Tom Tyler

Tom Tyler is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Culture at Oxford Brookes University, UK. His research interests include the work of Marshall McLuhan, media ecology, digital games, and animals. His book CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press. Email:

A Procrustean Probe

by Tom Tyler


The brigand Procrustes dispatched his victims by stretching or trimming their bodies in order that they be made to fit his bed. Considered as a scientific theory, McLuhan's four "laws of media" risk violating communications research in a dangerously Procrustean manner. Conceived as an exploratory probe, however, this "tetrad" can provide illuminating insights into the social and psychological effects of individual technologies. Applied to digital games, the tetrad reveals the particular ways in which this distinctive cultural form enhances diverse modes of play, obsolesces traditional television viewing, retrieves lost means of participation, and reverses into pervasive and persistent play. The tetrad helps, in short, to situate digital gameplay within the broader technological and cultural environment of which it is a part.

Keywords: enhance, extranoematic, McLuhan, obsolesce, participation, persistent, pervasive, play, Procrustes, remediation, retrieve, reverse, television, tetrad, Theseus.

Procrustes' Bed

Before he slew Asterius the minotaur, the Greek hero Theseus undertook a series of six labours, not unlike those of Heracles. Setting out from Troezen to Athens, he freed the road from the bandits preying on those who used it. He dealt with each miscreant in the manner in which they had terrorised travellers: Sciron the Corinthian he kicked into the sea, where swam a giant man-eating turtle; Cercyon the Arcadian he bested in a wrestling match, lifting him by the knees and dashing out his brains; and so on. The last of the bandits was named Procrustes, and had a peculiar means of dispatching his victims. Having offered a night's hospitality to the unsuspecting traveller, he would compel them to lay down on a bed. Those who were too short he would stretch or hammer to fit it, and those too tall he would cut to size. Theseus dealt with him as he had the others, though it is not recorded whether he himself needed to employ a rack or a saw [1].

In order to locate digital gameplay within its wider social and technological context, I would like to deploy a theoretical approach outlined by Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian writer on communications technology. This particular method is itself in danger of operating according to Procrustean principles: that is, bothersome empirical details which do not fit the theory are hammered or shorn in order that they be made to fit. But I think that, with sufficient caution, the approach can be adopted whilst allowing the body of existing research into digital games to remain intact, and further, that the resulting application can be genuinely illuminating with regard both to the ways in which we conceive that research and to digital gameplay itself.

In the mid 1970s, McLuhan proposed what he called the "Laws of Media", a rigorous means of investigating "the operation and effects of human artefacts on man and society" (1977, p. 175) [2]. McLuhan claimed that there are four such laws, which he collectively called a tetrad, and that they could profitably be applied to technologies as diverse as the wheel, cable TV, the Xerox, elevators, railways, clothing, housing, money, numbers, and much more besides. The four laws take the following form:

  1. a technology will amplify or enhance some aspect of human experience or society;
  2. a technology will obsolesce some aspect of human experience or society;
  3. a technology will retrieve some aspect of human experience or society;
  4. a technology will reverse or "flip" into something else [3].

For example, we can apply these four laws to the technology of radio. This amplifies the human voice, providing "simultaneous access to the entire planet" (McLuhan, 1977, p. 178). Previously, such a mass audience was only possible asynchronously, by means of print. The advent of radio obsolesces print media to the extent that, for instance, breaking news is now much more likely to be received across the airwaves than by newspaper. Live broadcast supplants, or at least changes the reception of, delayed accounts and recorded transcripts. Radio retrieves, we might argue, the town crier, the chief means of news communication in a pre-literate age. The crier, who, like radio, makes direct public announcements at a specified time and to an attendant audience, had himself been eclipsed by print media. And finally, the immediacy and involvement of radio broadcasts, pushed further, reverse or "flip" into the audio-visual medium of television. The amplified town crier to the global village can now be seen as well as heard [4].

McLuhan's laws of media, it has to be said, lend themselves to somewhat selective application. McLuhan asserted that they constituted testable hypotheses, and were a "scientific method" modelled on Popper's principle of falsifiability (1975, p. 75; 1977, p. 175). His son, Eric McLuhan, even suggests in Laws of Media, co-written with his father, that "they can be asked (and the answers checked) by anyone, anywhere, at any time, about any human artefact" (1988, p. 7). This is not, in fact, the case, as one of the McLuhans' own examples illustrates. Applying the tetrad to the human artefact of wine, in order to discover its effects on individuals and society, they argue that it enhances "grape juice" (via fermentation), obsolesces "commonplace flavours", retrieves "ritual observance", and reverses into "cooking wine vinegar" (1988, p. 206). Or, at least, these are the answers the first time they apply the tetrad. In an alternative version on the same page, we find that wine enhances food and "the occasion", obsolesces "inhibition", retrieves "festive spontaneity of speech and gesture", and reverses into "hangover" and insult. If the authors themselves seem unsure as to the consistency of the results of the tetrad's application, it seems unlikely that the same conclusions will be drawn by anyone, anywhere, at any time [5]. Conceived as a universal "scientific method", the tetrad is far too vague: a sufficiently creative mind can imagine, for almost any human artefact, a huge range of things which it might be considered to augment, obsolesce, retrieve, and reverse into. The laws of media do not lend themselves to falsifiability at all, since illustrative examples can readily be stretched to fit. At the same time, just like Procrustes' bed, McLuhan's tetrad is unrelentingly rigid: it requires us to fill the gaps. Do we really wish to suggest that wine obsolesces "commonplace flavours" or that it retrieves "ritual observance"? Perhaps, but we do violence to these complex notions when they are hewn to fit the tetrad's frame [6].

