Saturday, December 13, 2008

Video Gaming with McLuhan

I wrote this paper for my Culture as Communication class. The essay looks at McLuhan's theories on media, and sees how well his theories would apply to video games. Since McLuhan always pushed the "medium is the message" idea, I analyze the interactions between people as they play video games, while under a McLuhan lens. Being that the paper is academic, read only if you're looking for something fairly intelligent sounding.
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Video Gaming with McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan introduced a revolutionary idea to media studies. Instead of examining the new content in the media, McLuhan looked at the interpersonal relationships forming because of the new medium. He was more concerned with the human interaction than with the subject itself. I only wish that McLuhan would have been alive to study and remark on the environments that current video games create. There have been hundreds of studies that look at the effects of violent video games, but few have looked at the interpersonal relationships that form around this new medium.

A common misconception of video gamers is that they become glued to the action on the screen and do not interact with the players around them. Yet, whenever I host a video game club event in NYU, the room is loud not because of the television, but because of the people interacting (more like yelling) with one another. As play occurs, the people become more in tune with their characters or avatars and as their characters win or lose, they mimic the feeling of joy or despair in the real world.



Mocking, cheering, gloating, cursing and anger are just some of the emotions expressed in the multiplayer experience that exists out of the gaming world. For “play,” whether in life or in a wheel, implies interplay. There must be give and take, or dialogue, as between two or more persons or groups” (McLuhan, 240-241). The discussions outside of the game are particularly odd because a game allows the parties involved to be cruder. Calling someone a loser or a n00b is mean but, a gamer has no choice but to accept the insult, and retort with an even better insult. In addition, the better your rhetoric is, the more you will impress your opponent and you will bond closer together both inside and outside the gaming environment.

Why does this happen? Multiplayer gaming is a forced competitive environment and since you are battling in a virtual world, it only seems natural to extrapolate the virtual competition into the real world, and have a competition in rhetoric. And when you eventually win a battle—especially in something like a fighting game where there is a clear cut winner—the jubilation of the character animation and the player may often times be one of the same. “Games, like institutions, are extensions of social man” (McLuhan, 235). Though we may not be battling with swords in the real world unlike our virtual counterparts, we find other ways to compete.


The need for competition in both the virtual and real world may be brought further to light by McLuhan’s theories about hot and cold media. Simply put, hot media is any medium that is high in data but low in participation, while cold media is low in the amount of information but high in participation (McLuhan, 23). Video games seem to break from this mold as they are both high in participation and in data. The user playing a video game is being inundated with visuals and sound while inputting commands on a controller and potentially conversing with his or her neighbor. Participation, in this case is both mental and physical.

The visual and sound power of a movie, on the other hand, is such an overload of data that the watcher is forced to be quiet and process all that is happening within the screen, making it clearly a hot medium. Video games have a similar level of focus since each player looks closely at how the character is interacting with the environment when he or she inputs commands. However, since the inputting of commands forces us to participate in order to enjoy the medium, we naturally participate in the real world as well.

Another reason why we might be more prone to talking in real life while playing video games is that we have a closer tie with the character than that of movie characters. We control the movements and actions of the avatar but the technology is not advanced enough yet that we can control their speech and make it our own. It is possible that since we control the character in some elements, we feel the urge to speak so that we can further complete our connection to the avatar and make the gaming experience a closer match for the extensions of ourselves.


Video games force the user to multitask since there is interaction with a visual object. Since we have the senses of sight and touch covered, the hot media environment we live in may force us to connect with the gaming experience orally as well. Instead of cutting our minds off from an oral interaction, we may feel compelled to discuss while gaming so that we do not overload one of our stimuli. This idea slightly differs from McLuhan who suggests that our bodies self-amputate in hot media situations. “The function of the body, as a group of sustaining and protective organs for the central nervous system, is to act as buffers against sudden variations of stimulus in the physical and social environment” (McLuhan, 43).

It’s hard to argue that we, living in New York City, do not live a hot media society. The internet is loaded with information that we can access at any time now, thanks to the availability of cell phones and laptops. However, instead of blocking ourselves off from the stimulus, we engage with it. The want to know information is very much a gaming quality since it is akin to exploration. The fact that we can handle all the information and play with it might show that we are attempting to cool down our environment in order to make use of all of our senses.


With video games the environment seems to protect its users from self-amputation. You are aware that the player sitting next to you is engaged in the same competition experiencing similar emotions to you while participating in the content. The urge to share your feelings is strong, just as it is when watching a movie with a friend. However, the difference is that since you are changing the content, you feel more ownership to the experience and have no qualms discussing the experience mid-gameplay.

Gamers are a social bunch when partaking in a multiplayer experience. The interactions may be a product of the “warm” medium that it is, since video games are filled with data and participation. Regardless, McLuhan may have made some changes to his theories based on the relationships that form with video gaming. Hot and cold media might have to be re-evaluated and the self-amputation concept might have to be entirely remodeled since video gamers seem to counteract that belief. Since McLuhan never witnessed digital play on something of this magnitude, I am sure our society would influence the development of his theories.
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The book referenced in this essay is McLuhan's Understanding Media.

Feel free to debate my ideas expressed in this paper. I'm sure there are some holes in my argument that people can address.

15 comments:

Sir Thanksalot said...

Hallo. I find this very interesting reading, mainly because i am making a master about this subject. My master will be about McLuhans Hot/Cold Theory and the media Tetrad (Tetrad of effects). Would really be interesting to discuss this stuff with you, inputs etc. Really like this outside view of the medium, not just the content of spesific games etc.

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you understand my point, many parents think that video games are totally useless, this is a wrong idea, in fact many schools and college use video games to wake the student interest in some matters.

pharmacy said...

But for me it's well, would really be interesting to discuss this stuff with you, inputs etc. Really like this outside view of the medium, not just the content of specific games etc

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Anonymous said...

Jason Roher "Death is Sleep" is one game that allows you to control the speech and actions within the game. You must play this game with one other person on a different computer, and depending on the text you are writing for the characters, the cyberdrama will be different each and every time like a garden of forking paths.

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