Winning Isn’t Everything

I used to think that games would be the dominant medium of the 21st century. The reality? They’re too big, too complex, and too smart for that to be true.

By Ian Bogost
Illustrations by Eugenia Loli

It’s hard to turn around in video game circles without hearing someone proclaim that “games are the dominant medium of the 21st century.” Deus Ex and Epic Mickey designer Warren Spector has a lecture built around the idea. The author Tom Chatfield devoted the subtitle of his book Fun, Inc to the concept. Journey composer Austin Wintory’s uttered the quip in an interview. Film critics writing about recent documentaries about games have even let slip the admission. If you feel like it, you can trawl through another 400,000 or so mentions of this aspiration. And aspiration it very much is.

Media philosophers like me have our own special, haughtier version. For years now, I have been arguing that games have a unique power to explain complexity. Unlike television and blogs and TED talks and even many long-form books and articles these days, games are the one popular medium that embraces complexity rather than shying away from it. Games endorse and even require systems thinking, the process of understanding the world as a complex network of interconnected parts.

Last year, the game designer Eric Zimmerman made a similar argument in a punchier form, as a “Manifesto for a Ludic Century.” It first appeared on the game enthusiast website Kotaku, whose editors introduced the manifesto by noting that “previous centuries have been defined by novels and cinema,” while this century will be defined by games.

Zimmerman argues that the 20th century was the century of information, dominated by its expression and demonstration through film and the moving image. By contrast, Zimmerman suggests, the 21st century is the century of digitized, exploratory information: “information at play.” Data alone cannot sufficiently explain our world; now we need to grasp systems — the complex, intertwined interactions between things. And games are purpose-built to provide experiences of systems. In this “ludic century” (ludus is the Latin word for game), games will offer a new, playful way to develop systems literacy. This new literacy might help us solve seemingly intractable problems, but it will also help us appreciate the intrinsic beauty and pleasure of play.

Zimmerman is hardly alone in angling for a near future driven by games. I’ve got my own take: a theory of procedural rhetoric, in which arguments take the form of playable systems rather than words or images. And back when the would-be ludic century was but a tot, the literacy scholar James Paul Gee argued that video games adopt superior techniques for teaching, including techniques like scaffolding and performance before competence, far better than actual schooling. What would it be like, Gee wondered, if we harnessed the potential in game design for learning of all sorts?

Despite all the aspirational chatter, a decade and a half into the 21st century a ludic century seems unlikely. Impossible, even. Perhaps it’s time to take a step back from grand proclamations about the past or the future of media, and instead treat it with the attention to detail systems thinking supposedly offers.

There’s a paradox at work in systems literacy. For games to embrace a role as windows onto complexity, as depictions of interconnected systems, they must also reject the very idea of dramatic, revolutionary, disruptive change that drives so much of our contemporary understanding about technology — or about anything whatsoever.

Real systems thinking assumes simple answers are always wrong. Yet when we talk about the future—even the future of games or of systems literacy—we tend to assume that they will unleash their transformative powers in a straightforward way, through ideas like a century with a dominant medium. We are meant to speak like Pollyannas about “changing the world,” rather than admitting that the very notion of changing the world is anathema to the fundamental promise of systems literacy, namely a rejection of simplicity and a distrust of singular answers.

After all, it’s not clear at all that the 20th century is best summarized as a century of the moving image, anyway. Too much happened to pin down a single influence or media form as dominant. Systems thinking would force us to admit that any singular innovation is caught up in a web of others. We could just as easily call the last century the “electric century,” because so many of its inventions and innovations were bound up in the rollout and use of electric power. Or perhaps the “recorded century,” because photography, phonography, and other methods of analog capture and preservation rose to prominence (eventually fusing into film) — not to mention digital information storage. Cinema itself relied on the rise of leisure and the desire for escape, facilitated by two decades of economic catastrophe and war during the Great Depression and World War II. Those features were only further amplified by the rise of suburbanism and automobile culture of the 1950s, where cinema coupled to youth, desire, and freedom.

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it (in 1964, I might add), “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.” McLuhan thinks about media in relation to one another, as a media ecosystem subject to analysis through media ecology. There are just too many elements at work in a medium’s development and decay to single one of them out for special treatment.

When we think about a ludic century or an age of systems literacy, we do so by putting games at the center of the media ecosystem and pondering their influences on our senses and our communities. But such an idea is a fantasy. And there’s no better way of revealing that fantasy than asking instead what conditions would have to exist in order to produce the kind of age that Zimmerman, Spector, Gee, or I have imagined.

