ED 5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Ian Bogost’s videogame microecology


“…casual games are games that players use and toss aside, one-play stands, serendipitous encounters never to be seen again.” Ian Bogost, How To Do Things With Videogames, p.96.

Media ecology looks at the wide range of available media — books, television, advertising, computers, etc. – to determine how each medium functions, and how they interact with one another. This approach is deeply influenced by Marshall McLuhan, who viewed media as the extensions of specific senses (the book extends the eye, the wheel extends the foot, and so on) and also argued that new media create new environments. According to McLuhan, and those influenced by him, the media ecological approach is essential to understanding these new environments.

In How Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost references McLuhan’s approach, but argues that media microecology should be used instead to study videogames. Each medium has a variety of things that it does, ranging from the profound to the purely quotidian. To fully understand each medium and to avoid sweeping generalizations, we need to move from the “macro” level to the “micro” level (he uses the entomologist’s study of insects as an example), to look at the full range of uses a medium has, documenting, describing, and discussing its uses so that we can concentrate on its specific functions. This is the media microecological framework he proposes for analyzing videogames: understanding everything videogames do rather than settling on particular value judgements on the rightness or wrongness of playing videogames.

There are a number of different things videogames can be used for. Videogames can be sites of intense competition, with a focus on achieving high scores and longer play times, which is true of arcade games like Galaga (1981), Tempest (1981), and Space Harrier (1985). Games are also capable of providing expressive and emotionally engaging experiences, like in Dear Esther (2012), Journey (2012), and Gone Home (2013), which focus on exploration and story-telling instead of awarding points or tracking level progress.

One use for videogames that Bogost identifies is “Throwaways.” According to Bogost we often link the idea of “throwaway” games to “casual” games but he challenges this in the following three ways:

  • Although “casual” games like Bejeweled or Tetris, do not feature the more complicated controls of “hardcore” games, they can still be played for the purposes of mastery and personal achievement and often have long-term play investment.
  • The various meanings of “casual” such as indifferent, spontaneous and fleeting all contain an important element of how actual “casual” or “throwaway” games should be conceived. A game made specifically for the “Klik of the Month” club on glorioustrainwrecks.com could be an example of a “throwaway” game as these take minutes to play and are often played once and then completely forgotten.
  • Throwaways games should be short, significant play experiences (no more than a few minutes) that someone can quickly experience and move on from without long term investment. Bogost uses “newsgames” like the Zidane Head-Butt (tied to Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting of Italian soccer player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final) and his own game, The Arcade Wire: Airport Security, about arbitrary airport security rules (in response to the TSA’s banning of liquids in carry-on bags) as examples.

I agree with Bogost that we need to change our understanding of what casual games actually are, from “easy to learn, and hard to master” to games that focus on shorter experiences. Although such games may be fleeting and often played only once, I think they have the potential to resonate with people.

A couple of “throwaway” games that I enjoyed recently were Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan by Stephen Murphy aka “thecatamites” a bizarre and hilarious parody of History Television style ancient civilization “travelogues” that can be played in only a few minutes. The other one is Ohmygod Are You Alright? by anna anthropy, a game that is short, personal response to a car crash she experienced last year. These games focus on a particular experience rather than long-term play investment and mastery.

I’ll leave this question for you: if you designed a short, “throwaway” game what experience would you want it to give to the people who play it?

Are video games too violent?


The question of violence in video games has recently been cropping up a bit more recently, and as the understanding and development of unique virtual spaces continues to advance, it’s important to consider what having the ability to destroy virtual lives actually means. Recently Critical Distance — a fantastic aggregator of commentary and criticism on digital games— posted two pieces discussing violence in video games: “Violence begets violence” the first post by game designer Michaël Samyn on his new blog Silent No More, and “Fight Club: How Masculine Fragility Is Limiting Innovation In Games” by Sheva of FemHype.

Both pieces are interesting in the contrasting ways they address the prevalence of violence as a mechanic in video games, what the consequences of violent video games might be, and what steps should be taken in the future to diversify games and gameplay. Of the two pieces, I liked the latter more than former, and it’s interesting how they capture the relative successes and shortcomings of the discussion about violence in video games.

After violent games, violent gamers

Michaël Samyn is a noted game designer, who as part of Tale of Tales,  focused on creating immersive, meditative games like The Endless Forest and narrative driven games like The Path and Sunset. This is a design philosophy that I wholeheartedly agree with and always happy to see implemented more. However, I have some disagreements with the major arguments of his piece “Violence begets violence .

After stating that many online competitive spaces often feature intolerance, bullying, and harassment (which is undoubtedly true), he argues:

“We don’t need theories about the correlation between violent games and violent behavior. Many players of violent and antagonistic games engage in violent and antagonistic behavior. Whether violent people are attracted to games or games arouse violent emotions is irrelevant.”

