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Theory and Practice


Hamid van Koten, University of Dundee, Scotland

The Digital Image and the Pleasure Principle: the Consumption of Realism in the Age of Simulation.

Keywords: digital culture, theory, hot and cold media, representation, consumption, realism.


Digital technology has restructured much of our working environment; it has rapidly become the dominant provider of mass entertainment, and increasingly it provides extensions to our social networks. This paper attempts to evaluate the digital environment in a number of diverse ways. I believe there is value in a diversity of approach and that we need to study the digital environment both in pragmatic and materialist ways, as well as approach it from more speculative and idealist perspectives. The theoretical frameworks which have come from literature, philosophy, gender studies and so on, have been instrumental in finding ways of understanding the sociological and philosophical implications of media other than through a technological determinist model such as McLuhan’s.

Among the questions I will explore are: What are the forces at work in the production and consumption of new digital representations? For example what makes digital gaming so popular? What are the narratives and representational issues involved and what do these tell us about our culture and ourselves?

Specifically the paper will seek to uncover two themes: narrative and realism as the dominant form of digital representations in terms of production, and the Lacanian shift from the real to the imaginary as the dominant drive towards the consumption of these representations.

McLuhan’s Technocratic Determinism

McLuhan has been described by his critics as an essentialist, i.e. ascribing particular innate characteristics to particular media, and as a technological determinist and reductionist. Equally, by his fans he has been hailed as a visionary futurist leading the way to an age of electronic enlightenment. McLuhan remains as ambiguous today as the labels that have been hoisted upon him. After a verbal critique by an eminent American sociologist McLuhan famously remarked: ‘You don't like those ideas? I got others.’ McLuhan did not have a problem with ambiguity, inconsistency or non-closure. His writings and oral declarations are like streams of consciousness, often tangential, sometimes irrational; at times both mystical and mystifying.

Hot and Cool

McLuhan provides us with a number of ‘tools’ for analysis. In chapter two of Understanding Media McLuhan writes1 :

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. […] A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in ‘high definition’. High definition is the state of being well filled with data.

At first glance this may appear straightforward. The quality of sound reproduction in radio is of a higher definition than that of the phone, and cinematic film is still of higher resolution than television. However already there is a discrepancy: cinema (film) is ‘hot’, yet it extends more than one sense.

When we think of something as ‘hot’ we would associate this with being engaged by it, yet for McLuhan it is ‘cool’ media that require high participatory involvement from their spectator:

…hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.

We might intuitively associate TV (cool) more with passive consumption than cinema. To see a film (hot) we need to go out, buy a ticket, perhaps meet a friend, whereas with TV we merely flick a switch in our living room. However, as we watch a movie in a cinema the event is fixed: we are unable to alter the sequence of scenes or anything else about it. With television we have much more control and scope for participation, we are able to switch channels, make recordings, and thus replay things, we can make comments to other people that might be watching with us; also we can ignore it, something we are unlikely to do in a cinema. In this sense TV is more interactive than cinema.

The above quotations are about as much as McLuhan provides in a way of defining ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ but throughout his writing the terms come up in a wide variety of contexts and he provides many examples throughout.

A photograph is visually ‘high definition’, thus ‘hot’, as opposed to a hand drawn cartoon, which provides very little in the way of visual information. A lecture – ideally, a well-prepared, steady and controlled flow of information – is ‘hot’, thus easily consumed (even though many of my students may think otherwise!). A conversation is an unrehearsed, impromptu verbal manifestation therefore it is ‘cool’ since we need to work hard to draw out its meaning. Prose is ‘hot’, easily grasped, whereas poetry demands more interpretation and thus is ‘cool’. Interestingly enough McLuhan classes ideograms and hieroglyphs – which to my mind contain more visual information than the abstracted forms of the alphabet – as ‘cool’. He describes the alphabet as a ‘hot and explosive medium’.2 This is because when the alphabetic code is mastered it allows for an uninterrupted flow of data transmission. Unlike engaging with hieroglyphic representations or illuminated manuscripts, it requires a more active from of interpretation.

