Hiroshi Masuyama 1 jan 2000

Video Games as Media

Is it Electronic Brain or Electronic Calculator?

Let's start with a review of the English word 'media', which is the plural form of 'medium', and originally comes from 'middle'. Medium-sized is between large and small. For example, a 'medium-cooked' steak is one which is cooked between 'rare' and 'well done'. Information media exists between people, connecting them to each other. Nowadays, when we think of media generally, we think of mass communication such as newspapers and television, but in a broader sense, you can also include personal things such as letters and conversation. Up to here, I don't think there are any problems. However, are computers media? What about games such as monopoly and cards? And how about video games themselves?

I don't want to trifle about the definition of the word, but I would like to point out that the term 'media' has certainly got a lot of meanings. A pioneer in the debate on media, Marshall McLuhan, grasped the idea that media was a 'continuation (expansion) of humanity', and included in his discussion not only the so-called information media, but also tools and universal techniques. (Understanding Media- The Extensions of Men, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1964.) For example, traffic systems are an 'extension to feet', clothes are an 'extension to skin' and information networks are an 'extension to the nervous system'. If we continue with this analogy, computers become an 'extension to the brain'. From the point of view of the thesis on media, the Chinese translation of 'computer' as an 'electronic brain' is correct.

However, I would like to speak about media not in the broad McLuhan terminology, but in a more general sense — the use as a medium of information and communication. Just as e-mail has become commonplace nowadays, it seems very natural that computers can function as media, but this wasn't so before the appearance of computers. Even now, people who think of computers as 'electronic calculators' may have difficulty over the idea that computers can bring about communication in the same way the telephone or television. In order to consider this difference, it is necessary to go back to the 'origin' of computers and video games.

The Day when Games became Media

The miniturisation of the large-size computers, or 'mainframes' into personal computers is generally thought of as a technological innovation. In the same way as history is inevitable, it seems that the evolution of computers has been straightforward. However, the reality is not like this. Although miniature computers share the same microprocessors as the former microcomputers, personal computers are produced on a huge scale. Therefore, the process of personal computers becoming commonplace was certainly not inevitable.

Because originally microprocessors were developed in order to run machinery, pocket calculators and such like, there weren't many people around who foresaw the advent of computers 'specifically for private individuals'. According to journalist Robert X. Cringely, the American personal computer industry is called the 'accidental empire', build by chance by hobbyists. The point of departure between the former ibm, representing the culture of mainframe computers, and Microsoft and Apple symbolising the culture of the personal computer, was starkly different.

Because home-use video games machines were also designed to use microprocessors, they have the same origin as personal computers. However, video games have a 'prehistory', a time before home entertainment systems were released. Video games essentially started when large-sized computers had an output device, or 'monitor' attached to them. The details of its history are well-known — afterwards games arcades were commercialised, and spread world-wide with the advent of Pong in 1972. However, the progress of games arcade machines prior to the use of microprocessors was relatively slow. It took 4 years after Pong for Break out (Atari, 1977) (a block breaking game) to be released.

The first computer game to use microprocessors was Circus (Exidy, 1977) popularly known in Japan as the balloon breaking game. Although at that time the circuit-boards used in microprocessors were still expensive, and the technical knowledge scarce, another company who foresaw that computer games would become mainstream, and continued with its pioneering research, was Taito. The year after Circus, Taito released Space Invaders, another of the first games in Japan to use microprocessors.

With Space Invaders being a huge hit, there was an opportunity for video games to become established in world-wide entertainment. The video games industry had a prosperous period, with successive companies releasing such games as Head On (Sega, 1979), Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) and Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981). A fact that cannot be overlooked here is the introduction of the technical innovation called the microprocessor, and personal computers also flourished, with the release of Apple 2 in 1977, and the ibm-pc in 1981. The popularity of arcade games machines and the widespread use of personal computers was caused by the evolution of the microprocessor. So, the next step was the home entertainment system.