A ludic century wouldn’t just be one in which games, play, process, and systems thinking are enhanced, to use one of McLuhan’s terms. It would also be one in which the purportedly non-systemic, non-ludic formats that have reigned in the age of information — namely speech, writing, image, and the moving image — are made obsolete. For systems thinking to reign, linear and narrative thinking would have to wane.

But just the opposite has happened. We’ve never been more surrounded with text and pictures and moving images than we are in the digital era. Over half a century ago, the MIT computer scientist Alan J. Perlis imagined an age of “procedural literacy” brought about by new computational expertise — an early version of the dream of the ludic century. But instead, digital technology has accelerated the rate of production and consumption of “legacy” media formats like writing and photography.

Mostly we use computers to read, write, and look at things — not to build or experience models of complex worlds, real or imagined. It’s as if the horse still pulled the automobile rather than being displaced by it, or if the phone booth had enjoyed a sustained new fashion as a venue to make private calls, texts, or Snapchats from your smartphone.

For their part, players of games have their own version of the dream for a ludic century. It’s not a fantasy of unleashing the hidden beauty and powers of games so much as it is a dream of the predominance of a convenient media identity. Among players, it’s difficult to separate the hope that games might become the central medium of the 21st century from an identification with a persona built from buying, playing, and discussing games. Where Zimmerman hopes to shine new light on the veiled power and beauty of games, players anticipate overcoming “their” medium’s status as an underdog and their concomitant victimization as dorks under its Nintendo thumb.

Such a goal is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, games and their players have gotten a bad rap for prurience, violence, sloth, antisocialism, and other supposed ills wrought by video games. But on the other hand, a medium does not come to define any era by fiat of its greatest and most vocal enthusiasts. Fans of games would do well to moderate their ardor so that they don’t become blind to games’ flaws. We don’t need to adopt the simplistic opinion that games are murder simulators corrupting our youth to find them kind of gross at times, far from the lens onto systems literacy myself and others have forecast.

It should be possible to respect and to admire games while also wondering if they really deserve to become anyone’s dominant medium. Perhaps it would be more prudent to continue to love games, but to love poetry and sports and woodworking and gelato as well, and as often. More often, even.

Myopia is the worst side effect of a hypothetical century ruled by games — or by any medium, for that matter. Whether or not the 20th century was the century of film, its proponents were never so brazen about dreams of its dominion. You don’t see filmmakers and filmgoers deriding other media for their lack of indexicality or visual sensuousness, penning manifesti for the forthcoming reign of the cinematic century, or inundating Twitter with hatred for anyone who squints at the idea that the medium of film might also bear some flaws. To dream of an age ruled by a singular medium is to dream a dream of isolation, for the comfort and sufficiency of the familiar. Myopia starts as affinity, but it ends as fascism.

Admittedly, the familiar has become easier and easier thanks to the filter bubble of online digital life. It has become possible to celebrate having been reared on Pokémon and Metroid among communities of other Poképersons and Metroidites. And there is good reason to celebrate such works, to make them a square in the quilt of one’s influences. But perhaps we have also taken our love for popular media too far (and not just our love of games). Not all games are children’s media, but much children’s media has become the center of the adult media ecosystem. Suddenly, superheroes and young-adult fiction characters and trading card monsters and role-playing game outfits are mainstream culture. We don’t have to scorn games (or comics, or YA fiction) to feel a little embarrassed at the prospect of a century with them at the center of the media ecosystem. And on the flip side, we don’t have to discard games (or comics, or YA fiction) to scratch our heads at the wisdom of feeling satisfied by them.

Games are ancient, and they are not going anywhere anytime soon. But their stock is not rising at the rate that their fans’ Twitter streams and Web forums might suggest. Instead of a ludic age, perhaps we have entered an era of shredded media. Some forms persist more than others, but more than any one medium, we are surrounded by the rough-edged bits and pieces of too many media to enumerate. Writing, images, aphorisms, formal abstraction, collage, travesty. Photography, cinema, books, music, dance, games, tacos, cats, car services. If anything, there has never been a weirder, more disorienting, and more lively time to be a creator and a fanatic of media in all their varieties. Why ruin the moment by being the one trying to get everyone to play a game while we’re letting the flowers blossom? A ludic century need not be a century of games. Instead, it can just be a century. With games in it.

Presented by Matter

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