Are Games a Medium?

The publication of Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames has opened up the question of whether or not games are a medium in themselves or just a part of the larger medium of software systems (as one reviewer suggests) or as I would call it, the digital medium.

In ITM I define a medium as composed of three layers: inscription, transmission, and representation. We recognize a new medium when the inscription and transmission layers become standardized into common formats, such as oil on canvas, analog TV broadcast or videogame platforms and when traditions of representation build upon those formats,  creating genres such as European painting or American sitcoms or first-person shooters.

Digital games share a common inscription technology — they are all made of bits and they are all interactive.  Digital games have not had a single standardized transmission format, but in the 40 years that people have been making interactive digital games for mass audiences there have been a limited number of dominant and stable platforms, providing enough stability to support the growth of   shared conventions and recognizable genres. We have come to think of all digital games, whether played on a TV set with game controller or a PC or a mobile phone or a tablet or an imaginary holodeck in a sci fi movie as “videogames.”  So it makes sense to think of them as a medium.

At the same time, it also makes sense to see videogames as part of the larger digital medium since conventions developed for games are useful in many other kinds of applications and conventions in other applications such as information visualization, social media, educational simulations, can be very useful for game design.

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