3. Medium

“There are three erors in this sentnce.

We can open a book to read, write an eMail, select a TV-channel to view, surf the internet to follow links, enter a game to play.
The common conception of a medium is usually that of a technical means of communication and information, external and disparate from us, something safe and sound that we can use, enter, fill – and leave at will.

Seen from the view of epistemological theories like radical constructivism, or media theories e.g. by Marshall McLuhan or Niklas Luhmann, there are some caveats to seeing media as mere external tools.
As McLuhan puts it, “any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary” (McLuhan (1964), “Understanding Media”, 15). There are three attributes of media that are worth looking at, to understand how this imposition works:

First, media are generative. They are not neutral, passive containers, but imprint their characteristics upon their content. The limitations that span a defined space of expectable and expected possibilities is the medium, it is the first and foremost message delivered. For oral communication one limitation may be its transience, for TV the forced timing of its reception; both limitations also opening up consequences not possible without them, e.g. the vivid, personal and singular nature of any utterance; or the shaping of communities of interest by time schedules.

Second, established media tend to become transparent. A medium functions best when it is not perceived as such, but stands back in favour of its obvious content, the medium itself remaining beyond the threshold of our conscious perception (Sybille Krämer (2008), “Medium, Bote, Übertragung”, 25-33). We perceive a medium as a medium only if it unexpectedly limits our expression, if we are unaccustomed to it, and/or if it malfunctions. At the same time, a designer’s usual goal is to turn a medium intuitively usable; an educator’s usual goal is to choose exactly such an intuitively usable, fitting medium and concentrate on filling in content and contextualisation. The common way for both is to go for transparency of the medium.

Third, media are expressive content: “the medium is the message” (McLuhan (1964), 8).
A medium can change – or be changed – over time, it can be expanded, invented anew, corrupted, appropriated like its contents. A medium is thus per se a dynamic form, though for technical limitations or socio-cultural ease-of-use it is usually seen as a stable given. The creation of a new, unique application  – e.g. Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook – is the creation of a new medium within the medium of digital-networked media, and contains also Wikipedia-, Twitter- or Facebook-specific messages to the user, beyond those of the digital-networked medium.

For future digital-networked media this means that media will be intentionally created for their usability, to elicit a specific kind of use and response, to foster a desired pattern of behaviour by their users, beyond the mere delivery of content. This can already be seen in services like Twitter, Facebook, or the Kindle e-book reader, which change the notion of ‘communication’, ‘community-building’ or ‘reading’ by technically both expanding and limiting the acts, and by altering concepts of ‘message’, ‘friendship’ or ‘property’.
Speaking with Marshall McLuhan, there is much more to a medium than just its overt content.

“we do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment.”
– Manifesto “We, the Web kids”


Above image is part of a comic, Scott McCloud explains Google Chrome (2008)
You can ignore something only if you have perceived it beforehand.
Did you noticed the web today?

Texts to read:

Media are artifacts that work by inclusion and omission, by restriction and liberation. Marshall McLuhan was a prominent, and probably the most influential media and communication theorist in the latter half of the 20th century; Niklas Luhmann was an influential system theorist (and radical constructivist), who also researched the nature of ‘the’ medium. McCloud pays a hommage to McLuhan, and is quite influential in his own right: Will Wright (“The Sims”) and Chris Crawford (GDC) reference and recommend him.

  • Marshall McLuhan (19964), “Understanding Media”, chapter 1, “The Medium is the Message”, 7-21 [XXX]
  • Niklas Luhmann (2005), “Kommunikationsmedien” (a rough translation) [XXX]
  • Scott McCloud (1993), “Understanding Comics”, chapter 1, “Setting the Record straight”, 7-23 (trying to define the medium “comic”) [XXX]


What are the medium-specific McLuhan-type meta-messages Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook are sending to their users (or other common web services)? Is there a common message shared by all web-based services?