The idea that these are "scientific laws" in anything like the sense in which we ordinarily use that phrase is preposterous [7]. And yet the tetrad has its uses. In fact, it is best conceived, as McLuhan himself often did, as a heuristic device taking the form of a set of questions: what does a technology enhance, obsolesce, retrieve, and reverse into (1977, p. 175)? Like so many of his productive (and provocative) insights, the tetrad is most effective as a "probe", a means of investigation. As McLuhan said, "I don't explain - I explore" (1967, p. xiii). In asking what a technology enhances, obsolesces, retrieves, and reverses into, we require ourselves to examine its "operation and effects", that is, the changes it engenders within its social and historical context. We force ourselves to attend to the consequences of the artefact in itself, rather than to the significance of particular instances, such as the meanings and messages of individual radio broadcasts, or the role and import of individual wines (or the occasions on which they are consumed) [8]. The diversity of results from the tetrad's application need not be a problem--once we dispense with pretensions to scientific uniformity--so long as these provide illuminating insights into the matter at hand.

It is by means of McLuhan's tetrad, then, that I would like to locate digital gameplay within the broader technological and cultural environment of which it is a part. By asking these four key questions we can explore the relationship of digital games to other media and to those who play them [9]. McLuhan suggested that "(e)very medium is in some sense a universal, pressing toward maximal realization. But its expressive pressures disturb existing balances and patterns in other media of culture" (1954). He described such interplay as a civil war, "that rages in our society and our psyches alike" (1964, p. 48). More recently, Bolter and Grusin have argued that "(a)ll currently active media (old and new, analog and digital) honor, acknowledge, appropriate, and implicitly or explicitly attack one another" (1999, p. 87) [10]. It is the complexity of this exchange between different forms of technological antagonism and dependency that the tetrad can be used to investigate. The benefit of McLuhan's probe is that it can help us to situate digital gameplay within the wider context of the media ecology, that is, the evolving interconnections and convergences that are generated between the mass of different technologies contributing to contemporary culture [11]. In what follows, I will employ the tetrad to explore the impact of digital games, and examine the place that this technology occupies within the social, cultural and psychological landscape.

McLuhan believed that the tetrad provides "an ordering of thought and experience" (1975, p. 75), and it is my argument that ordering our thinking and experience of key aspects of digital gameplay by means of his probe allows us both to assess the place of that play within the broader media environment, and to address some of the common conceptual misunderstandings that have accumulated around its analysis. The tetrad helps us to organise some of the enquiries and findings within Game Studies, and perhaps also to see how, in certain cases, we've been barking up the wrong trees in our exploration of the gaming environment. Such an ordering has the potential to generate fresh insights and understanding of familiar territory, therefore, but is at the same time prone to the brutally systematizing procedures practiced by Procrustes. The challenge, then, will be to ensure that our probe works ultimately for us, as did the bed for Theseus, lest we find ourselves in thrall to our own technological invention, as happened to Procrustes.

Enhancing Play

In a much discussed article entitled "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" (1995), the political scientist Robert Putnam observes that "more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted" (1995, p. 70). He takes this to be illustrative of a widespread trend toward increasing social disengagement in many areas of contemporary American life. Reviewing research from a variety of sources, Putnam argues that "social capital", a collective term for those "features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit" (p. 67), is on a downward spiral. One of the root causes that Putnam suggests might be to blame is the "technological transformation of leisure" (p. 75), such as the solitary consumption of TV, movies and videos, at the expense of "more primitive" and socially-oriented forms of entertainment. He speculates that this trend is set to continue with the "'virtual reality' helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total isolation" (p. 75) [12].

Borrowing from Putnam's work, the media theorist Arthur Asa Berger has characterised digital gameplay as further evidence of this shift toward "bowling alone" (2002, p. 106). Berger suggests that digital game playing is, by and large, a "lonely activity" which creates a distance between game players and others. This solitariness "may lead to alienation and various problems caused by this alienation" (p. 107). There are many things wrong with Berger's appropriation of Putnam, with his extrapolation of "bowling alone" to digital games [13], and indeed with his rather superficial discussion of games as a whole, but I want to focus for a moment on the implication in both Berger and Putnam's texts that game playing is fundamentally social, and that solitary bowling or digital gaming is therefore in some sense a debased or deviant form of play [14].

The inference here seems to be that digital games are like 'normal' play--team-based bowling for instance--but with the vital social element missing. But there is, of course, a long history of solitary or solo play that precedes the development of digital games [15]. The traditional board game known as Solitaire (UK) or Peg Solitaire (US) was played at least as far back as the seventeenth century (Beasley, 1992, pp. 3, 252), and the family of card games called Patience (UK) or Solitaire (US) dates to the nineteenth century or earlier (Moorehead & Mott-Smith, 1983, pp. 11-13). Pinball machines have their origins in the eighteenth century game Bagatelle (Bueschel, 1988, pp. 20-22), whilst Japanese pachinko machines first appeared in the early twentieth century (Kiritani, 1994). Mechanical gambling games such as fruit machines (UK) and slot machines (US) date back to the late nineteenth century (Bueschel, 1998, p. 9) [16]. More recently, role-playing games developed solo variants, such as Tunnels and Trolls (Flying Buffalo, 1975) and choose-your-own-adventure books like the popular Fighting Fantasy series (Puffin, 1982-), and many modern board games explicitly provide for the possibility of solitary play [17].