The ‘hot and cool’ notion has been rejected as no longer applicable. Television – for example – is no longer the low-resolution, black and white, lo-fidelity medium as when McLuhan first described it. It acquired colour, then it went digital, with surround-sound and wide screen. With the current trend in home cinemas, television is continuing to get ‘hotter’, and, contrary to McLuhan’s above ‘definition’, as it grows ‘hotter’ it becomes ever more interactive. Equally the medium of print has been cooling down. Magazines are ‘cooler’ than books, as they mix text and images and thus interrupt the steady transmission of alphabetic data.

‘Hot’ and ‘cool’ can be applied to all cultural forms, not just media, but then for McLuhan there is very little that is not media.

(low in participation) (high in participation)
Radio Telephone
Cinema Television
Photographs Cartoon
Prose Poetry
Printed word Spoken word
Lecture Seminar
Alphabet Hieroglyphs
Pop music Classical music
Elvis Presley Mick Jagger
George Bush Bill Clinton

Table 1. Hot and Cool.

The ‘hot’/’cool’ thermometer is not the clear analytical tool that perhaps we would like it to be. It does not provide scientifically-measured data. It is an intuitive probe that works best, as Paul Levinson3 points out, when applied to two things that are attempting to do the same. At best ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ express a differential between two cultural forms, but are never an absolute measure. Like all of McLuhan’s writings, this proposition of taking the temperature of cultural forms, is merely an attempt to propel us into a new way of understanding media and their impact upon us.

‘Light-on’ and ‘Light-through’

A similar intuitive notion is that of ‘light-on’ and ‘light-through’. ‘Light-on’ media operate by bouncing light off an object, the light then subsequently hits our eyes. Anything projected would come under this category e.g. cinema is a ‘light-on’ medium. In cinema the screen is in front of us, the light source behind us. With ‘light-through’ media the light source is in front of us, and, rather than projecting the light upon a screen, it is projected upon the viewer. It is the viewer who becomes the screen. Whereas ‘light-on’ media are bright, all revealing – thus ‘hot’ – ‘light-through’ media are mysterious, seductive and ‘cool’. McLuhan likens ‘light-through’ media to stained glass cathedral windows suggesting a space beyond and beckoning us to investigate further. A ‘light-through’ medium draws us into a symbiotic relationship. Television is a ‘light-through’ medium and so is the computer screen.

It is Baudrillard4 who took this screen simile further when he proposed that:

Today we live in the imaginary world of the screen […] All our machines are screens. We too have become screens, and the interactivity of men has become the interactivity of screens.

Baudrillard does not share McLuhan’s optimism about our electronic age, but interprets digital communications as symptomatic of an ‘implosion’ of the social.

The Screen and its Content

McLuhan also contemplates media content in a structural way: the content of each new medium – he observes – is another previous medium. For example, the content of TV is the medium of cinema (film, documentary, news); the content of cinema is the printed medium (novel, narrative, script): the content of print is writing; the content of writing is speech: the content of speech is thought; and finally the content of thought is human experience. The digital environment is the latest packaging for all the media that have gone before. The computer allows for the ‘remediation’ of all previous media.5

The computer screen may be a ‘light-through’ – thus ‘cool’ – medium, but, as it contains all previous media, its content ranges in temperature. In the digital environment we find text (hot) next to ‘cooler’ graphic icons; line drawings (cool) next to high-resolution photographs, or 3D models, movies and music, which are all classified as ‘hot’.

Lev Manovich6 says with regards to this:

The concept of the screen combines two distinct pictorial conventions – the older Western tradition of pictorial illusionism in which a screen functions as a window into a virtual space, something for the viewer to look into but not act upon; and the more recent convention of graphical human-computer interfaces that divides the computer screen into a set of controls […] As a result the computer screen becomes a battlefield for a number of incompatible definitions – depth and surface, opaqueness and transparency, image as illusionary space and image as instrument for action.

