Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort’s: The New Media Reader

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Dec 15, 2006

Reviewed by: Jonas Heide Smith (smith@game-research.com)

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah & Montfort, Nick (2003). The New Media Reader. London: The MIT Press. �29.95. Book website.


Game studies have produced quite a number of anthologies featuring articles collected not from any pressing scientific need. Indeed, some of these tomes seem more like gatherings of convenience; motley crews of texts ganging up on publishers. It is the humble opinion of this reviewer that what game studies need are more ambitious attempt at the intimidating text book genre � books that can be for games what (say) David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson�s Film History and Film Art are for film studies. Anthologies, of course, do serve important functions, for instance as textual treasuries of classic texts within a field. The New Media Reader edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort is an attempt at just such a hall of fame within the field of new media. Hopelessly imprecise, the term �new media� today (more or less) commonly refers to digital media seen from the perspective of artistic expression or at least an aesthetically oriented humanistic viewpoint. You won�t hear old-school computer scientists refer to software as �new media�. While not a book on games, the editors have included an excerpt from Sherry Turkle�s The Second Self and Morningstar and Farmer�s article The Lessons of Lucasfilm�s Habitat. Directly game-oriented or not, games don�t exist in a vacuum and game researchers of all creeds and colours are bound to benefit from a bit of context.

So, what texts are the most important ever on new media? According to the editors, �This anthology, embracing print and digital media, is our effort to uncover and assemble a representative collection of critical thoughts, events, and developments from the computer�s humanistic and artistic past, its conception not as an advanced calculator but as a new medium, or as enabling new media.�. This must have involved some tough choices. Fortunately, of course, the editors were able to conscientiously round up the usual suspects � Jorge Louis Borges, Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, J. C. R. Licklider, Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson. The collection of 54 texts also includes work by Norbert Wiener, Marshall McLuhan, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Jean Baudrillard, Nicholas Negroponte, Richard Stallman, J. David Bolter, and Espen Aarseth. Each text is preceded by a 1-2 page introduction by the editors. Also included is a CD-ROM containing various resources such as footage from Douglas Engelbart�s legendary 1968 demo and early games such as Mystery House running on an Apple II emulator.

The form of the book itself deserves comment. The old medium is stretched far to accommodate a variety of cross-references and editorial comments. This works well, and the editing seems both meticulous and well planned. Pretty, however, the book is not. The cover with its shades of blue adorned by orange writing might make a less polite reviewer comment on the unhappy marriage of old and new media. This is not one for the coffee table. Contentwise, however, this is a gem.

From the introductions by Janet Murray (great) and Lev Manovich (OK) we are served a selection to please any student or professor of new media and adjacent fields. Many of the seminal texts have previously been available in Paul Mayer�s excellent (and less expensive) 1999 reader Computer Media and Communication as well as a variety of similar volumes. The New Media Reader, however, will probably be the anthology of choice for anyone with an eye for the aesthetics of digital media (as opposed to, say, �pure� communication studies, computer science or cultural studies).

The highlights are well-known. Vannevar Bush� As We May Think never fails to impress yours truly with its acute diagnosis of the problem of information technology; it has a tendency to give us more information, while what we need is better ways to select information.

Alan Turing�s Computing Machinery and Intelligence presents the Turing Test of intelligence which has sparked such a flurry of philosophical attention and which, as Janet Murray points out in her Hamlet on the Holodeck, is of obvious interest to anyone working with interactive fiction (if those words may still be uttered).

Licklider and Engelbart�s visionary prophesies of computer potential should be required reading for anyone working in Human-Computer Interaction and the philosophy of technology. And of course old man McLuhan really is inescapable as a guide to the understanding of media transformations and the (possible) large-scale effects of these transformations - ideas also evident in the work of psychologist Sherry Turkle.

Turkle, whose The Second Self from 1984, although somewhat informal and chatty, ranks among the most inspiring works on the cultural implications of games, is represented by an excerpt from that book entitled Video Games and Computer Holding Power. As the editors note: �While others concerned with the social world were decrying video games as an evil influence, Turkle asked players about their experience to determine why they played video games.� True, but Turkle really was seeing many other things clearly enough to put many of her theoretical successors to shame. She criticizes the common television-videogame analogies of the time for failing to grasp that games are interactive microworlds, she describes games as systems and players as employing a variety of strategies. She also describes narrative aspects of arcade games as mere objects of identification noting that they are not important in a traditionally dramatic way. The editors put it well: ��video game makers of the last few years, desperately calling for more integration of stories, have not leant an ear to game-players as Turkle did.� That particular problem may be diminishing, but it does prove the editors� point that in order to stop reinventing the wheel one should look to the classics.

Morningstar and Farmer�s The Lessons of Lucasfilm�s Habitat may not be an obvious such classic. Surely, most of us would expect to see an excerpt from Chris Crawfords The Art of Game Design or indeed J. M. Graetz� The Origin of Spacewar. Although such texts may be missed, the authors have really chosen a small miracle of an article, reflecting on the once-proud early (mid-eighties) graphical MUD/game Habitat. Morningstar and Farmer are obviously much wiser from the experiment and able (and willing) to share their hard-earned experiences with future MMORPG designers. For those interested in social aspects of online gaming or indeed the design of such beasts, this article is as relevant as ever.