Digital games are by no means distinctive or deviant simply by virtue of the fact that they permit us to play alone. McLuhan's first law of media helps to remind us that solitary digital gaming is not an aberration from the alleged norms of social play so much as an extension of a particular kind of game play that has long existed. Digital games can be seen as "augmenting" play in many ways, but I would like here to confine my discussion to this question of the enhancement of the possibilities for solo play. I do not wish to engage in debates regarding potentially Procrustean taxonomies of play--distinguishing qualities and kinds of solo gaming for instance [18]--but to focus instead on what we might consider a quantitative approach to solitary play. Digital games, precisely to the extent that they are enabled by computer technologies, are capable of vastly more complex solo play. Digital processing replaces counters, cards and human computation, enabling enormously more complicated and responsive rule-sets and representations. Sid Meier's Civilization series serves as an effective illustration.

Civilization began life as a board game, designed by Francis Tresham and first published by Hartland Trefoil in 1980 [19]. It is, as board games go, a complicated affair, requiring up to seven players to keep track of multiple rules and playing pieces as they compete for territory and commodities around the ancient Mediterranean Basin. Sid Meier's single-player computer conversion (MicroProse, 1991), however, elevates the game to a whole new level of complexity. In addition to the computer-controlled players, the nine commodities are replaced, in its most recent incarnation, by thirty-two different resources, the stage is now the entire globe, and the game lasts until 2050 A.D. instead of 250 B.C., with concomitant increases in the complexity of technologies, trade, and warfare, as well as multiple new elements such as religion, culture, city infrastructure, taxation, et al. In theory, perhaps, all these factors could be accommodated within an expanded board game by means of additional playing-pieces, multiple dice-rolls and volumes of tables, but in practice their sheer quantity would make such an undertaking impossible [20]. Computerization of the mechanics of play enables a degree of complexity unavailable to even the most complicated of board games.

Digital games enhance the complexity of solo play in many more ways than just the intricacy of the rule-set, of course. Computer number-crunching underlies the panoply of multimedia elements involved in even the simplest digital games, including graphics, sounds, and the varied means of input (keyboard, controller, etc). Considering such games as a technology, as McLuhan's tetrad would have us do, we can see that it is the very fact that they are digital, i.e. sustained by computer processing, which allows solo play to be enhanced in such a dramatic and distinctive fashion. From a technological perspective it is precisely this 'quantitative' augmentation of play, in fact, that warrants distinguishing digital games from their analogue siblings. Before moving on to McLuhan's second law, and enquiring into what digital gaming obsolesces, however, I find myself unable to pass over Berger's suggestion that it is a "lonely activity", likely to lead to alienation and other unmentionable problems. What of the impact of computerization, and the attendant increase in complexity, on non-solitary digital game play?

Many digital games offer an experience which is, of course, very far from bowling alone: the augmented technological complexity of games has increased opportunities to bowl with others on an unprecedented scale. Multiplayer gaming has been quantitatively enhanced by computerization, in fact, on at least two levels. First, digital games permit more people to play together at one time than ever before, frequently in associations not unlike the organized leagues that Putnam observed to be disappearing from American social life. The persistent worlds of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004-) and Lineage II (NCsoft, 2003-) permit thousands of simultaneous players to compete and cooperate, frequently forming mutually-beneficial team-based clans and guilds [21]. At the same time, players interact across immense distances, whether we consider the colossal game worlds themselves--the 'boards' on which play takes place are now measured in virtual miles and bristle with ever more quests [22]--or the locations of individual players, connected to one another by means of national, international, and even global servers. In both cases--the volume of simultaneous players and the worldwide arenas of play--it is the underlying computer technology that permits the scale of digital multiplayer gaming to dwarf that of traditional games. Far from encouraging only solitary virtual bowling, digital processing helps recreate the world, as McLuhan famously observed, in the image of a tribal-global village (McLuhan & Stearne, 1967, p. 280).

Technologically, digital games significantly enhance the potential complexity of play, both in terms of the solitary activity which so preoccupied Berger, and the group play that has increasingly become a key element of new game releases, massively-multiplayer or otherwise. In keeping with a tetradic approach, I have characterised this enhancement as a quantitative augmentation, an increase in complexity which pushes digital games beyond a threshold that it would in practice be impossible to cross without the support of computer technologies, and which therefore justifies characterising these games as a medium distinct from their analogue counterparts. There is, doubtless, a case to be made that such a quantitative increase engenders a qualitative change in the nature of play, that the increased complexity permits new kinds of play, but such an argument lies beyond my objectives here [23]. I turn instead to McLuhan's second law.

Obsolescing Television

Anecdotal reports often suggest that digital games have increased in popularity at the expense of other entertainment media. In particular, it is claimed that many people are playing games when once they would have watched television [24]. It appears that digital games are, in McLuhan's terms, moving to "obsolesce" television, or at least to advance on the position it has long held as the prime entertainment medium (Beentjes et al., pp. 86, 95; Roberts et al., 2005, p. 23). Concrete comparative research into the use and impact of 'new' or 'interactive' media such as digital games has tended to be either inconclusive or equivocal on the question of such a displacement, however.

A Dutch study published in 1997 reported that the playing of electronic games increased up to the age of 13, after which it slowly declined, but no conclusions were drawn regarding the effect this had on other media (cited in Beentjes et al., 2001). A cross-European study published in 1999 explicitly set out to discover "whether the rise of interactive media [amongst which electronic games are the most frequently used] has had substantial consequences for children's media time expenditure" (Beentjes et al., 2001, p. 85). The findings suggested that "electronic games have conquered the third position behind television and audio media" previously held by print (p. 106), at least amongst boys, although the impact on television viewing was unclear, and the authors warned that the cross-sectional data they presented was "unfit to determine causal relationships" between different kinds of media (p. 86) [25].