For Samyn, there is a direct causal link between violent games and violent behaviour. He lays blame at the feet of the games industry, which he says “actively breeds a group of belligerent hooligans for profit.” He continues: “And the longer this process continues, the tighter the vicious circle becomes: only violent games sell well, so only those get made, so only violent people buy games, and so on.” He compares the games industry to the gun industry in the United States, which claims no responsibility for the deaths caused by the weapons they sell. He concludes by writing:

“A game developer who claims to be a peaceful tolerant person while producing murder simulators is a hypocrite. I will not accuse them of being directly responsible for mass shootings and online harassment. But they are beyond a doubt guilty of neglecting to prevent such things.”

There’s a lot to process here. While, like Samyn, I’m frustrated that Mature (M-rated) titles are so heavily marketed — even though they only make up about less than 10 per cent of games produced — I find his argument to be flawed, reductive, and not adequate in addressing the actual structures that create violence in the first place.

Samyn’s argument basically boils down to post hoc ergo proctor hoc, or “after this therefore because of this.” There are violent games and there are also violent gamers, so one must cause the other. To follow his line of thought, one would have to believe that players of M-rated games are not interested in challenge or narrative or wanting to experience something cool and different; that all they want to do is spend all their time killing virtual people, and that this eventually leads them into attacking others in the real world, whether online or in person.

Now to be fair, there are plenty of people who play games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim or Fallout and see how much chaos they can create, but is this necessarily a sign of latent violent tendencies? Or could this be construed more as an individual wanting to test the limits of a designer’s intentions within a virtual world? I think the latter is more likely than the former mostly because destruction in a virtual space does not necessarily signal a desire to destroy in a real one. While games, like other media such as books, TV, movies, and so forth certainly affect us emotionally, making us joyful, sad, intrigued, or even occasionally angry, it would be wrong to say that the affective relationship one has to their media completely transforms them into something they are not. There are more complex phenomena at work and to reduce it to one simple cause is to actually denigrate the actual power of the medium that one is criticizing or praising.

This passage is particularly frustrating:

“I think game developers, as creative people, probably middle class, probably intellectuals, underestimate how unstable some members of their audience are, how isolated they live, how little access they have to education and broader culture, how little context to place these games in that are so important to their sense of self. We could help these people with entertainment that demonstrates the beauty of life, the value of non-violent interactions, how much better it feels to care than to hurt, how big and diverse the world is, and so on.”

This assumes two things:  that only uncultured, unsophisticated, and disenfranchised folks engage in online harassment and see violent games as their raison d’etre, and that games that centre story or interactivity or quiet, meditative spaces rather than action and violence should be created as some sort of corrective on bad behaviour—that these can’t simply exist or be developed for their own sake— and affect people in a way that’s deep and significant without serving an undeniable social good. Simply stating that more empathetic games will create more empathetic gamers is just as bad as saying violent games create violent gamers: it’s not a simple 1:1 relationship. Furthermore, such an argument seems to say that a simple change in consumption will lead to a change in attitudes. Games, while powerfully affective are not necessarily motivational: what one does in a game is not tied to what one does in real life, and we need to do more than change games to change attitudes.

Let’s talk about Fight Club

This is brings us to Sheva’s “Fight Club” piece on FemHype, which offers a more nuanced and interesting discussion of what violence means in the context of gaming. The piece wonders why it is that despite our ability to now craft incredible virtual worlds that violence is often retained as the core mechanic. Other things can be done, but still in a big open-world role-playing game like Fallout 3, you’ll be spending a great deal more time shooting giant ants and Super Mutants than, say, debating The Enclave on their lack of a constitutional mandate. At first, Sheva says, her reaction in conversation with others was to advocate for more choice even in violent games, but then she realized that even in a game where you can choose not to be violent, violence still informs the game world and how the player progresses. So even if violence doesn’t create violent video gamers why is there such an insistence on violence existing in games in the first place? Sheva writes:

“There is a growing multitude of games that don’t utilize violence as a central mechanic. Many of these are in the independent sector—The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please, and Never Alone are a few of my personal favorites. Telltale Games’ entire catalogue since the release of season one of The Walking Dead has had conversation and social maneuvering as the central game mechanic. Animal Crossing, The Sims, and Minecraft are all worldwide sensations made by what one would now consider to be AAA companies, and yet, since not one of these games has violence as a core mechanic, each and every one of them has been criticized as not being ‘game-y’ enough.”

Gone Home game

This gets us closer to what is going on, that there is a tendency for people to argue that games without violence as a central mechanic are not games. This a dangerous tactic often used in online debates to delegitimize the significant, artistic work done by independent game developers who are expanding the language of games. For example, although a game like Gone Home was widely praised by the gaming press and was a commercial success, there was a vocal group of gamers who argued that since Gone Home is about exploration and discovery it cannot be a real game. This is where we get to the root cause of the kind of online harassment we see too often on Twitter and other online spaces: the pernicious belief that games and other media should only have one form, and that they exist to cater to a single group of male gamers. As Sheva says in her article:

“Violence, goes the logic, is what makes a game masculine—and, by extension, being masculine is what makes a video game a video game.”

