Taking Play Seriously, but not too Seriously: A Review of Ian Bogost’s How to Talk about Videogames
by Jacob S. Euteneuer
Ian Bogost. How to Talk about Videogames. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, 208 pp., ISBN 9780816699117.
In the nascent but rapidly growing field of games criticism, there are few names larger than that of Ian Bogost. Starting with 2006’s Unit Operations, Bogost pioneered examining the ways in which code and computers, via the fundamental operation of the unit, dictate meaning in digital games. After establishing his theory of the unit, he went on to refine the theory by moving beyond the basic unit to the more complex idea of procedures. Procedural rhetoric, a term he coined in his 2007 book Persuasive Games, is a systemic approach to both videogame criticism and the creation of sophisticated expressive and persuasive arguments through the use of procedural-based rules and operations. Bogost is the rare type of critic who both critiques as well as creates. Rarer still, his writing is often published in mainstream publications, such as The Atlantic and The Los Angeles Review of Books. His latest book of essays, How to Talk About Videogames, brings together much of his more mainstream writing into one collection. While Bogost has shown that he can write for an academic audience when he chooses and at other times a wider, mainstream audience, How to Talk About Videogames clearly falls in the latter category. The book does not seek to revise or even refine his methodology for approaching game studies, rather he is interested in the praxis of such theorizations. In terms of style and content, it has much more in common with the contemplative, often humorous videogame essays of Tom Bissell in books like Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter than the more philosophical and rhetorically sophisticated work such as Jesper Juul’s Half-Real or the aforementioned Persuasive Games. While the vast scope of topics and games covered may occasionally disorient the reader, How to Talk About Videogames is ultimately successful in showing both the depth and breadth of games as a medium and the various emotional, physical, and metaphysical registers in which they operate.
From the introduction, Bogost states that the book is an attempt to explore the ways in which critics—a category separate from the more consumerist-based reviewer—talk about videogames as well an attempt to find out if videogames have anything important to say to us. He examines the unique space occupied by videogames, a liminal zone that straddles both functional items that are operated such as toasters or microwaves and aesthetic art texts that are appreciated such as photography and film. Furthermore, Bogost repeatedly argues across multiple essays that games are more than idle entertainment, and, most importantly, those who play and study games must both accept and embrace the meaning—not just the fun—which games produce. While in previous works Bogost has argued for ways in which games can author persuasive arguments and has even made games that explicitly do posit and further arguments, this is not the central aim of How to Talk About Videogames. This is a book that is more interested in a game's rhetorical moves and context than their rhetorical purpose and argumentative processes. Bogost seeks to place videogames within a larger cultural tradition next to literature, politics, and film. In doing so, the texts move away from the philosophical underpinnings of his previous work and into cultural critique with games acting as an ekphrastic device by which Bogost can ruminate on ideas ranging from racism to social media to the defining features of the game of football.
In his essay entitled “What Is a Sports Videogame?,” Bogost merges two traditions together: the sports broadcast and the sports videogame. The essay begins as a simple takedown of how a football videogame, such as the EA Madden series, does not simulate the experience of playing football so much as the digital game emulates the experience of watching football. From there, the essay grows into a much larger discussion about the role of sports in societies from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. In doing so, the essay shifts from nitpicking to blurring the line between high and low culture in the art world. Bogost moves from simple discussions such as contemplating whether a game of street soccer in Rio de Janeiro is the same as a FIFA level game between two national teams toward a more complex and nuanced argument about the relations of games that relies on Wittgenstein’s theories on families and Derrida’s concept of iterability. Bogost (2015) makes these moves in the span of a few pages and is often successful in forwarding his argument, in the case of this essay that “sports videogames are not simulations of sports but variants of sports. Or put differently, sports videogames are just another way to play sports” (p. 138). The argument he creates seeks to quell and curtail unproductive discussions of whether there is any merit to playing sports videogames. In its place, talking about videogames, to Bogost at least, is an opportunity to create forums for discussions of what is important to a particular culture. Rather than ruminate on whether these games are sports, he would rather discuss what these games tell us about how we view sports.
In a similar move on a much different topic, Bogost analyzes player interaction in the experimental game Between. Drawing largely on models from anthropology and literary criticism, he dissects the particular feelings of isolation, alienation, and “othering” that occur in the gameplay. He does not focus on ludic or narrative particulars, but rather the culmination of the overall system and how it forces the players to interact in new and novel ways. This model of videogames criticism favored by Bogost is more interested in affect than meaning, and by shifting focus to affect, he is able to overcome many of the current debates in games criticism such as the ludo-formalist vs. story/narrative critics. What interests Bogost here is the social dynamics that arise from play and the iterations of those dynamics. In his essay on Gone Home, Bogost again turns his attention away from the gameplay mechanics involved in successfully completing the game and toward the emotions that arise from participating in said mechanics. Ultimately, his argument is that for games to be taken seriously, they must first take themselves seriously. Studying the effects games have on players via talking about videogames is one way of achieving this, but Bogost urges the budding critic to do more. Because games are both operated and experienced, critical talk about videogames will come from scholars and players drawing on multiple, disparate fields—from fashion to architecture, philosophy to computer science—in order to reveal the myriad meanings present in any good work of art.
How to Talk About Videogames operates entirely as showing rather than telling. This book is not a discussion on the properties of games and how formal, ludic, and narrative elements contribute to meaning. Rather, it is twenty separate examples of how a critic can go about dissecting and interpolating meaning from specific games. While the essays are eminently readable, the question of who is doing the reading leaves the book in a no-man’s land. The writing is accessible and often enjoyable in a way that could make this book suitable for a broad, public audience. However, there are often times when the games become so obscure or are attached to schools of thought from aesthetic theory, new media studies, literary criticism, and philosophy that a non-academic reader will be left scratching their head. The fact that the book is published by a university press dictates that it is for a niche audience, yet many serious game studies scholars will be left wanting much more.
As a strong example of this, Bogost’s ability to weave together different schools of thought is often what makes these essays worth reading, but he occasionally runs the risk of self-parody (a fear he openly acknowledges in the book). The singular focus on affect plays out in essays such as “The Blue Shell Is Everything That’s Wrong with America” as more of a tired rant or screed than a nuanced, in-depth look at a controversial game mechanic. Bogost reads the blue shell as metonymic of the current characterization of America. Instead of looking outside the game to reveal what the game says about the United States as a culture, he remains insulated in the game and can only point fingers within its polygonal bounds. The essay itself is not successful because it fails to attach any sort of design or cultural meaning to the subject, but it goes a long way toward showing what does and does not work in games criticism, and that perhaps is the greatest strength of the book. Over the course of twenty essays, Bogost demonstrates the plethora of ways to approach talking about video games. Depending on the audience, some will succeed and others will fail. As an intelligent book of criticism, it offers up a world of possibilities, and in the end, that may be all the reader, as well as the player, really wants.
Bissell, T.C. (2010). Extra lives: Why video games matter. New York: Pantheon.
Bogost, I. (2015). How to talk about videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Juul, J. (2005). Half-Real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Jacob Euteneuer lives in Stillwater, OK with his wife and two sons. He is a PhD candidate in English and specializes in creative writing, composition pedagogy, visual rhetoric, and Marxist and postcolonial theory. His stories, poems, and book reviews can be found across the Internet and in print in places such as Hobart, Booth, and the Atticus Review. When he is not teaching his children the finer points of playing Super Mario World, he can be reached at email@example.com.
Published November 2016