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Enrollment Begins: Undressing Promises about Video Games with McLuhan

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Friday, May 6, 2011
Anyone who would make the claim that video games are the new literature has all of his work in media studies ahead of him.

Harold Goldberg, author of a new history of video games called All Your Base Are Belong to Us, makes the claim that after spending 100 hours playing certain games, “you’ll almost feel as though you’ve read a great work of prose”, comparing games to novels. Salon, which ran an interview with Goldberg, seems to agree, announcing in its headline, “They’ve become sophisticated, beautiful – and as smart as literature.”


Anyone who make would such a bizarrely illiterate claim—be it the editors of Salon or Harold Goldberg—has all of his work in media studies ahead of him. Authors of such a statement would change their minds if they spent three weeks in a 111 course in communication theory.


Marshal McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message”, is not merely some clever quip or cute exhibition of wordplay. It is a foundational principle for understanding media and technology.
  
Its essential point is that, regardless of content, the technological medium has a built-in message that greatly influences the brain of the user. On a certain level, it doesn’t matter if you are watching Charlie Rose or hardcore pornography, if you are watching television it will have the same affect on your mind. Content is secondary.


The sophistication of a video game’s storyline is largely irrelevant. It’s a video game. It’s a medium intended to give the user cheap thrills with a fast paced challenge of puzzles, violence, athletic competition, or whatever artifice gives reasoning for providing interactive entertainment without much substance. People play video games for the storylines like people watch porn for the storylines.


McLuhan would tell Goldberg that he is wasting his time studying the content of games, and how gamers relate to that content. His energy, time, and money would be better spent studying the social effect of gaming—the medium—itself.


A little McLuhan would do our culture a lot of good, especially in a period of rapidly developing technology, most of which many people believe comes equipped with utopic promises and potential.


McLuhan is especially useful for anyone who would seriously undertake the absurd exercise of comparing people giving their fingers a workout while murdering zombies to someone reading until the candle burns out in a pre-industrial age.


Video games aren’t going to make people more literary. Literature will make people more literary. The medium is the message.

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