In the USA two more reports focused specifically on young people's use of interactive media. A Markle Foundation review (Wartella et al. 2000; Wartella et al. 2002) of all publicly available research into the role of 'new' media in children's lives observed a marked increase in the use of interactive media, but bemoaned the fact that research reports tended to focus on individual media rather than on their interrelation (Wartella et al. 2000, p. 38). Original research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, meanwhile, examined the media use of 8-18 year olds. TV viewing dominated all other media, averaging 3 hours per day, with digital games far behind at just over an hour a day (Roberts et al., 2005, pp. 32-33). Further, compared to their earlier study (Roberts et al., 1999), the researchers found both that the total time spent using media had not changed (2005, p. 37), and that increasing use of 'new' media such digital games did not displace 'old' media such as television. Rather, they observed that heavy users of one medium are likely to be heavy users of others (2005, pp. 51-53), and that children frequently use multiple media at a time, such as instant messaging whilst listening to the news, chatting on the phone and playing a digital game (2005, pp. 35-36). American kids have become accomplished "media multitaskers" (2005, p. 37) [26], and the looked-for "displacement effect" (pp. 51-53) simply hasn't happened. On the other hand, Nick Yee's ongoing research into MMORPGs at The Daedalus Project, which is not confined to young people, reaches the opposite conclusion: "MMORPG gamers spend on average 21.0 hours per week playing the game … and spend on average 7.7 hours per week watching TV … The national average for TV watching per week is around 28, which is what the above averages add up to. In other words, this lends support to the claim that time that was spent watching TV has been displaced by MMORPG playing" (Yee, 2005). Robert Putnam suggested that the "last refuge of a social-scientific scoundrel is to call for more research" (1995, p. 75), but it is clear that existing studies are collectively uncertain on the question of whether the enhancement of digital play is at the same time obsolescing television [27].

Multiple factors make it difficult to determine whether any given medium has the effect of displacing or "obsolescing" another. Accurate and detailing records of the time individuals spend with a particular medium is frequently hard to obtain, and virtually impossible after the event [28]. Multi-tasking and media convergence further complicate the matter, and the question of establishing a causal connection between the popularity of one medium and the failing fortunes of another raises conceptual as well as practical difficulties. Further, we must be careful in our employment of the tetrad's second law. McLuhan was not simply claiming that one medium entirely supersedes another: clearly, newspapers did not die out with the advent of radio any more than "commonplace flavours" disappeared with the consumption of wine. As McLuhan pointed out, quite the opposite can occur: "Handwriting has been obsolescent since printing and typewriter, but there is a great deal more handwriting done daily now than was ever done before printing, or the typewriter." (1987, p. 410).

McLuhan argued that "the 'content' of any medium is always another medium" (1964, p. 8). Speech is the content of writing, he suggests, just as writing is the content of print, and print the content of telegraphy. Bolter and Grusin (2005) take up and elaborate this notion of nested technologies, as well as McLuhan's tetrad, in their own account of the diverse and complex ways in which media interrelate. In suggesting that digital games in some sense "obsolesce" television we need not imply that this older medium is eclipsed or replaced. The conflict between media is a civil war, after all, and no technology is ever entirely vanquished. Instead, media are refashioned and revised, appropriated for new (and not so new) purposes. Bolter and Grusin's term remediation describes how media enter into "relationships of rivalry and homage" (2005, p. 324), appropriating and repurposing one another, both successively and simultaneously. Surveying a range of games and platforms from Pong (Atari, 1972) and Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) to Myst (Cyan Worlds, 1993) and Virtual Valerie (Reactor, 1990), they argue that computer games provide multiple examples of such remediation (1999, pp. 88-103), but in closing this section I would like to focus specifically on the technological remediation of the besieged TV.

In his influential discussion of Cybertext (1997), Espen Aarseth describes the distinctive forms of engagement that are required by ergodic literature, those texts whose consumption entails more than mere "eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages" (p. 2). As Aarseth explains, the term ergodic derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning "work" and "path". The reader must physically exert themselves in order to trace a route through the cybertext: the I Ching or a hypertext such as Geoff Ryman's 253 (1996) require "nontrivial effort" to produce a semiotic sequence (p. 1). The user thus performs in a significant "extranoematic" sense, a term Aarseth employs to emphasise that the reader's activity does not take place "all in his head". Probing by means of McLuhan's tetrad into the issue of technological obsolescence, we might argue that digital games function as an extranoematic remediation of television. The screen is not replaced but repurposed as the user becomes involved in a form of ergodic performance. The "nontrivial effort" of play obsolesces the predominantly trivial effort--eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary flipping of TV channels--of earlier forms of televisual consumption [29]. Game consoles appropriate the television set quite literally for the purpose of play (Bolter & Grusin, 1999, p. 91), but PCs could similarly be seen as taking this older medium as content. In moving from TV to RPG, Yee's respondents obsolesce television not in the sense that they obviate its existence (they still watch nearly 8 hours per week after all), but rather in the form of repurposing its use: their consumption moves from predominantly noematic to substantially extranoematic engagement. We will return to this point as we employ McLuhan's third law.

Retrieving Participation

In the chapter of Understanding Media devoted to games of all kinds (1964, pp. 234-45), McLuhan argues that these "extensions of man" constitute models of a culture. As popular, collective art forms and reactions to the main drive of a society, they characterize whole populations in a single, dynamic image (p. 235). Games today retrieve a form of participation and involvement, he maintains, that has largely been lost in the modern era. In ancient and nonliterate societies games were regarded as representations of the universe, dramatic replicas of the cosmos beyond the tribe or city. The Olympics, for instance, were "direct enactments of the agon, or struggle of the Sun god" (p. 237). Participation was ritualised and religious, and kept the cosmos on the right track. By McLuhan's account, literacy and other technologies facilitated a shift away from these "tribal" societies, toward the fragmented, individualistic modern milieu. Art forms became civilized substitutes for the participatory rituals, mere echoes of "the old magic of total involvement" (p. 237).