The screen operates then in two conflicting modes, often simultaneously. The user shifts from non-participatory mode when contemplating an image, into a participatory mode when operating tools for action. The screen is an oscillating environment with the potential to make its user oscillate between perception and action, other and self, narrative and abstraction, text and image, ‘hot’ and ‘cool’.

Consuming the Digital as an Extension of the Social

McLuhan felt that debates regarding media programming and specific content were actually diverting attention away from the structural impact that new forms of media have. ‘The medium is the message/massage/mass age etc.’ is a warning to this effect. However, McLuhan never advocated that the content of media should be ignored or was unimportant. He was just not very interested in debates that are often driven from moral perspectives and thus polarised and providing no new insights.

As stated previously, when we peel away the layers of media we ultimately end up with human experience, this alone would warrant it as an area for study. Further to that, the digital domain is increasingly involved in the social dynamics of our lives. Email, chat rooms, web-logging, online special interest groups and online interactive environments – all these contribute to new ways of building social networks and they provide creative platforms for self-expression. The survey conducted amongst my students shows a continuing trend for using digital technology as an extension of the social sphere. Online relationships are increasingly the continuation of offline ones. People join online gaming sites, but often with offline friends. They will visit chat rooms, but then chat to people they met offline.

Online wedding in Ultima Online / Virtual commemoration site after London bombing
Fig. 1. Online wedding in Ultima Online. Fig. 2. Virtual commemoration site after London bombing.

So despite Baudrillard’s rejection of digital interactions as simulated, machine like, and inauthentic, most people seem to like them.7

Replication of the social in the cultural, and the ‘effects model’

Many media debates appear at their core to be founded on what might in broad terms be called an ‘effects theory’, e.g. portraying violence in media will ultimately make people behave in a more violent fashion. Much research has been conducted in this area in Britain and the US, although little has been found to support the theory.

In the US, George Gerbner8 has been coordinating a study for nearly thirty years, on television: the longest-running investigation into the dynamic relationship between television and its viewers. Gerbner did find that people’s perception of the world is affected by what they see on television. For example, what he calls ‘heavy viewers’ of television appear to perceive the world as a place more violent than it actually is. This might well have a bearing on how such people behave and the judgements and choices they make. However there is no reason to conclude that these people will behave more violently.

Gerbner does support the notion that the screen representations of gender, ethnic minority, and power relationships are factors in the construction of actual identities in real life. In other words: to some extent people model themselves on what they see portrayed in the media. However what is portrayed in the media is built from the social values, attitudes and beliefs that are manifest throughout our culture, in our everyday face-to-face interactions, economic exchanges, legal and educational institutions, artistic production and so on.

Equally, research conducted into online game play would seem to indicate that this has a formative effect upon the perception of social relationships e.g. some ‘heavy’ gamers stated that their online relationships were of more importance than their off-line ones9. Perhaps this should be of concern as in these cases the simulated fantasy identity has taken precedent over the actual real-world one. However the question here is whether this is the consequence of a deeper problem, i.e. a lack of satisfaction with real-life social relationships, rather than the product of a specific technological form that facilitates this displacement.

We need to be cautious then not to read too much into these studies, many of which contradict one another10. Even Gerbner’s study, which appears well-funded and long term, does not paint a clear picture with regard to the long term effects of media consumption on social behaviour11. The relationship between human behaviour and the representation of it in the digital environment is no doubt complex, and like a ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum.

Most programmatic decisions with regard to the content of media are made according to market forces. Here we are confronted with a similar cause or effect question: are producers of media products actually creating new markets or merely responding to ones that are – at least potentially – already present? Again there is a complex dynamic relationship between our social and our cultural forms.

The Sims / Grand Theft Auto

Fig. 3. The Sims. Fig. 4. Grand Theft Auto.

