Janet H. Murray

Is cat poop the same kind of medium as videogames?

There has been a lot of twitter chatter this week about an endearing rant by Darius Kazemi with the arresting title of Fuck Videogames aimed at encouraging frustrated game designers to embrace other forms of creative expression.

Clearly this is a timely message, and probably a mark of the success that this active community of practice has  had in encouraging creative expression in videogames.

I don’t quarrel with Kazemi’s main point — and in fact I’ve often said that there is no hierarchy of media. No individual book, for example, is more valuable than any individual game (or film or TV show) just because it is expressed in lengthy text passages instead of interactive bits or moving images.   But Kazemi isn’t talking about books or films. He is talking gelato and cat poop — which I do indeed have a problem with.

Here is Kazemi’s  list of potential alternate media for the frustrated game designer:

My problem with this list is that it uses the word “medium” in too many different ways.  I have claimed, and I continue to claim, that the computer is a new form of human expression. This is because we have not previously been able to represent the world procedurally — in code that is executed  rather than in words, sculpture, moving images. The digital medium — the representational use of computers processing, including but not limited to the genre of videogames —  is indeed an exciting new medium  in the sense that language was a new medium when humans began to speak.  Videogames are an important, formative genre within that new medium, like epics within spoken language or Hollywood romances within the medium of cinema.  A genre is defined not by its transmission format (although platform is important in constraining the creative palette). A genre is defined by conventions of representation (winning, shooting, resource management, avatar creation). Videogames are definitely a new media genre in that sense, and they are playing a key role in shaping  shape the larger digital medium (or why would a search engine company have just hired a chief game designer?).

Twitter and hypertext are formats — they are ways of transmitting digital communication.  Text messaging is one form of digital transmission, and twitter is a stable platform with its own genre conventions for text messaging, but it is more like a specialized channel than a medium.  It is easy to think of the proprietary company disappearing but the practice of broadcasted updates (which also exists in Facebook of course) as continuing on a different platform.  Hypertext is not proprietary (thanks to Tim Berners-Lee!) and it also exists across media format. It is a convention of digital media.  There is also a tradition of practice around hypertext which offers a lot of creative models, which game designers generally have as much respect for as they do for cat poop.

And what about cat poop and gelato? These are materials with the potential for inscription. Cat poop and gelato could be used like clay or like oil paint and canvas. In fact there is ample precedent for painting with food and with animal dung. But they are only “new” in the sense of “novelty.” And they have physical constraints that make them likely to be less lasting than clay or  oil paint — or  digital games.

Which brings me to the real difference. Videogame design is not exciting because it is “new.”  Nothing gets old faster than mere novelty. Videogame art is exciting because it is a productive way of exploring the truly, historically new affordances of the digital medium.