McLuhan goes on to suggest that in today's literate and highly specialized societies most individuals use, during their professional lives at least, only a small sector of their being (p. 235). Games, however, allow us to stand aside from the material pressures of routine and convention, and offer a mode of participation available to no single role or job. We most enjoy those games that recall our work and social lives, McLuhan claims, precisely because they provide "mimetic reenactment and relief from our besetting pressures" (p. 238). They function today as "counter-irritants", means of coping with the stresses caused by our increasingly specialized ways of living (p. 235). A game is effectively a machine, an artificially contrived, dynamic mechanism, which works to the extent that players consent to become puppets. Games simultaneously teach individualistic Westerners to adjust to the collective demands of society, whilst temporarily releasing us from those demands. As such, they provide the promise and possibility of a "depth participation" ordinarily denied so-called civilized individuals. Games offer non-specialized involvement in the larger drama of our time (p. 238). In play, then, "we recover the integral person" (p. 235).

In a bid to identify the specific combination of elements that characterise digital games as a form of "participatory media culture", and to distinguish them from film and television, Joost Raessens (2005) has argued that they partake of three interrelated "domains" of participation: interpretation, reconfiguration and construction. Interpretation of a cultural artefact is a form of participation common to diverse media, and Raessens invokes notions of the active audience to argue that varied engagements with a text, and by analogy with a game, are possible (pp. 374-76). Drawing on Aarseth and others, Raessens describes reconfiguration as a combination of "exploration of the unknown", such as when we move about a game's unfamiliar virtual world, and selection from amongst the options and actions that the game permits; reconfiguration consists in the player investigating and actualizing some few of the game's pre-existing potentials (pp. 380-81). Finally, construction describes the process either of creating a new game, whether amateur or professional, or of modifying an existing game, a significant but highly specialist means of participation (p. 381).

Raessens is careful to avoid suggesting that his modes of participation are peculiar to digital games. Although digital games combine them in interesting and innovative ways, he points out that degrees of participation can, of course, be found in other electronic media such as film and television, radio, audio and video recorders, peer-to-peer digital technologies, et al. (p. 373) [30]. Casting Raessen's analysis within the framework of McLuhan's tetrad, however, it is fruitful to highlight the extranoematic aspect of participation that digital games retrieve. Reconfiguration and construction are made possible by none other than the nontrivial, ergodic effort that digital games players are obliged to invest. The 'work path' that a digital game requires a player to trace or construct demands a good deal more than mere "eye movement", and even beyond the most obvious instances of game-prompted physical exertion (dance pad, EyeToy, Wii), all digital games, of their nature, necessitate some measure of extranoematic input by means of console, keyboard or controller. In terms of the participatory experience, there is a qualitative difference between the repeated (and often frantic) button mashing of a games controller and the leisurely, "arbitrary" channel hopping facilitated by a TV remote.

Placing too great an emphasis on digital games' relationship to other electronic media obscures the fact that these games are part of a broader media ecology. The extranoematic engagement central to games is, in fact, a mode of participation that electronic media such as film and television--on which Raessens focuses--tend to obsolesce. Digital games retrieve extranoematic participation from the analogue games and sports with which, in this context, they have most in common. From the perspective of player participation, the extranoematic responsibility that digital games entail aligns them closer to those more traditional activities discussed in McLuhan's chapter on games--baseball, football, ice-hockey, tennis, cards--than to the noematic television viewing that they remediate-obsolesce. As absorbing as digital games are, one might, perhaps, demur at the suggestion that they recover "the old magic of total involvement", or the "depth participation" that McLuhan believes was enjoyed by our ancestors. McLuhan's claim was not simply that games are engrossing, however, but that, as both reflections and reenactments of "the larger drama of our time", they are an integral part of social life. The extent to which these participative, ergodic, digital games can become incorporated into day to day life is the subject of the next section.

Reversing into Pervasive Play

McLuhan's final law asks what a medium will "reverse" or "flip" into. When developed to its fullest potential, or pushed to its limits, how will a technology continue to evolve within the existing cultural environment? The question seems to invite speculation regarding future developments, but McLuhan himself always urged that one should "Never predict anything that hasn't already happened" (quoted in Federman, 2006). His own flair was for providing insights into the limits and implications of existing technologies. The four 'laws', we are told, operate simultaneously rather than sequentially (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988, p. 99), and thus, considered as a heuristic device, afford a means for interrogating what is implicit or "inherent" within a medium. It was a given technology's potential, rather than predictions about the future, in which McLuhan was interested. Incautious rhetoric frequently claims that we draw ever closer to a telos of total immersion, the point at which digital game worlds achieve virtual verisimilitude and players suspend disbelief entirely. Today's games, it is declared, will one day give way to a holodeck containing not just Hamlet but every possible aspect of convincing alternate realities. The myth of imminent immersion, which Salen and Zimmerman call the "immersive fallacy" (2004, pp. 450-55), distracts attention, however, from the reversals of today. Pushed to their full potential, digital games flip not into immersion but, I would suggest, pervasive and persistent play.