Soon after the personal computer, home entertainment systems became popular. Although the software was in an unchangeable 'special use device', with the release of the Atari 2600 Video Computer System in 1977, and the Nintendo 'Family Computer' in 1983 with their interchangeable software systems, different games could be played on the same systems. In those days, it was the same principle as record players were to sound, and as the video deck was to motion picture. Once it became clear that home entertainment systems shared a 'contents playback device', the idea of video games as media became prevalent.

Mass Production of Sole Players

Now, I would like to recall the circumstances which find you playing video games in your own home. What other types of media players have you got there apart from your games machine and television? You probably have a video (vtr), a cd hi-fi system, a Mini Disk player, newspapers, magazines and a telephone. There are probably quite a few people with home pcs and electronic notebooks. You could almost say that it is impossible to spend a day without involving yourself with any of these media. Nowadays, media function as the surroundings. Although each media has various specific features, the most important common feature is that they are 'personal', or individually controlled.

Formerly, one of the reasons that family, company or area groups worked so well was because they provided a life full of shared information, in other words media. Let's imagine a time when there were no televisions, convenience stores or the Internet — only wisdom handed down from grandmothers, advice from superiors, neighbourly gossip, etc. If a society's structure is static, there is a situation where media doesn't become "personalised" — age and one's position in society functions as an authority on information.

The 'media history' of humankind is influenced by various inventions, such as literature, printed matter, photographs and pictures. These big trends were clearly in the direction of 'personalisation'. In the 1970's there were stereos and radio-cassette recorders, in the 1980's there were home computers and games machines, and in the 1990's the Internet and mobile telephones. From group to individual, moving onwards to mobility. Surely video games are at the forefront of the field of 'play'. The first of the popular personal entertainment media at the start of the mass-produced era were books and magazines. I would like to call this the 'mass production of speech'. Next were the record players and radio cassettes with which you could listen to music, which could be called the 'mass production of musical performances'. Next, pictorial media — the 'mass production of the stage'.

To sum up, nearly all of the 'personal mass media' which surround us are devices which can allow anyone to unilaterally reproduce some kind of performance on a large scale. (On this subject, I think that 'operations' suit not only computers but also pocket calculators). However, computer games are changing. Although there is a 'mass production of playing', 'playing' involves not only a place — a partner is also necessary. What computer games mainly offer is not only 'playing', but a 'playground'. To use another expression, video games can be called electronic robot playing partners.

Games you don't have to Play

Robots are limited, and whatever is said, their behaviors are patternized. While a well designed game is one which the behavior of the playing partner and the way of playing makes one feel that the power of the machine is unlimited, there is also a saying that this is a good video game. However, there is one way in which a game can be enjoyed without having a polished game design — the creation of a second player. Is it only me who thinks that playing with a dearly beloved in Pong is much more fun than repeatedly playing an elaborately engrossing game by oneself?

Thinking about this, we can begin to understand the reason why the state of e-mail and mobile phones in recent years looks more healthy than current models of stand-alone computer games. This is the 'mass production of chitchat'. So far, communicating with distant people, not by the usual means of telephones and letters, has become more enjoyable because it is cheaper and more personal. Although there is a different nuance between the so-called 'fun of enjoyment' of conversation and meeting, and that of playing and games, there is a big element of entertainment.

I think that a good example which successfully commercialised this 'enjoyment of communication' was the PostPet series (Sony Communication Network, 1997). Its director Hachiya Kazuhiko claims that a phrase from Yoshida Sensha's manga Give me a game that I don't have to play with was one of his inspirations. ''Pong'''s author Nolan Bushnell, was struck with the notion of the commercialisation of video games sometimes during the 1960s, while he was at an amusement park. From 'playground' to 'games you don't have to play', media in video games is entering a new phase.

this text was originally published in: Bit Generation 2000 'TV-games', exhibition catalogue a.o. Kobe Fashion Museum / TV Game Museum