On Digital Media and Meaning, 9/20

How do new media artifacts create meaning? Or alternatively, how do the people interacting with them ascribe meaning to them?

In “Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style” Bogost applies his theories of procedural rhetoric to several “art games.” His general theory is that these game designer / artists use game rules and mechanics as a means of expression, and that these supersede other semiotic aspects of the game (art, text, sound and so on). As a fellow game scholar, however, I tend to disagree with him on this point. I currently have a journal article out for review on this topic, but I will summarize the argument here.

Bogost’s piece alludes to a term he coined in his 2006 book Unit Operations, namely, the “simulation gap,” and I have since expanded upon in my own work. The simulation gap posits that users interpret a simulation (loosely defined) by comparing it to their experience with that which is being simulated. This includes how the simulation functions, as well as which elements of the source it includes and which it excludes (I will return to this second aspect later in this post). For Bogost the rules of the simulation are paramount:

 “In these games, expression is found in primarily in the player’s experience as it results from interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects.”

However, when we look at his examples, it becomes apparent that procedural rhetoric and the simulation gap only function when we understand the semiotics of the system. Jason Rohrer’s Passage only makes sense to anyone (assuming they haven’t read his artist’s statement) because they can identify the humans as humans, the treasure chests as treasure chests, and so on. Thus how they interact with each other has a certain meaning. If you strip the semiotic layer out and leave only the bare rules, there is no way the system would remain identifiable. The rules are certainly important to the expression, but the expression only functions because we know what the objects in the game are. Thus expression is not primarily in one or the other.

On the subject of meaning and expression, Manovich writes that “Multimedia works that have “cultural” content appear to particularly favor the database form” (219). What precisely he means by “favor” here is anybody’s guess, but the examples he is drawing on definitely sound similar to the kinds of projects the Vector journal publishes: heavy on content, light on interaction. However, Bogost’s examples and my discussion of meaning in games shows how expression, and thereby “cultural content,” can be found in the algorithmic aspect of digital media (to say nothing of demoscene).

Overall I found Manovich’s work hard to follow and a bit too hyperbolic for his own good. In his discussion in chapter 5 he essentially argues that everything happening in a computer is data (“database form”), then divides digital artifacts in falling more towards database or more towards algorithm, and then comes back around to say it’s all database anyway.

As a structural theorist I think he has some good observations and does a nice job clarifying things that I think would be helpful for the less-computationally-literate, but I felt his argumentation was weak. For example, at one point he claims that all video games are narrative, because in some sense a narrative is constructed as a player attempts to reach his or her goal. He later argues that 1. digital media is all essentially a database, and 2. narration and databases are at odds. The inconsistency, brought about by his sweeping claims, is problematic.

As another example, he writes: “The more complex the data structure of a computer program, the simpler the algorithm needs to be, and vice versa” (223). This is simply not true, but in the case of the former more of a “best practice” than a “needs be.” The vice versa is also problematic: the first thing you learn to do in any programming class is use a simple algorithm to manipulate a simple data structure, often by doing an  arithmetical operation on a variable. This oversight is another reason I believe anyone working with digital media should have a basic understanding of programming.

To return to the simulation gap (as described above), I brought it up because I was thinking of it when reading Morris “Photography as a Weapon.” His discussion of all photography as being staged to a certain degree is similar to the simulation gap in that both are about inclusion and exclusion: what someone chooses to leave in the frame and to leave out is in itself a moment of artistic expression, be it intentional or not. Curiously, Morris is also very interested in the “truth” of a photograph, or at least interested in our interest in it, whereas Bogost openly embraces the subjectivity of games. There is certainly no association between truth and games analogous to our (diminishing) expectation of truth and photography.

Inclusion and exclusion was also an obvious theme of his series on the Fenton photographs, which was very enjoyable reading. I also appreciated the reminder not to overly fetishize technology and technical tools: while the person who solved the problem was clearly comparing the photographs on a computer, the solution could have been found with a magnifying glass and some patience. Not to mention that the more process-intensive solutions fell through.

Lastly I read through this digital humanties manifesto and it struck me as being slightly too utopian. I also appreciate the irony of academics in the humanities, who almost always use Macs, calling for openness.

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2 Responses to On Digital Media and Meaning, 9/20

  1. Dillon Rice says:


    While reading this week’s articles I must admit that I was looking forward to hearing your opinion on them considering your area of interest! What I’d like to ask is if you thought that Bogost’s interpretation was too narrow, in focusing his explanations on these few ‘artgames’? Like you point out, stripping the other aspects makes the expression meaningless, but there seems to be room for that expression in more abstract versions of games. Maybe I’m simply misunderstanding the idea of the simulation gap, but while comparing something like Braid to Tetris seems crazy, the demoscene is extremely abstract and offers little interaction. Do you think the two or complimentary, or at odds with eachother? Again, I don’t have much knowledge in the area, and basically just wondering about your thoughts on the subject.

    I’d also like to agree that the idea of a magnifying glass being just as capable once the digital methods and complex analysis fell through was great. In the end, we simply had to rely on gravity and a patient eye rather than intricate photo manipulation.


    • jasonhistory says:


      With respect to the simulation gap, it only works when the player/user knows what the game is based on. So in fact the game could be completely non-representational and the simulation gap could still function so long as the player knows what the game is. This is the case with The Marriage. I do believe game mechanics can have some meaning by themselves, but if there is a fiction (what game studies calls the representational, semiotic aspects) to the game, it always influences how we interpret the rules and mechanics.

      Does that make sense?


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