Summing up, The New Media Reader is the impressively obvious choice for any university course on new media with or without a gaming perspective. It will not function as a computer game studies reader in any way, but will work to put that field into much-needed perspective. Any student of digital aesthetics and the-computer-as-medium will enjoy this collection of truly important and well-edited founding texts.

Book contents

Inventing the Medium
Janet H. Murray [online version is excerpt]

New Media from Borges to HTML
Lev Manovich [online version is excerpt]

I. The Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate
01. The Garden of Forking Paths
Jorge Luis Borges, 1941

02. As We May Think
Vannevar Bush, 1945

03. Computing Machinery and Intelligence
Alan Turing, 1950

04. Men, Machines, and the World About
Norbert Wiener, 1954

05. Man-Computer Symbiosis
J. C. R. Licklider, 1960

06. ‘Happenings’ in the New York Scene
Allan Kaprow, 1961

07. The Cut Up Method of Brion Gysin
William S. Burroughs, 1961

08. From Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework
Douglas Engelbart, 1962

09. Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System
Ivan Sutherland, 1963

10. The Construction of Change
Roy Ascott, 1964

11. A File Structure for The Complex, The Changing, and the Indeterminate
Theodor H. Nelson, 1965

12. Six Selections by the Oulipo

II. Collective Media, Personal Media
13. Two Selections by Marshall McLuhan
The Medium is the Message (from Understanding Media), 1964
The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society (from The Gutenberg Galaxy), 1969

14. Four Selections by Experiments in Art and Technology

15. Cybernated Art
Nam June Paik, 1966

16. A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect
Douglas Engelbart and William English, 1968

17. From Software�Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art
Theodor H. Nelson, Nicholas Negroponte, and Les Levine, 1970

18. Constituents of a Theory of the Media
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 1970

19. Requiem for the Media
Jean Baudrillard, 1972

20. The Technology and the Society
Raymond Williams, 1974

21. From Computer Lib / Dream Machines
Theodor H. Nelson, 1970�1974

22. From Theatre of the Oppressed
Augusto Boal, 1974

23. From Soft Architecture Machines
Nicholas Negroponte, 1975

24. From Computer Power and Human Reason
Joseph Weizenbaum, 1976

25. Responsive Environments
Myron Krueger, 1977

26. Personal Dynamic Media
Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, 1977

27. From A Thousand Plateaus
Gilles Deleuze and F�lix Guattari, 1980

III. Design, Activity, and Action
28. From Mindstorms
Seymour Papert, 1980

29. ‘Put-That-There’: Voice and Gesture at the Graphics Interface
Richard A. Bolt, 1980

30. Proposal for a Universal Electronic Publishing System and Archive (from Literary Machines)
Theodor H. Nelson, 1981

31. Will There be Condominiums in Data Space?
Bill Viola, 1982

32. The Endless Chain (from The Media Monopoly)
Ben Bagdikian, 1983

33. Direct Manipulation: A Step Beyond Programming Languages
Ben Shneiderman, 1983

34. Video Games and Computer Holding Power (from The Second Self)
Sherry Turkle, 1984

35. A Cyborg Manifesto
Donna Haraway, 1985

36. The GNU Manifesto
Richard Stallman, 1985

37. Using Computers: A Direction for Design (from Understanding Computers and Cognition)
Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, 1986

38. Two Selections by Brenda Laurel
The Six Elements and Causal Relations Among Them (from Computers as Theater), 1991
Star Raiders: Dramatic Interaction in a Small World, 1986

39. Towards a New Classification of Tele-Information Services
J. L. Bordewijk and B. van Kaam, 1986

IV. Revolution, Resistance, and the Launch of the Web
40. Mythinformation
Langdon Winner, 1986

41. From Plans and Situated Actions
Lucy A. Suchman, 1987

42. Siren Shapes: Exploratory and Constructive Hypertexts
Michael Joyce, 1988

43. The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems
Bill Nichols, 1988

44. The Fantasy Beyond Control
Lynn Hershman, 1990

45. Cardboard Computers
Pelle Ehn and Morten Kyng, 1991

46. The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat
Chip Morningstar and R. Randall Farmer, 1991

47. Seeing and Writing (from Writing Space)
J. David Bolter, 1991

48. You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media
Stuart Moulthrop, 1991

49. The End of Books
Robert Coover, 1992

50. Time Frames (from Understanding Comics)
Scott McCloud, 1993

51. Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy
Philip E. Agre, 1994

52. Nonlinearity and Literary Theory
Espen Aarseth, 1994

53. Nomadic Power and Cultural Resistance
Critical Art Ensemble, 1994

54. The World Wide Web
Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Ari Loutonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, and Arthur Secret, 1994

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