How to Talk about Videogames

A Book Review

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Niv M. Sultan is a freelance writer currently working with an education nonprofit in Washington, D.C. He lets his video games and books mingle on the shelf, loves discussing the socioeconomics of pop culture, and plans on making the most of his new record player.
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Video games can resemble movies and mountains, novels and the novelty of a trip to France, and even people. However, because playing them evokes commonalities of form and effect with a multitude of other experiences, society largely treats the video game as a patchwork media monster rather than a distinct medium. In How to Talk about Videogames, Ian Bogost puts forward an initially puzzling idea: that to make sense of what video games are, what they do, and how they do it, game critics should treat their subjects like toasters.

Rather than suggesting that we stick bread into the disc drives of our consoles and computers, Bogost explains that toasters and games are both things that fulfill the dual functions of operation and aesthetic. We like toasters that toast well, but we also want them to fit the look of our kitchens; similarly, we like games that play well, but we also want them to amaze us with visuals and audio. Games differ from toasters, on the other hand, in that they are objects that bring with them the hallmarks of traditional “art,” such as narrative, characters, and emotional impact. The place of in-between in which the video game exists—not quite a toaster but not quite a film or a book—necessitates a style of criticism intentionally meant for the medium.

To that end, Bogost utilizes How to Talk about Videogames like a zoo of game criticism, with each chapter displaying a different creature of study. In addition to the introduction and conclusion, the book consists of 20 essays (the content of 19 of which had already been published online in some form) that demonstrate the sort of video game criticism that Bogost champions. These essays address issues and questions that underlie many debates about the medium, like the relationship between plot and form, how storytelling in games stands up to narrative in other texts, and, in a piece about Heavy Rain, the differences between games and film. Bogost’s work is incisive and far-reaching, and he handles video games with uncommon care, treating them as cultural objects capable of creating meaningful experiences unique to their medium. They are not novels or films, nor are they toasters. They are games, and that’s okay.

The foundation of Bogost’s mode of criticism is his interdisciplinary approach to video games. He is at times historian, at others designer, and often philosopher. He is always, however, a game critic. Instead of carving out an isolated space in which video game criticism can sit, shielded and safe and alone, Bogost lets loose the floodgates and allows culture, in all of its intricacies and range, to bleed into the act of discussing games. By doing so, he rejects the fragmentation of contemporary culture wars that he notes in the book’s conclusion, writing that “Pushed to its limits, all fandom becomes apartheid” (186). His claim seems to be both his warning and the fire beneath him, propelling him to fell boundaries and drive the video game beyond the enthusiast and the niche.

Bogost’s view of fandom is especially timely given the current state of the culture surrounding video games. The recent Gamergate debacle, which saw multiple female game designers and critics receive death threats, has made the misogyny that flows beneath much of the world of video games to become both overt and unsurprising. This has caused the “gamer” label to become an intensely controversial signifier. Some now think that “gamer” connotes sexist conservatism, while others see it as an indication of play and passion. It is therefore no surprise that there are as many people claiming that “the gamer is dead” as there are exclaiming that “we’re all gamers.” What Gamergate proves is that the video game community, even within itself, is far from invincible. Removing that community and the games that center it from their greater cultural contexts imperils them tremendously.

Admittedly, the multifaceted and free-flowing quality with which Bogost challenges decontextualization could be off-putting for some. Take, for example, his plunge into a history of racist rhetoric (for Scribblenauts); or his incantation of Kant and the sublime (for puzzle games); or his tracing of the lineage of Freud, Hegel, Lacan, and Levinas (for multiplayer games). In the case of Scribblenauts, Bogost follows the cultural development of a racial slur that the game recognizes—scribbling “sambo,” which has been a derogatory term for black and mixed-race individuals, creates a watermelon-like object—in order to interrogate the video game’s role in socio-political discourse. While all of these and other mental voyages upon which Bogost embarks can feel either daunting or superfluous, they are in fact crucial to the book’s project. Bogost is not demanding that game criticism include history, philosophy, or psychology. He is simply, and importantly, whittling the field into a discipline that welcomes and accounts for the world outside of it. And due to its format, a boon of How to Talk about Videogames is that one need not read every single chapter of it. It’s not a linear tome overflowing with abstract, layered theory. Rather, it is a collection of concrete applications that welcomes excerption and piece-wise reading. Bogost’s critical lens in any given chapter might put off any given reader, but the book’s breadth all but guarantees that there is something in it for everyone.  

How to Talk about Videogames’ chapter on Proteus (2013), an exploration game, is microcosmic of the intellectual flexibility that characterizes the book as a whole. The title of the chapter, “A Trio of Artisanal Reviews,” offers a means of framing Bogost’s work. The reviews are “artisanal” and Bogost is an artisan, a professional and an expert, treating games with the attention and curiosity that their growing cultural significance warrants. The variety in style and effect of the three reviews (the first questions the role of the player, the second examines the game as a reflection on traveling, and the third hears it as a musician—or a human being—might) effectively encapsulates the dynamicity of Bogost’s school of criticism.

