video game was also the first medium to combine moving imagery, sound, and real-time user interaction in one machine, and so it made possible the first widespread appearance of interactive, on-screen worlds in which a game or story took place. Simple as they were at first, they fascinated the public, and quickly grew into a major industry. Nolan Bushnell's Computer Space brought him around $500 in royalties in 1971; a little over twenty years later, in 1992, the video game industry grossed over $5.3 billion, an increase of more than ten-million-fold. Sales in 1998 were 22 percent higher than 1997 sales, making 1998 a record-breaking year, with $6.3 billion in U.S. video games sales alone. The year 1999 broke the record again with a total of $6.9 billion. Worldwide sales are substantially higher, and the annual sales for individual companies can be in the billions of dollars; in fiscal 1997-98, Nintendo of America made $4.0 billion and Sony Computer Entertainment of America made $5.3 billion. Not only does the video game industry now make more money than the film industry, but video games often take up more of the audience's time than films do. Whereas a movie can be viewed in its entirety typically in under three hours, video games, with their multiple levels, fast-action challenges, and puzzle solving, can require many hours of game play even when players have become familiar with them.

Today, the on-screen or diegetic worlds found in video games have grown tremendously in detail, size, and interactive potential. The shapes these diegetic worlds and the manner in which they are depicted have been heavily influenced by those of film and television, but have not remained limited to them. As video game graphics increase in resolution and rendering speed, and film and television move into the digital realm, the gap between them continues to close. Gradually, films are joining video games in the realm of computer graphics, not only through the growing use of digital effects in film and the use of video clips and film language within games, but with films like Toy Story (1995), Antz (1998), and A Bug's Life (1998), which are all entirely computer generated. Toy Story was also adapted into a Super Nintendo game, the graphics of which, although of much lower resolution, still managed to retain quite a bit of detail from the film's characters. Live-action films also have their equivalent in full-motion video games like Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Star Trek: Borg (1996), and others. Actors, storylines, and cinematic conventions are crossing over into video games, and many of the familiar titles, series, and franchises are often found in both.

The medium of video games itself has evolved with astonishing speed, and it is still changing—rapidly. Its growth is most striking when compared with that of other media; for example, film was still largely black and white and silent after its first three decades. In the same span of time, video games advanced from PONG to 64-bit and DVD-ROM-based games, and it is difficult to predict what they will be like even five years from now. With a rich three decades of history already behind video games, the medium is ripe for study.

Difficulties in Studying the Video Game

Why, then, has the video game largely been ignored in academic media studies? One reason might be its status as a "game," which separates it from traditional media such as books, film, radio, and television, despite its audiovisual nature and often narrative basis. Early games were also very simple graphically and narratively, and rather limited in subject matter. Since then, however, both graphics and storylines have improved, warranting more analysis and comment. Greater complexity and depth give the video game designer more opportunity to embody a message, worldview, or philosophy into a game in the same way these elements can be incorporated into novels and films. While it is true there are still a good number of games which are the gaming world's equivalent of slapstick comedies or plotless action films, more serious work continues to emerge and develop. The social effects of video games may also be difficult to pin down exactly—not that those of film and television are any easier to determine—but considering the position video games occupies culturally, it cannot be denied that an influence is present. And considering the amount of attention given to marginal films and TV programs, certainly video games are deserving of scrutiny under the academic microscope.

Perhaps the main reason for the neglect of the video game is that it is more difficult to study than traditional media. Admittedly, the video game as a "text" is much harder to master. Whereas someone can listen to a piece of music, read a novel, or sit and watch a film from beginning to end and be satisfied that he or she has seen all there is to see of it, this is usually not the case with a video game. Indeed, game-playing skills may be required to advance beyond the first few levels, or some puzzle-solving ability may be needed just to enter a locked door encountered early on in the diegetic world. Instead of fixed, linear sequences of text, image, or sound which remain unchanged when examined multiple times, a video game experience can vary widely from one playing to another. Even if a player has the right skills, there are often courses of action and areas of the game which are still left unexplored even after the game has been played several times. Mastery of the video game, then, can be more involved (and involving) than mastery of a film; in addition to critical skills, the researcher must possess game-playing or puzzle-solving skills, or at least know someone who does. Guides and cheat books are also sometimes available.

More time is also needed to experience a video game. Whereas movies are generally no more than a few hours in length, video games like Riven (1997), Tomb Raider II (1997), Final Fantasy VIII (2000), The Longest Journey (2000), and so on, can average forty or more hours to complete, not including all the possible endings they may contain. Sometimes it is not even clear how many choices a player has, and discovery of alternate narrative paths or hidden features (known as "Easter Eggs") is also a part of game play. It make take a good amount of playing time and attention to detail to say for certain that one has seen and heard everything a game has to offer (that is, all the screens, sounds, and video clips). Often, one needs to grasp an underlying logic in order to do so.


This book examines the video game as an artistic medium which has developed quickly in a short span of time. The first part, "The Emergence of the Video Game," begins in Chapter 1 with a look at the properties of the medium itself and the range of games that the term "video game" has been used to cover, along with explanations and definitions of some video game terminology and technology. In Chapter 2, Steven L. Kent offers an overview of the first twenty-five years of video game history.

The second part of the book, "Formal Aspects of the Video Game," features four chapters in which I examine the use of space, time, and narrative, and finally, how the video game challenges existing notions of genre, along with a descriptive list of video game genres. When possible, examples in this section will be taken from games that are more common, familiar, or easier to find; thus many examples will be taken from Atari 2600 games and more common games like Myst (1993), although unusual games will also be noted when necessary. Typically, I will also focus mainly on stand-alone arcade games and home video game systems, as video gaming is their primary purpose and function; the home computer came on the scene relatively late and subsumed the functions of the video game as it did the typewriter and calculator. On the other hand, some games, like First Star's Spy Vs Spy (1984), were only available as home computer software; likewise, networked games are played mainly on home computers, so mention of computer games will be made as well.

The third part of the book, "The Video Game in Society and Culture," looks more broadly at the social and cultural function of the video game. In Chapter 7, Rochelle Slovin, director and founder of the American Museum of the Moving Image (AMMI) in Astoria, New York, relates her experiences of museum exhibitions of video games. In Chapter 8, Charles Bernstein's "Play It Again, Pac-Man," an essay commissioned by the museum, takes a look at the American attraction and addiction to video games in the late 1980s. In Chapter 9, Rebecca R. Tews examines approaches that psychological research has taken toward the video game and suggests that Jungian archetypes may provide a key to understanding the role that video games play in culture. And finally, the appendix, "Resources for Video Game Research," includes some books, articles, websites, and suggestions for those interested in video game research.

Although "video game studies" is not yet an accepted field of academic study in the way cinema studies or television studies are, the video game has had a great impact on society and culture, and its influence on life in the late twentieth century should not be ignored. It continues to grow and mature, and has not yet shown signs of leveling off technologically. Aesthetically, a canon of "classics" is already developing. The video game's rapid growth, widespread appeal, and uniqueness as a medium behoove us to pay it closer attention and give it the examination and analysis that it is due.

Mark J. P. Wolf is Assistant Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.

"This book offers a historical, formal analysis of video games that no other book to date has provided in such detail.... Wolf also effectively investigates the scientific and market forces that aligned with the development of video games to create a powerful cultural force."
—Heather Gilmour, Executive Producer, American Film Institute New Media Ventures