Markus Montola has argued that a number of contemporary games systematically blur or break the traditional boundaries that exist between gaming activities and real life (2005). He characterises these "pervasive games" as exploring and subverting the integrity of Huizinga's much-cited magic circle. As it has been elaborated within Game Studies, the notion of the magic circle is taken to describe the spatial, temporal and social frame within which play can occur: the rules of a game carefully delimit its place (perhaps a board or playing field), duration (when play must begin and end), and acceptable modes of behaviour (the actions in which players are permitted to engage). By demarcating and maintaining this fragile space of play, participants create a "magical" realm rich in possibilities, which exists outside the mundane practices of "'ordinary' or 'real' life" (Huizinga, 1955, pp. 8, 10; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, pp. 94-99). Montola suggests that pervasive games undermine the coherence of this magic circle in each of the three key dimensions. First, the magic circle can be expanded spatially, such as when games utilise a cityscape or cyberspace to allow play "anywhere and everywhere", as happened for instance with the viral marketing campaign known as The A.I. Game (42 Entertainment, 2001) (Montola, 2005). Secondly, temporal expansion makes it possible, due to the persistent nature of the game, for participants to find themselves playing "at any given moment", as was the case with the conspiracy thriller Majestic (Anim-X, 2001-2002) (Montola, 2005). Finally, expansion of the magic circle in the social dimension can blur the distinction between players and organisers, or draw unwitting non-players into the game, as happened in the supernatural role playing game Prosopopoeia (IperG, 2005) (Montola & Jonsson, 2006). Montola's essay characterises a variety of pervasive games, both digital and analogue, as expanding the magic circle, and his discussion provides an excellent framework for analysis of this genre. I'd like in these closing paragraphs, however, to focus on digitally persistent and pervasive games, and to demonstrate how their disruption of Huizinga's magic circle is, in McLuhan's terms, not so much an expansion as a reversal, a "flipping" that brings to the fore the potential of the medium as a whole.

We can examine these reversals according to an alternative tripartite schema which complements Montola's three dimensions. First, a number of digital games are purposely designed to obscure the distinction between the game environment and the real world. A key premise of alternate reality games (ARGs) such as Majestic and The A.I. Game is that players are never explicitly informed of the fictional nature of the game's many elements. The A.I. Game, designed to promote Steven Spielberg's sci-fi film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Warner, 2001), ran continuously for three months, during which time players participated in a complex, evolving narrative associated with the movie, following hints and tips distributed by means of specially-created websites, emails, phone-messages and print media. At no point was the game acknowledged as such by its creators [31]. Similarly, In Memoriam (a.k.a. Missing: Since January; Lexis Numérique, 2003) starts with a traditional PC game installation, using a CD purportedly released by a news agency attempting to track down a missing reporter. Players begin to receive emails from diverse individuals, benevolent and otherwise, and are required to scour the internet for clues as they become drawn into an occult murder mystery. Whether the websites they visit and the movie clips they uncover are genuine, or have been specially created for the game, is never explicitly revealed, however. The third-person adventure game Omikron: The Nomad Soul (Quantic Dream, 1999) forewarns players that their avatars are in fact real people whom they are able to possess by means of their computer. In these examples the games' developers have sought to obfuscate the bounds of the magic circle, but of course--unlike the protagonist of David Fincher's The Game (1997)--no-one is fooled or was intended to be. The pretence is part of the game, and the magic circle ultimately remains intact (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 585). Players know full well that designers who claim "this is not a game" protest too much, and all parties take pleasure in the conceit [32].

Secondly, a variety of digital games incorporate aspects of ordinary life into the game. The threshold of Huizinga's frame is here crossed by elements of the 'external' world moving inside the charmed realm of the magic circle. With the spread of digital games from dedicated consoles and computers to mobile phones and handheld devices, pervasive and persistent play is exhibited by the emerging genre of mobile and location-based games. One of the first commercial mobile games, Botfighters (2001) from Swedish developers It's Alive!, allowed players to choose their robot from a website, and to equip it with enhancements and additional weaponry using Robucks, the game's currency (Sotamaa, 2002). The game's battles were actually fought across the streets of Stockholm, however, by means of players' standard GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) phones. The phone's cell identification located owners to within a few hundred meters, allowing players to 'hunt' one another and to 'attack' using text messages. The city itself entered the game's arena, transformed by mobile technologies into a digitally enhanced playing field [33]. The non-commercial treasure hunting game Geocaching (2000-), a digital variant on traditional 'letterboxing', makes similar use of location-based technology, usually a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver (Rantanen, 2007). Finally, the browser extension PMOG (Passively Multiplayer Online Game) (GameLayers, 2008-) takes a user's web surfing as its raw data, mischievously converting their mundane online activities into a character profile with experience points, levels, et al. Participants, if they can truly be called such, passively benefit from the potentially "infinite playing field" of their appropriated virtual visits (Edge, 2007) [34]. In each of these cases, digital technologies permit the game to incorporate pre-existing elements of the everyday environment, drawing them inside the magic circle. No-one here denies that they are playing, but asserts on the contrary, "this is now a game".

Conversely, components generated inside many digital games have begun to rove outside the magic circle. The supposedly self-contained economies of persistent virtual worlds have long since seeped into those of the real world (Castronova, 2005, pp. 149-51). Virtual items and equipment for MMORPGs, nominally available only by playing the game, have migrated to the open market and can be purchased with real dollars. In parts of the (real) world where labour is cheap, the practice of harvesting virtual gold and goods for immediate resale has reached industrial proportions: so-called "gold farms" in China employ an estimated 100 000 people who grind through the games, often for 12 hour shifts at a time, 7 days a week, contributing to the $1.8 billion trade in virtual items (Barboza, 2005; Dibbell, 2007). Websites such as GameUSD compare the cost of virtual gold between online vendors, whilst Eye on MOGs keeps track of currency conversion rates between multiple gameworlds and the real US Dollar. Even the characters themselves can be sold in their entirety, as affluent players acquire, without the tedious effort of having to accrue the necessary experience points, high level druids, paladins and priests [35]. Here, elements of play that previously had meaning only inside the game insinuate themselves into the world beyond. Virtual weapons, and the elves and trolls who wield them, circulate amongst non-players before slipping back into their natural--which is to say artificial--environment. Those on either side of the magic circle can see that, at least with regard to these itinerant elements, "this is no longer a game".