How would a definition of your favorite medium look like, if taken with the same cautious and encompassing approach McCloud (1993, 7-9) demonstrates in his definition of “comics”?


Luhmann’s description of a medium fits quite well to a game and a concrete match in this game; e.g. a chessboard, chess pieces, its rules as medium; and a single, unique match of chess as form within. To explain what “chess” is, it would be both insufficient to either point to playing material and rules (because the concretising process of ‘playing’ is missing), or to a single concrete match of chess (because the broad range of possible matches is missing).

“[…] chess, for example, to make a specific move in face of a specific, self created position of the playing pieces. It [note: the system consisting of players and game] sees the possibility space with its already carried out restrictions as the game and decides thereupon the next move; it realises within the medium of the game the one or the other form.”
– Niklas Luhmann (2002), “Das Erziehungssystem der Gesellschaft”, p.89,
Translation by Tan. Will Wright (“The Sims”) uses 2005 the same metaphor – “possibility space” – to describe the gameplay in systemic simulation games.

Can you find similar examples for a medium from your area of expertise, where it is also difficult to explain to some outsider that it is more than just the tools and skills, and also more than some few practical examples encountered?


How does “Calvinball” fit into Luhmann’s scheme of medium and form?
What could be the message, when seen from McLuhan’s point of view?

Comic “Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson, shown in “How Board Games Explain Everything: Part 3: Differance”

If you think you know “Chess” – what kind of chess can you see being played in this painting from Lucas von Leyden (about 1508), “A Match of Chess” (“Schachpartie”)?

If we are talking about specific media, e.g. “Photography sharpens the eye for the invisible”, “All conceptions in the game of chess have a geometrical basis” or  “Digital natives have an intuitive grasp on using the internet”, what media are we talking about?
(See also Bertolt Brecht’s Radiotheory, 1927-1932; or McLuhan’s statement that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 1964, p.8)

“Sooner or later, all our games turn into Calvinball.”
– Calvin, “Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson.


How does a domineering personal office app like Microsoft Powerpoint shape our perception of presentational needs, of overview, informational surplus or navigation? Is “Prezi” an alternative?


Some concepts are important for (pedagogical) media theory till today. This includes e.g. Mcluhan’s “extensions of men” (McLuhan 1964, “Understanding Media), title), “the medium is the message” (p.7), “the grammar of print and typography” (p.13), ” the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (p.8); Luhmann’s “medium” and “form”, “loose coupling” and “rigid coupling”.

Can you find real-life examples according to these principles? E.g. what would be the “grammar and vocabulary” in an online-course like this one? Or in a face-to-face lecture at school (beware of hidden messages)? What is the content of TV? What would be the content of digital networked media? What is its content’s content?

The Treachery of Media

René Magritte (1928-29), “The Treachery of Images”

No medium can be ‘realistic’, in that it may be a lossless replacement for reality – otherwise it would stop working as a medium and become ‘reality’. A medium both restricts and expands the space of possibilities for expression (see Luhmann).
A medium simplifies communication: an image of a pipe can be attributed a meaning and an intention, while ‘just’ a pipe lying around does not automatically have one of these. But media also require specific skills in production and attribution of meaning, adding complexity where there was none before (especially in arts and games): If Magritte’s pipe has a meaning, what is it? And why is there a contradictive subtitle under the pipe?

For variants of Magrittes’ pipe, see for simulations the text by Frasca and for comics McCloud:

Nothing new under the sun: Here is an ancient precursor of Magritte’s pipe from the 5th century B.C..


Obviously Magritte warns to not to take the pipe as a pipe. But why – and how – is a medium, maybe any medium, treacherous? Why do we have to be warned?

Medium Design

Media design usually describes the design within a technical medium, the design of content, i.e. web, graphics, video etc.
If McLuhan is right (1964, p.8), media design is also medium design, and a designed medium influences what the results of media design – i.e. content designed in a specific medium – may look like.

