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Video Games as Communication

Interestingly, a great proportion of information and post-information age technological developments were created initially to satisfy human desires for entertaining sensation. Similarly, the rapid progression of computer-related technological development is largely based in increasing gaming requirements, as programmers and engineers attempt to design realistic virtual environments that facilitate a range of communication.

Similarly, from Pong to Riven, videogames have driven the development of interactive technology and emotional absorption into a largely personalised computer interface. Users exchange feedback with the program - at cognitive, emotional and (with the help of VR hardware and force feedback control devices) physical interpersonal levels, gratifying a spectrum of needs. (Rafaeli, 1988; Laurel, 1991) Networked games additionally possess the capacity to carry interpersonal and group textual messages, encouraging creative socialisation free from time, space and social norms. This act is oft regarded as an extension of the gaming ethos itself.

In its simplest form, the videogame sends a programmer's message to a player. The game itself thus stands as a communicated collection of signs. As Ted Freidman pointed out in Cybersociety (1995), the addictive properties of computer games can also alter a player's concept of self, inciting intrapersonal change resulting from a message coded by another. Users are offered both a sense of anonymity and alter-ego adoption that symbolises a union of properties provided by a variety of one-way mass media forms.

Permitting a disembodied 'virtual' reality of experience, videogames foster playfulness through their ephemerality, speed, interactivity and freedom from temporality. (Danet et al., Hmmm...Where's all that smoke coming from?, 1997) These aspects highlight the CMC experience, validating the assertion that videogames are communication. The only thing separating the programmer (encoder) and player (decoder) model of communication from resembling Lasswell's is the fact that, as noted in Hmmm...Where's That Smoke Coming From?, often "the game's the thing-not the outcome". Of course, while this - a property present mainly in older games - does limit one from claiming categorically that computer games mediate communication exchange, it support's McLuhan's view regarding one-way mass communication, in that the medium itself is the message. The message need not be returned to be shared. Sometimes the means is the need that must be gratified, not the end.

Since the dawn of time, mankind has searched for alternate realities. (Fuller & Jenkins, December CMC Magazine, 1995) Philosophy, religion, magic, storytelling, space exploration, hallucinatory drugs, fictional literature, music, art, roleplaying games and virtual reality have each pursued frontiers beyond the bounds of physical entrapment. During the past twenty years, computer games have evolved from the trivial novelty of Pong and PacMan to the all-encompassing, sensually manipulative spectacles of holography, virtual reality and the near-photo realistic 3D environments of Half-Life. Due to their achievement of quasi-realism, the videogame arena is now under the scrutiny of artists, scholars and educators, each of whom have latched onto the fact that these environments have the capacity to hail in the next stage in human cognitive evolution. (Mirapaul, New York Times on the Web, March 4, 1999)

In 1992, Brett Leonard's The Lawnmower Man posed a range of interesting questions regarding the possibility of employing game-like VR communication to overcome cognitive handicaps and to further the human mind. In its time, the film was received more in terms of its fiction than its science, but recent discoveries regarding the effects of total immersion have proven the text to possess much credence. Seymore Poppatt noted in Negroponte's Being Digital (1995) that, just as young children adopt complex lingual skills during their formative years as a result of immersion within the oral culture of a particular nation, human thought processes can change through exposure to VR environments. He posed that total immersion in a virtual universe such as 'Mathland' can, above focusing the thoughts of the participant, modify the way people think, both at a conscious and subconscious level, allowing the cognition and memorisation of a variety of complex data that exceeds probable calculation in the traditional educational realm. (Being Digital, 1995) This supports Mary Chayko's claim that "The frames we once used, conceptually, to set the real apart from the unreal are not as useful as they once were..." (Jones, CyberSociety, 1993, p.178)

Computer games are communicating with us, through us, and us through them. They have become both a mediator for distant CMC and community-building, and have become messages unto themselves. From our tendency towards meta-linguistics in interactive hypertextual game-like interaction in which identity and disbelief are both suspended, through to networked battles of wits in ultra-realistic and artistically-recognised games such as Half-Life (referred to as "a masterpiece of epic proportions, the Saving Private Ryan of first-person shooters") and worldview-altering Virtual Reality applications, games are communicating to us. As with other forms of mediated communication, video games have made visible indentations into society and the primal human psyche. Anne-Marie Schleiner noted that "Our everyday outlook is being infiltrated by video-gaming paradigms." (New York Times on the Web, March 4, 1999) This assertion, in conjunction with a growth in the development of community-based and 'artificially intelligent' technologies makes it evident that computer games are communication.

Written by Joshua Smith. © 1998

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