Videogames are often considered mere entertainment products, however, their growing market penetration as well as their increasing expression capabilities, supported by constant technical innovation, give them great potential as a communication medium. This thesis analyzes the game designer to player communication in a selection of videogames, showing how they convey messages, either explicitly or implicitly. Examples are presented both from the mainstream commercial market as well as from what can be considered the "underground" scene.
To understand the level of complexity of current videogames, it is helpful to start with a brief history. The first digital computer game was invented in 1962 by Steve Russell, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The game was named Spacewar and it was about two spaceships trying to destroy each other. In 1966 Ralph Baer designed a device for playing a simple game of tennis on the television screen. This became the first home console, commercialized after six years, in 1972, by Magnavox with the name of Odyssey. Nolan Bushnell, another pioneer of the videogame industry realized the first arcade videogame in 1970 named Computer Space. The new videogames market proved to be so profitable that in the early seventies several companies entered it, bringing innovations such as colour and sound. However, in 1978 a crisis hit the same market due to the high number of competitors that were offering products very similar to one another. In the same year the market was stirred by the game Space Invaders (Taito, 1978), the first Japanese videogame that became very popular in Japan and the USA. In the eighties for the first time videogame characters, such as Pac-Man and Mario Bros, gained so much popularity that they started to appear outside the digital world, on T-shirts, in cartoons, comics and magazines. In the nineties the market was characterized by the introduction of 3D graphics and first person viewpoint, a pioneer being Wolfenstein 3D (ID Software, 1992). The very popular Sony PlayStation console, introduced in 1994, made 3D graphics its characteristic signature. In the year 2000 Sony launched PlayStation 2 and the software giant Microsoft entered the videogame console market with the Xbox in 2001. Both the Xbox and the PlayStation 2 introduced extra features not necessarily related to gaming, such as the ability to read DVD movies and to connect to the Internet. In the last decade, the increased popularity of the Internet has opened new frontiers for videogames. An example of network based games is Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), where thousands of people can play together interacting in complex virtual worlds. Thanks to the Internet another new genre of games was introduced that vastly broadened the audience to include those who are not usual players: casual games are simple entertainment games that can be found on Internet web pages, designed for short casual interactions such as coffee breaks from work. Because of the vast public they reach, casual games are often used by companies to promote brands or products; these promotional games are called advergames.
Thanks to their multimedia nature videogames are a rich communication medium. In fact they can stimulate auditory, visual and haptic perception at the same time. Their interactive nature can engage the users' attention even more than other media like television and cinema. The analysis of videogames as a communication medium is a particularly difficult task for more than one reason. First, videogames involve at least three levels of communication: from the game designer to the players, from player to player and from the player to himself. Second, several genres exist within the videogames market (action, adventure, simulation, card games, etc.). This thesis focuses on the communication from game designer to players, an area that is still relatively unexplored, compared for example with the literature available on player to player communication in games. An analysis of individual products was favoured over a generalized approach, which could have produced results that were too vague, due to the multi-faceted nature of the videogames market.
In recent years the videogames market has been characterized by an oligopoly: few publishers select games merely according to globalized demand. As a consequence most commercial games try to appeal to the same population of consumers, with few innovations in interaction techniques and stories, the top of the selling charts being dominated by sports games, action/adventure games, war games or games with violent content.
The level of realism and accuracy in videogames is so high that the US Army has been using videogames for training purpose since 1980, when the commercial tank videogame Battlezone (Atari) was adopted for the training of soldiers. Several other commercial games were used by the US Army in the eighties and nineties for training purposes. In 2002 the US Army released America's Army a videogame in the style of commercial action games. The game is distributed for free and explicitly promotes recruitment. America's Army has a first person viewpoint: the player is a US soldier in realistic war scenarios. Technical details such as weapons and strategies are reproduced with great accuracy. However, blood and death are deliberately excluded. The production of the game involved a significant investment, that the US Army considers highly fruitful, as it is estimated that the game was a useful source of information for 29% of people interested in the army. While America's Army is a clear example of a videogame designed for explicit communication, other games convey messages, even though their design was originally only intended for entertainment. The Sims (Maxis/Electronic Arts, 2000), for example, conveys an unintentional glorification of the American lifestyle. Other examples of videogames for explicit communication can be found in casual games. These can generally be produced at a relatively low cost (compared to other videogames) and have been used by activist groups to criticize militarism or the dominant culture. One interesting example is September 12th by Gonzalo Frasca. September 12th is a simple game with cartoon like graphics. It uses traditional videogame aesthetics to criticize US tactics in the war on terror. The author sees his game as the 21st century equivalent to traditional printed political cartoons. Partly inspired by Gonzalo Frasca's work the Italian group Molleindustria produces casual games that try to awaken public opinion concerning political or social issues.
In conclusion, early examples show that videogames can be a very effective medium of communication. The complexity of the language makes it difficult to master the medium. A large share of the audience is still composed of children and teenagers but the average age of players is rising, and reached 33 years in 2005. It can be expected that videogames will soon gain significance in communication for a wider range of people.