To give two extreme examples: Grand Theft Auto is the most successful digital game ever. It sells in millions, mainly to men in their early twenties. The game depicts a marginal world of casinos, clubs, hookers, fast moving vehicles, violence, drugs and weapons. The player is free to behave in any fashion imaginable. You can kill cops, have sex with prostitutes, distribute porn, deal drugs, engage in street fights and be killed. Equally – as the producers of the game point out – you can do none of these and behave in a law-abiding fashion. In either case the game constructs a hyper-masculine environment with a value system that awards competitive and aggressive behaviour. Pressure groups, on both sides of the political spectrum, would like to see GTA banned. However banning products like this amounts to a symptomatic approach. The representations of violence, gender behaviour and ethnic identity in videogames can only be understood in the context of other representations in other social and media discourses such as news reports, books, magazines, advertising, music video, film and so on12.

Another game, particularly popular with females, is The Sims. The Sims started as a virtual, electronic doll’s house in which everything is customisable: the furniture, the wallpaper and the characters. The main pull of the game is the nurturing of the characters and the building of social relationships. Subsequent editions and extensions of the game have taken this into a much more adult direction. It is interesting how both the advertising and the user comments position the virtual and the real world. Though seen as distinct, they also inform one another. The virtual world is seen as a place for the pursuit of fantasies, yet it is also used as a testing ground for the real world13.

The debate as to whether or not these games corrupt our children will no doubt rage on. The real question is: What do these representational forms tell us about our culture and ourselves? Why are these marginal narratives the fascination of the mainstream?

The Screen as a Mirror

Sherry Turkle14 describes one obvious but significant difference between television and video games. ‘TV is something you watch. Videogames are something you do…’ Players of digital games think of them more in terms of ‘sports, sex or meditation’.

As we might anticipate from the ‘cool’ characteristics of the digital medium, the consumption of digital images is an active rather than a passive process. With video games there is a distinct sense of identification with the events on the screen. In first person games (of which PacMan is an early example) players describe a merge with the character. As one player put it: ‘You become PacMan’.

To put it more formally: the digital environment is different from both the fixity of the cinematic and the more interactive medium of television, in that it provides the user with an intimate sense of control, linked to a direct projection on, and attachment to, a point of spatial identity.

In addition the resolution of the digital image has improved so dramatically that it now competes with (Malovich suggests surpasses) the media of film and television. Computer gaming has been a significant push factor in this. One reason why VR, as a consumer product, has not seen the growth initially anticipated, is that manufacturers of games have focused on developing the highest possible realism in 2D, something the market obviously approved of.

But aside from high interaction and realistic graphics what makes playing these games so interesting? Taking a psychoanalytic approach, playing games can be understood as a symbolic activity that attempts to fulfil needs that are not met elsewhere in our lives. From a Jungian perspective, games provide an outlet for the archetypal forces within the collective unconscious. On screen we can safely place ourselves in the role of the Hero, explore Animus or Anima, or behave like our shadow.

Alternatively, in a Freudian sense, games are a means for enacting the Oedipus Complex. Jacques Lacan15 proposes that in the early years of our lives we make a shift from the Real – associated with nature, the physical and the mother, who takes care of us and meets all our needs – to the Symbolic, which is associated with culture, the social, the father.

It is not possible to do justice to Lacan in the scope of this article. Rather I refer to Laura Mulvey16 who applied Lacan to film and Judith Williamson17 who did the same but to advertising. In both cases Lacan’s shift from the realm of the Real to the Symbolic and the formation of the Imaginary during the mirror stage is understood as setting up a tension, which plays itself out during the rest of our lives.

According to Lacan we never recover from the imposed socialisation process. Having to leave our primordial state of wholeness, by being forced to submit to the ‘Law of the Father’, induces a psychological drive, an underlying structural principle in our lives. Forever we attempt to regain the comfort, pleasure and wholeness of the womb. We want to return to the realm of the all-caring all-embracing mother; whereas we want to escape from, rebel against and even destroy, the realm of the controlling and law-prescribing father.

Lacan is building here on Freud’s theories of the Pleasure Principle and the Oedipus Complex. Blind to the fact that it will never regain the primordial unity this drive pushes us to oscillate between the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Digital environments allow us a means to play out this desire. They provide a route for returning to the symbiotic mother/child existence. In these worlds we can feel a sense of complete control and god-like power.