McLuhan's fourth law prompts us to notice that, when pushed to its limit, digital gameplay is no longer intermittent but instead sustained: games become spatially, temporally and socially pervasive and persistent. The stability of the magic circle is subverted as digitally mediated games challenge or even dissolve the distinction between play and "ordinary" life. Or rather, we come to see that play is inseparable from ordinary life. As Marinka Copier has argued (2005), characterising the magic circle as a discrete realm, even one whose borders can be blurred, misrepresents Huizinga's thesis in his book Homo Ludens. Although he describes play as standing "outside" (buiten) ordinary life, proceeding "within its own proper boundaries of time and space" (1955, p. 13), Huizinga also argues that culture lies sub specie ludi (under the purview of play), and that "civilization arises and unfolds in and as play" (Foreword). In fact, the majority of Homo Ludens, which is to say all eleven chapters following the first, is devoted to demonstrating just this. The "play-element in culture" of Huizinga's subtitle is not an isolated component but one that pervades all aspects of social and cultural life. Huizinga himself preferred the genitive: the play element of culture (spel-element der cultuur) (Foreword). It is this oscillation between characterising play as distinct from and intrinsic to human culture, a productive ambiguity largely overlooked by Game Studies, that gives Huizinga's argument its great strength and flexibility (Kücklich, 2007, p. 11) [36]. As Huizinga emphasised, "every child knows perfectly well that he is 'only pretending'" (1955, p. 8), irrespective of the degree to which we might approach so-called total immersion, or claim that "this is not a game". This is the magic not of a separate realm, but of McLuhan's involvement and participation. With pervasive and persistent digital games, ordinary life enters play (in the form of Swedish streets or passive browsing), just as play enters ordinary life (in the form of virtual gold and errant elves). The tetrad's final law tells us, in short, that digital games are a part of ordinary life, not apart from it.

Procrustean Probes

McLuhan's laws of media, when applied to digital gaming, provide "an ordering of thought and experience", a systematic means of organising insights and observations regarding the nature of this still-emerging technology. The tetrad prompts us to notice that play is "enhanced" in the quantitative sense that the complexity of games is augmented: computer processing makes possible vastly more complicated forms of play that are unattainable without this technology. It helps us to see how inactive, noematic television viewing is "obsolesced" by digital games: when combined with console or keyboard the television set is remediated to provide an opportunity for animated, extranoematic activity. This concrete engagement can be seen as a "retrieval" of those forms of participation and ergodic effort that align digital games, as a medium, with traditional, analogue games and sports. Finally, McLuhan's last law draws our attention to the ways in which digital games "reverse", ultimately, into pervasive and persistent play: increasingly, modes of digital gameplay are becoming embedded in everyday life.

At the same time, the tetrad assists in defusing or dissolving common conceptual misunderstandings regarding digital games. In focusing on the enhanced complexity of computer-mediated play we can counter Berger's misguided suggestion--that solitary, debased digital gaming increases cultural alienation--with the broader contexts both of traditional solo games and the enriched opportunities for multiplay that online gaming makes possible. In addressing the obsolescence of noematic television viewing, we can reconceive conflicting claims that digital gaming is displacing, or supplanting, or superseding traditional television use, in light of a more complex understanding of televisual remediation. In considering the retrieval of extranoematic participation from traditional games and sports, we understand better both that, as Raessens demonstrates, digital games do not provide entirely unique forms of interaction and engagement, and that they need not be regarded as corresponding most closely with other electronic, screen-based media. Finally, attending to the reversal of digital games into existing and implicit forms of pervasive and persistent play stands as a corrective both to inflated claims for the imminent advent of total immersion, and to considerations of digital gaming as taking place within a distinct magic circle, a realm separate from ordinary life.

The tetrad is McLuhan's means of marshalling our thoughts, of pulling together what might otherwise seem disparate and disconnected qualities and analyses of digital games. The danger with any theory or schema is that it inevitably does violence to its subject matter. Such violence is redeemed only if the resulting investigation is ultimately constructive. Theseus turned Procrustes' accommodating, incisive technological innovation to his advantage. The utility of McLuhan's own Procrustean probe has been, I hope, that it provides an overview--one amongst many possible surveys--of the "operation and effects" of digital games as they play their part in the technological civil war "that rages in our society and our psyches alike". It helps us to understand the expressive pressures that digital games exert, and the ways in which they disturb the patterns and balances that have evolved between existing media technologies. The tetrad allows us, in short, to situate digital gameplay within the mediated environment of which it is a part.


My thanks to the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation whose generous support allowed me to present an earlier version of this essay at DiGRA 2007: Situated Play, University of Tokyo, September 2007.

[1] My account of Procrustes' methods is based principally on that of Diodorus Siculus (1935, iv.59.5). For alternatives see Graves (1955-60, I, pp. 329-30) and Apollodorus (1921, E 1.4, note 1).

[2] See also McLuhan (1975).

[3] See McLuhan (1975), McLuhan (1977) and McLuhan and McLuhan (1988, pp. 98-99). The laws are modelled in part after Bacon's four idols and Vico's four axioms; see McLuhan and McLuhan (1988, pp. 3-11 [Introduction]).

[4] This example is taken from Levinson (1999, p. 189). For McLuhan's own discussion of radio see McLuhan (1977, p. 178) and McLuhan (1964, pp. 297-307 [Chapter 30]). See also McLuhan and McLuhan (1988, p. 172).

[5] Further multiple tetrads can be found on pp. 195-207.

[6] Nietzsche described this Procrustean approach as "fitting new material into old schemes ... making equal what is new" (1968, p. 273/1885, §499).

