book review

The Medium of the Video Game

Mark J.P. Wolf (2001, ed.)

It is curious how quick a book can feel outdated. Despite being published in 2001 (that is five years ago at the moment of writing), The Medium of The Video Game fails to come up with an analysis that retains much relevance for the contemporary form of games. That being said, the book does have some historical value, as the way it describes games and gameplay, it vividly recalls the gaming experience of those early days. In doing so it forces our attention on some structures of play that are now considered obsolete by industry standards, but which, in my opinion, make for some abstract but very interesting gameplay.

The historical context of games sketched out by Mark J.P. Wolf and Steven L. Kent in the first two chapters is sketchy, redundant and 'Americentric'. These days, there are many other texts that have done a much better job at presenting the same basic story of the rise and fall of Atari and the subsequent triumph of Nintendo and its contemporaries. Wolf's discussions of the video games four 'formal aspects' (space, time, narrative and genre) was probably already outdated when the book went in print. These discussions lean too heavily on Atari classics (e.g. Adventure) and games that are considered of only marginal interest by most scholars of the ludologic persuasion (e.g. Myst). Wolf largely fails to acknowledge genres like the first-person-shooter or the 3D platformer that by 2001 were fairly established and important.

It almost does not come as a surprise that the most interesting essay in the book is also the oldest text. Originally commissioned for the 1989 arcade exhibition Hot Circuits, Charles Bernstein discusses some cultural aspects of early video gaming. His insights are remarkably fresh and still retain some value after all those years. His observations concerning the players transcendental experience of time predates Ted Friedman's similar observations when he studied SimCity and Civilization. Bernstein doubted the relevance and significance of the term interactivity long before Espen Aarseth wrote Cybertext. And he linked the power of games to neo-Luddite sentiments before people even thought it would possible that these days millions of people daily escape to online fantasy worlds.

It is the same historical perspective that makes Rochelle Slovin's essay that describes the organising of the same Hot Circuits exhibition, and Ralph H. Bear foreword interesting. Slovin's observation that the 1989 exhibition already managed to inspire a strong sense of nostalgia by most of the younger (game-playing) visitors, can also be applied to The Medium of the Computer Game. It is history in the making and, the history of computer games is moving fast. What is considered state of the art today will be considered bland tomorrow. The pace of gaming history forces all our attention on the present and the near future. This severely narrows our vision and many complain about the contemporary conservatism of the games industry. The Medium of the Computer Game does only do a cursory job at analysing the formal and structural aspects games of the past, but it is enough to remind us that some very innovative and creative games have been made only yesterday.