Games like The Sims allow users to create and experiment with new identities and so pursue the primordial self-image. The realistic forms of these interactive digital environments thus start to function as mirrors, which can be controlled and manipulated.

Shooter games like Doom and Grand Theft Auto provide a means for rebellion against the Law of the Father. Here it is possible to violently reject the Law of the Father, without the actual consequences that real life violent action might bring.

The Sims identity kit / Everquest

Fig. 5. The Sims identity kit. Fig. 6. Everquest.

The reason we consume these realistic representations then is exactly because they are not real but simulations of potentially real events.

The oscillation of the viewer between Manovich’s two screen modes, could be understood as an oscillation between the Imaginary (contemplative) and Symbolic (active).

It is not surprising that living in the digital environment can become extremely addictive. The ‘cool’ interactive screen allows for an extension of our social selves and it provides a highly interactive and controllable mirror for the never ending quest of our irretrievable ideal self image; equally it is a means for rebellion against the limits imposed upon us by our culture and a means for attempting to fulfil our deepest innermost desire: to return to the womb.

November 2005


1. McLuhan, M. [1964], Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, London: Routledge (2001), p. 24.

2. McLuhan, M. [1964], Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, London: Routledge (2001), p. 24.

3. Levinson, P. (1999), Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium, London, Routledge, p. 100.

4. Baudrillard, J. (1988), Xerox & Infinity. London: Touchepas/Agitac.

5. Bolter.J. and Grusin, R. (1999), Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, p. 19.

6. Manovich, L. (2001), The Language of New Media, Cambridge, Mass.; London, MIT Press, p. 90. A fair appraisal of Manovich’s book can be found at www.imageandnarrative.be/mediumtheory/janvanlooy.htm (4 April 2007).

7. Astonishingly some of my students claim to send 100 – 150 text messages each week, others claim to surf in excess of 50 hours a week or play games for up to 25 hours per week.

8. Gerbner, G. (2002), The Electronic Storyteller: Television and the Cultivation of Values, produced by Sut Jhally, Media Education Foundation, USA.

9. Kolo, C., and Baurthe (2004), T. Living a Virtual Life: Social Dynamics of Online Gaming in Game Studies, The International Journal of Computer Game Research, volume 4, issue 1, November. www.gamestudies.org/0401/kolo/ (4 April 2007).

10. There are many reasons why these studies might be flawed, e.g.: lack of funding, ideological bias, inappropriate research methodology. For an in depth discussion of the problems with the ‘media effects model’ see: Gauntlett, D. (2002), Media Gender and Identity: An introduction, London: Routledge. Or his website www.theory.org.uk/david/effects.htm (4 April 2007).

11. My own survey carried out amongst digital game players shows a distinct disregard for this ‘effects’ model, e.g. few of my students believe that playing aggressive video games will lead to an increase in aggressive ‘real-life’ behaviour.

12. Alloway, N. and Gilbert, P. (1998), Video Game Culture: Playing with Masculinity, Violence and Pleasure, in Wired-up: young people and the electronic media, edited by Howard, S., London: Routledge, p. 97.

13. One Sims player commented: ‘It's very constructive – it makes you really think about your real life world. You look at the mess in your room and realize it affects your happiness, even if in some slight way that you might not normally notice. You start to get hungry and realize your energy is fading and that you're getting a bit more grumpy, something you might not have noticed otherwise! I know many Sims-fans that find their real life world improves as they become more aware of these sorts of things.’ From: www.bellaonline.com/articles/art5413.asp (4 April 2007).

14. Turkle, S. (2003), ‘Video Games and Computer Holding Power’, The New Media Reader, edited by Wardrip-Fruin, N. and Montfort, N., Cambridge, Mass.; London : MIT Press.

15. Lacan, J. (1966), ‘The Mirror Stage’, in Ecrits, a selection, translated by Sheridan, A., London: Tavistock, 1977, p. 4.

16. Mulvey L. (1975), Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, originally published in Screen 16.3 Autumn, pp. 6-18. Available at www.jahsonic.com/VPNC.html (4 April 2007).

17. Williamson, J. (1978), Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, London: Boyars, p.60-65.

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