It’s this belief system which causes women, persons of colour, and others to be attacked online for even suggesting that games should do more. One might say that it’s the players and not the game. The answer is both yes and no. This behaviour is informed by a specific kind of reactionary right-wing ideology — the same you find fighting against gay marriage, health care, or welfare. It’s the ideology that is against equality of any kind, that wishes to preserve one type of power and privilege for a limited group of people. This is the root of the “masculine fragility” that Sheva mentions in her article — it is an attempt to circumvent the greater equality afforded everyone within games and games culture through intimidation, fear, and harassment.

Playing a violent game or making one or even enjoying one doesn’t make you a bad person, but seeing it as the only expressive form for games and then attacking other people for disagreeing with you certainly does. It is only through more sophisticated critical commentary, the building of new, diverse communities of game creators, the continued expansion of the expressive power of the medium, and actively challenging the social and economic structures that reproduce, support, and enable one limited point of view about games, that we will ensure that a safe space for both players and creators will be the norm rather than a pleasant exception.

The immersive world: a declaration of faith

There is a central conflict that defines us — it is the conflict between our selves and our ideas; between the physical and conceptual; the tangible and the ephemeral; the virtual and the real. T.S. Eliot once wrote that human beings cannot take much reality. Our ability to conceive and understand the abstract, the intellectual, the unperceivable is both a source of joy and suffering for us. We can imagine ourselves on any plane and in any place at any time; but that we cannot appear there instantaneously or make these simple imaginings materialize at a whim provides the foundation for a certain kind of melancholy: that we can imagine new and better worlds but cannot simply put ourselves there.

This conflict was best revealed by William Blake in his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

He writes:

 All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

  1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
    2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
    3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

  1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
  2.  Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
  3.  Energy is Eternal Delight

William Blake still remains one of the best archaeologists of the human imagination. He understood that “Imagination Is Not A State; It Is Human Existence Itself.” The above passage covers the inner conflict between the individual and the idea, and how the imaginative itself is often denigrated and placed below all other things, either by us or by those who refuse to value it. Blake believed that art and all associated works of the imagination could alter our perceptions enough that we could experience the world as it truly is. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

To that end, I believe that the stories we tell affect who we are. I also believe that the worlds woven by others through their words, ideas, or pictures have a considerable affect on how we tell our own stories. I firmly believe that one of the most powerful vehicles for telling our stories and for experiencing the stories of others is to do so through play. Play offers us one of the most accessible and safest ways to mediate the conflict between our selves and our ideas. Play especially through games, provide a fun way to order and give meaning to the internal self. Games and other forms of play are not only systems of rules, but platforms for powerful stories. One of the powerful forms of media providing us with this combination of play and story-telling is digital games.

Ray Bradbury wrote, in defense of fantastic literature, that we should not call it escape literature, but instead return literature. We go somewhere else for however long it takes to experience the story, inhabiting a sovereign universe and then return: perhaps happier, maybe made more insightful, and hopefully better than before. This may seem a bit idealistic, but I believe this to be the case. Play provides us with a very important world, an immersive world. I believe some of the most inventive, interactive, and immersive worlds can be found in digital games.

I cannot tell you the precise moment I became aware of the importance of the combination of digitality and play, and how I felt it was necessary (even if it was just in blog form) to explicate the connection between the two. This connection is something I’ve thought about for many years, but have only recently been able to articulate. It may have come about while I was reading Harold Goldberg’s amusingly titled All Your Base Are Belong To Us, which chronicles the rise of video games as both a business and a story-telling medium through the stories of specific designers at specific moments of video game history.

It was while reading about the struggles of specific designers like Roberta Williams or Ken Levine to bring about the worlds they wanted to play in, or how one of the first interactive games with graphical display, Tennis For Two, was created on a whim by William Higinbotham— a scientist who was also part of the team that created the atomic bomb — that I realized something important: the digital game is an accidental medium, something that by all rights should not even exist. This isn’t to denigrate games, but to say that it is quite incredible that they are even here in the first place, and that they’ve been used as much for personal expression as entertainment. It also made me realize how much game designers sacrifice to create something that is too often dismissed as merely being a children’s toy.

This also made me realize how precarious a position digital games are in from the standpoint of both history and criticism. Games have gone through considerable changes since the invention of Tennis For Two in 1958 and the idea of writing about or even preserving the history of digital games is something relatively new. I began to think of the nightmare that future historians of the digital game may have to reckon with due to the fact that that gamers do not have the longest memories or the greatest dedication to games history. There is an important conversation about games that is currently happening and I want to be part of it in some way.

I believe in the immersive worlds created through digital games, and as you shall see through the writings in this blog, immersion cannot and should not simply be restricted to those places that offer the best 3D graphics or even the ability to interface with digital worlds via VR headsets like the Oculus Rift — immersive worlds take on many forms and many means of expression. As William Blake writes above “Energy is eternal delight” and I want to reveal what I think is the delightful and challenging energy offered in the still evolving medium of video games.

Edgar Allan Poe once wrote “I have never had a thought that I could not set down in words.” This has not always been the case for myself, but I hope to do better through the words set down here, beginning with this one piece of writing, something that is finally truthful about myself and what I believe in: this simple declaration of faith.

Tennis for Two, the first game with a graphical display, was developed by William Higinbotham in 1958.