Examples for the generation of a singular medium within or from an existing medium:

  • TV-Tropes-Wiki (description of conceptual vocabular and grammar of TV-shows, Manga, computergames etc.) [X, but recommended for its broad range and entertainment value]

“Analyzing a medium in depth and pulling it apart by the seams teaches you to watch things critically — analyzing every aspect and codifying them inside your mind. (…) Enjoyment comes from a balance of Recognition and Surprise — we enjoy things that we can relate to and have seen before, but we also like to be surprised. Total recognition is cliché; total surprise is alienating. Through comparing different works of fiction, browsing TV Tropes will merge surprise almost entirely with recognition and you will begin analyzing everything and taking a totally new (and possibly better) enjoyment from media – or reality
– TV-Tropes-Wiki, “TV-Tropes will ruin your life” (accessed Feb 12th 2012)


Can you, like Ernest Vincent Wright (“Gadsby”) or Brian Hersch (“Taboo”) draft a ‘new’ medium X, usable for other ‘media X’ designers, within or from an existing medium?

Medium criticism

A medium is, according to McLuhan or Luhmann, any space with a specific ‘vocabulary’ of actions and signs, and a specific ‘grammar’ on when and how to apply and interpret them (compare McLuhan 1964, 13).
Thus e.g. a culture can also be seen as a medium, with concrete cultural practices as utterances, as forms in this medium; education can be seen as a medium, with concrete manifestations like organised schooling, certificates or curriculae as forms in this medium.
Criticism on the medium itself won’t be easy, because we always deal with concrete forms (compare the translation of Luhmann 2005). How to point on something in a system if you are part of the system (compare von Foerster 1995)?
And even trickier: How to point on something that seems to be missing in this system?
The question is: How do you explain water to a fish, or the beneficial function of feet?

Artistic intervention in form of medium disruption – Unusability – may be a way (we’ll have some more examples in “Games and Comics”).
Some examples:


What ‘medium’ is disrupted in these examples?
Do you know or can imagine similar approaches?


How would you explain water to a fish? (No, seriously!)
How would you point to cultural practices and culturally established attitudes, without describing them in an abstract manner?

Games and Medium

I was surprised when I gathered definitions on games: With many quotes, you could exchange ‘game’ with ‘medium’; ‘play’ with ‘handling a medium’; ‘winning’ with ‘successfully expressing or understanding (i.e. ‘making sense’).
The follwing quotes, read in the manner described above, may hint on a particular affinity between medium design and game design.
What do you think?

“Each person defines games in his own way – the anthropologists and folklorists in terms of historical origins; the military men, businessmen, and educators in terms of usages; the social scientists in terms of psychological and social functions. There is overwhelming evidence in all this that the meaning of games is, in part, a function of the ideas of those who think about them.”
– E.M. Avedon in “The Structural Elements of Games” in “The Study of Games”, Sutton-Smith and Avedon, Eds., New York 1971, p.438

«(…) it can seem that games contain a built-in contradiction: Since play is normally assumed to be a free-form activity devoid of constraints, it appears illogical that we would choose to limit our options by playing games with fixed rules. Why be limited when we can be free? (…)»
– Jesper Juul (2005), “Half-Real. Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds”, p. 18

“We ended up with a game that I didn´t know how to win. I didn´t know which were the best strategies or tactics, even though I designed all the game´s systems. That is what makes a good strategy game.”
– Julian Gallop über “X-Com”

“A good game is one that you can win be doing the unexpected and making it work.”
– Andrew Rollings

“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
– Bernhard Suits (1978), “The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia”

„(…) who makes the rules? Because our behavior is so valuable to corporations, it‘s easy to see how their ambitions would dominate a ubiquitious game. But there are also governments, nonprofits, and religion to consider. After all, everyone has something to gain from influencing our choices, right? How could we possibly decide who gets to make the call?“
– Aaron Dignan (2011), 
„Game Frame. Using Games as a Strategy for Success“, p.68

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