Playing the Message

When I first started reading Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message,” I had a hard time equating his article to more than strict formalism. He clearly states, “Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium,” and much like his statement, his article left me blind to the relationship between form and content that I’m often much more concerned with (though you’d probably never guess it from this blog). My first thoughts for this post focused on the relationship between McLuhan’s concepts and those provided by Clint Hocking’s definition of ludonarrative dissonance in Bioshock. While I’m less interested in Bioshock (it’s a great game, but not something I feel like writing about currently), Hocking and McLuhan together pose the great debate of video game theorists—ludology or narratology.

Admittedly, I’m somewhat a novice in this area. Like many media forms, there exists a rigid boundary between how to look at games. Ludologists find themselves concerned with how the game functions and its playability while narratologists focus on the content of the game itself, such as the characterization, themes and narrative. There is much heated debate between the two camps, and while some argue that both should function in tandem, games have difficulty successfully bringing the two together to create an effective, meaningful and fun experience—hence the overwhelming existence of ludonarrative dissonance.

While some games successfully navigate this relationship (Klankstatic suggests Journey as an option by using mechanics as metaphor), others just can’t quite seem to get it. By no means does this mean a game is unsuccessful, bad or simply not fun, it just means that McLuhan would likely argue that the message has failed the medium’s presentation of it. He claims, “Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message,” and many games, like Hocking’s Bioshock example, can’t reconcile this; neither the game’s mechanics nor narrative is really affected by how you play it. Sure, you get a different ending—but that ending is merely one part of the narrative and not the point of the narrative.

Take Spec Ops: The Line, which rather effectively uses its mechanics as metaphor by creating internal panic within the player through both the game’s ludology and narratology. Captain Walker and his partners are on a mission to locate survivors in Dubai following a devastating series of sandstorms that completely destroys the city. However, as they travel farther into the city they are bombarding with soldiers as they press deeper into the city in search of survivors—killing hundreds in the process.

This game’s greatness rests in more than its ability to illicit emotions through the narrative. Instead, its such a perfect game because it makes the player feel guilty for the act of playing by accepting and participating in its method of hailing you (Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” but that’s a much longer blog post) by doing exactly what it tells you to do. No actions change the overall outcome of the game, Captain Walker is basically always going to have irreparable psychological damage, when you’re given an option of what civilian to save they all inevitably die. Often, it’s Walker—and therefore you as the player—ordering and causing their deaths anyway.

The most memorable game sequence for me, and many others I’m sure, is the white phosphorous scene. In order to pass an area full of “insurgents,” Walker and his men locate the deadly chemical weapon.

The following moments involve tense conversation between the three men before exiting the cut-scene and returning to gameplay. Players are rewarded for accurately raining the incendiary upon what you moments later discover are civilians. While it sounds as though these events—the player intentionally acting upon such violence as opposed to the personal enjoyment at succeeding the mission—are at odds, they work so effectively together to combine the ludology and narratology. In this instance, the player’s guilt is built entirely upon the action of playing, of causing the horrific pain and suffering that splashes all over the screen a mere seconds after successfully completing the mission. Spec Ops: The Line’s place as a member of the video game medium is the message, just as much as the narrative itself creates meaning in Walker’s actions.   Watching this as a film or cut-scene would easily instill fear or disgust, but guilt can only occur as a result of causing it.


One thought on “Playing the Message

  1. Excellent post! I absolutely love discussions like this about games, and I find in general it’s much easier to think about them than talk about them because, at least in my experience, it can be difficult to put effectively to words without accidentally talking in circles forever, but you did a great job of accomplishing that anyway.

    As far as the Ludology vs Narratology debate, definitely check out the recent video on Errant Signal called “The Debate That Never Took Place” ( In it, he talks about the history of both Narratology and Ludology and how a misunderstanding of their relationship created conflicting views in games criticism that we still see today. Really interesting and well presented.

    Also, I love your Spec Ops: The Line example, probably the best game you could have used to illustrate your point. Like you stated towards the end of your post, the message is so much more profound for having been directly involved with the on-screen events; I would have enjoyed and understood a film version, but I wouldn’t have felt like a scumbag for watching it like I did playing the game.

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