Game Discs as Skeuomorphs

Flat (left) vs. skeuomorphic (right) visual design in digital calculators.
Flat (left) vs. skeuomorphic (right) visual design in digital calculators.

A skeuomorph is something designed to look like another object or material. Sometimes the intention is to signal exclusivity, like fake leather. In digital design, they are often used to make user interfaces more intuitive by referencing familiar concepts. It’s easier to understand what the deleted items directory is for, and how it works, if it’s represented by a trashcan.

But there comes a time when the referencing of cassette tapes, LPs and VCRs in audio and video applications simply makes them stranger. Thirty years or so into the widespread use of graphical user interfaces, we are beginning to see this shift. Digital materials are becoming the norm and rumor has it that Apple was quick to make the shift away from heavy use of skeuomorphs as soon as one of its strongest proponents, Steve Jobs, was out of the picture.

While moving for the second time in less than a year at the same time as E3 was taking place in LA, it was hard not to reflect on how much of the luggage I have decided to haul with me through life is media carriers. Sure there is some furniture in there, but most of the container worth of stuff that me and my partner spent a fortune on shipping over from Europe, only to rent storage space for during our first year here, is information. Realizing that all these boxes are full of skeuomorphs, that the media itself could fit on a hard drive or two, and that the objects themselves at this point are there just for historical reasons, was an eye-opener.

I understand the nostalgia for stories, music, movies, and games as objects. I too feel the comfort of things. But instead of feeling better about my things the more of them I have, the curve is pointing in the other direction, especially regarding video games. I have been reviewing games for the last ten years, and while I would lend out games on a regular basis, I felt that they were work materials and that I might need one for reference if I was called on to review a sequel, so I never got rid of them… until now. I have engaged my whole social network and all thinkable outlets in order to get rid of games and other media. It’s hard work, but I feel like the labor involved is teaching me an important lesson: Travel light through life!


I apologize for taking so long to get to my point, but I felt that it might be one that many readers will have a negative gut reaction to, so I wanted to give it plenty of context. At E3 Microsoft first stated that game discs only were to be used for initial installation of games on their next console, details summarized here. Then they reversed this policy as can be read here. I was sad to see Microsoft change their mind regarding game discs. I saw their stance as a parallel to their decision to equip the original Xbox with an Ethernet port. Almost no one used it and most people aren’t even aware of the fact that Xbox Live predates the Xbox 360, but its inclusion was still important in staking out a future direction for Internet enabled consoles.

I’m not surprised by the negative reactions to their announcement. Gaming enthusiasts often exhibit a fair amount of conservatism. I often hear students and other gamers I study and hang out with complain about how everything is getting worse and reminiscing about the good old days, despite still being teenagers. And I should point out that I certainly don’t think that Microsoft’s proposal was unproblematic either. But in order to shed old habits, some toes will have to be stepped on, and in time these decisions can open up for new possibilities.

I still hope that this will be the console generation when we give up the security blanket of physical game discs in order to get at some of the unique qualities of games as digital objects. I’m tired of paying premiums in terms of storage space and moving costs. And when we are done with game discs, I think we should have a talk about whether the consoles themselves have become skeuomorphs…

Mikael Jakobsson is the Research Coordinator for the MIT Game Lab. With a background in interaction design, he investigates the interrelations between games as designed artifacts and social/cultural practices of play through design exploration, cultural analysis, and critical inquiry.