[7] For a sustained critique, and McLuhan's response, see Venable (1976) and McLuhan (1976).

[8] This is not to say, of course, that one should not interrogate individual texts or artefacts, but, rather, that an approach which focuses on the medium as a whole can prove equally instructive.

[9] The tetrad has been infrequently employed for digital game analysis, but Stuart Moulthrop's (1991) discussion of hypertext is relevant, whilst David Miles (1996) applied one of the "laws of media" to Myst (Brøderbund, 1993), concentrating on this "multimedia novel's" many retrievals.

[10] I return to Bolter and Grusin, and their account of "remediation", below.

[11] On media ecologies see Lum (2005), Strate (2006), and Explorations in Media Ecology, the journal of the Media Ecology Association.

[12] Putnam elaborated his essay into book form (2000). For critiques of his somewhat gloomy prognosis, see Foley and Edwards (1996) and Durlauf (2002). I return to the question of the technological transformation of leisure in the next section.

[13] Schott and Kambouri (2006, pp. 120-22) survey existing research into the alleged anti-social effects of digital gameplay.

[14] Berger's rhetoric and characterisation of digital games brings to mind Rousseau's infamous critique of bowling alone, and Derrida's response (1976, pp. 150-57).

[15] For convenience I use the terms solo play, solitary play, and singular play synonymously.

[16] Note that, strictly speaking, although these mechanical gambling machines comprise a solitary activity they are actually multiplay games, since they require a succession of players willing to chance their luck by feeding the machines with coins. The games thus entail a kind of asynchronous and anonymous multiplay, since you effectively play with all those who have used the machine before you.

[17] We should also not forget the long tradition of playing against oneself with board games such as Chess, Go, Backgammon, et al. On the importance of understanding the "aesthetic" differences between individual and social play, at least from a evolutionary-semiotic perspective, see Myers (2005). Myers has gone so far as to argue that play is fundamentally selfish in nature (2007).

[18] For an overview of theories of play see Salen & Zimmerman (2004, pp. 70-83, 298-489).

[19] Myers (2003, pp. 131-46) provides a history and informative account of Civilization.

[20] Sid Meier himself has mused on how much more the digital version of Civilization was able to do compared to the boardgame, due precisely to the power of computer technologies (Chick, Meier & Shelley, 2001). On the qualitatively different experience of play in Civilization which comes with the computer's assumption of the "burden of computation" see Atkins (2005).

[21] Berger suggests that these online interactions don't produce real communities, just as the animated simulation of eating a gourmet meal will still leave its recipient hungry (p. 111). For concrete research into the nature of online gaming communities see Taylor (2006) and Williams et al. (2006). Bell (2006) assesses the utility of Putnam's work, and that of a number of other theorists, for discussing virtual communities in general, whilst contributors to Bennett (2007) examine the relationship between participation in online communities and civic or political engagement.

[22] For ingenious attempts by players to calculate the size of Azeroth, the World of Warcraft realm, see for instance Broca (2005) and Tobold (2007).

[23] Engels (1940, pp. 26-34 [Chapter 2]), drawing on Hegel, addresses this question of the transformation of quantity into quality, though not, it has to be said, with regard to digital games. On conceptualising the experiences and pleasures of different kinds of media see Kerr et al. (2006).

[24] See for instance Moscovitch (1998) and the Comments posted at Yee (2005).

[25] The research project, entitled Children, Young People and the Changing Media Environment, was conducted between 1995 and 2000, and compared 12 European countries. Its findings are reported in Livingstone & Bovill (1999), Livingstone & Bovill (2001) and Livingstone (2002).

[26] On the diverse ways in which young people participate in the new media ecology see Ito et al. (2008).

[27] Similarly indicative but inconclusive data from the United Kingdom can be found in Pratchett et al. (2005) and United Kingdom Office for National Statistics (2000-2006). For further discussion of childrens' use of digital games see Fromme (2003).

[28] Research such as the meticulous UK Time Use Survey, 2000 (Ipsos-RSL and Office for National Statistics, 2003) does provide a valuable snapshot.

[29] In drawing attention to this aspect of digital gameplay we are by no means committed to suggesting that this is the only form of extranoematic televisual activity: the use of videotapes, DVDs, interactive TV, and even old-fashioned channel surfing all require some degree of physical exertion. Further, any distinction drawn between trivial and nontrivial effort will always be strategic and provisional: clicking on hyperlinks and game controllers has become as trivial today as the flipping of pages or TV channels, where once these activities might have been considered remarkable. The question of ergodic construction turns on the necessity of the user’s effort, however we describe it, to achieve a semiotic sequence.

[30] On the range and variety of contemporary modes of “participatory culture” see especially the work of Henry Jenkins (e.g 2006a and 2006b).

[31] On The A.I. Game, also known as The Beast, see accounts by one of the game's 'puppetmasters', Sean Stewart (2003), the participants (Cloudmakers, no date), and McGonigal (2003). On ARGs in general see Szulborski's This Is Not A Game (2005).

[32] On the metacommunication implicit in play see Bateson (1955).

[33] See also Epidemic Menace (IPerG, 2004), an experimental "crossmedia" game which utilized a wide variety of digital technologies to assimilate the environment in which it was played (Ohlenburg, Lindt & Pankoke-Babatz, 2007).

[34] Similarly, ImpactGames' Play the News (2008-) uses current events as the raw material for play.

[35] Castronova discusses several additional forms of traffic across the permeable "membrane" of the magic circle, including politics and law (2005, pp. 147-60).

[36] For a lively and illuminating analysis of the way in which ordinary life "pervades" play, see Kücklich's application of George Spencer-Brown's calculus of indication to Huizinga and his successors (2007, pp. 8-35).


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