If Bogost is an artisan, his craft is likely rather unorthodox to those unfamiliar with video game criticism. Society is used to the idea of picking books and other texts apart to find meaning, but the relentless inquisition with which Bogost handles games can be a bit surprising. He denies the unspoken rule that writing on video games should be predictable and plain, economic in focus and in prose. He does so actively, by breaking games into pieces, and then breaking those pieces into pieces—in an exceptional segment he moves from Pac-Man to Ms. Pac-Man to arcade game modifications to the Book of Genesis. Luckily, Bogost relishes the outlandish nature of his work, and seems to be at peace with the fact that people often wonder if he really believes what he writes. It is thus fitting that he refers to the essays in his book as “attempts to take games so seriously as to risk the descent into self-parody” (xiii). By treating the games he analyzes as veritable cultural actors and artifacts, Bogost toes the line between interpretation and madness to offer insightful video game readings.

A high point of Bogost’s flirtations with self-parody is his take on Mario Kart’s Blue Shell. He contextualizes the Blue Shell historically, tracing its evolution from the first blue-shelled koopa in Super Mario World to Mario Kart 8, which covers a time span of almost 24 years. This leads to the following comparison of Spiky Shells and Blue Shells: Bogost asks, “Would it be too much to say that Spiky Shell was a Gen Xer’s lament, an NES-bred slacker’s plaid, tortugal sigh, while Blue Shell was a Gen Y transitional object, a comfort blanket—blue with calm like Linus van Pelt’s—that proffers assurance to the SNES milksop every time, no matter how infrequently it might appear?” His answer? “Probably so” (24). Bogost’s conclusions might seem preposterous (and he is fully aware of that), but he never gives you reason to doubt his sincerity. In How to Talk about Videogames, Bogost isn’t reading into nothing—he’s reading into history and aesthetics, into context and culture and the neural fires that light from fingers clamped around a controller to a thinking mind and back and forth. So the Blue Shell could be nothing more than a bummer to the racer in first place, but it could also be everything that Bogost says it is. We leave the book unsure, and that doubt is the well-earned result of his hard work.

Although a historical analysis of Mario Kart is irresistible, there were also some moments of How to Talk about Videogames that I found lacking. For instance, in an essay about the puzzle game Hundreds, Bogost argues, as the section’s subheading states, that “Form, not function, makes Hundreds a status symbol” (57). However, I left the essay unsure about why, exactly, the game is “a status symbol.” Bogost colorfully describes, in language as enthralling as always, the “coolness” of Hundreds. He understands it as a “design object,” citing its aesthetic, music, and affect (59). This methodology makes perfect sense given Bogost’s interest in objects—remember that the premise of the book is that we should treat games like toasters. But for all his talk of cocktails and lounges, of James Bond and of “cool,” Bogost doesn’t ground his interpretation of Hundreds in a practical reality. The essay reads like a thorough hypothetical, transplanting a puzzle game into a science-fiction tale of well-dressed, beautiful people tapping iPhones at bars. Bogost ends the piece with, “For despite its claims to inclusiveness, modern design works best when it’s exclusionary, when it’s pretentious, when it speaks without saying anything but just by being there” (62). I wonder if he sees his own book as a product of that modern design, a work that is successful because it welcomes some and rejects others—if he wants us to be as cool and exclusive as his imagined players of Hundreds.

The conclusion of How to Talk About Videogames sheds some light on how Bogost understands his book’s place in conversations about video games, and in culture more generally. Bogost matter-of-factly predicts that the book will have relatively low sales numbers, and states that his writing on video games is less read than his pieces about other subjects. This can come across as slightly highbrow—Bogost is ahead of his time, and the world is not yet ready for his work; or, video game appreciators are, as a collective, not looking to think critically about games. Alternatively, if we give Bogost the benefit of the doubt, he doesn’t mention his readership as a form of lofty self-flagellation, but as yet another hearty dose of context. He wants to convince readers of his opinion that game criticism is getting there, but it’s not there yet. Either way, Bogost’s tough frankness is ultimately refreshing, as is his refusal to let video games and those who make, play, and study them stagnate. He builds How to Talk about Videogames on his belief that games and their critics can do more, and with it he flashes a hint at what “more” is: witty and immersive, analytical and nuanced, considerate. It comes to be that game criticism resembles the games that give it life and reason, a mirror and motor in our preposterous quest to make sense of things apparently nonsensical.

In a way, a chapter entitled “What Is a Sports Videogame?” sums up Bogost’s argument about video games. In it, he comes to the conclusion that “Sports videogames are not simulations of sports but variants of sports. Or put differently, sports videogames are just another way to play sports” (138). Applying this understanding of sports games to video games more broadly would realize Bogost’s mission of reimagining the cultural function of the medium and its manifestations. The things that games portray—life and death, fear and pride, sports and roller coaster parks and war—are not merely representations. They are interlocutors in dialogues, actors as well as spectators, simultaneous products of and contributors to culture.

Ian Bogost’s How to Talk about Videogames is a captivating, adventurous, and rewarding book. Its essays, overall, are sharp and compelling, and reading them would benefit critics, students, professors, players, and—dare I say?—“laypeople” alike. A familiarity with how Bogost reads games has the potential to inform not only people who commit themselves to studying the video game medium, but also those who have never touched a controller in their lives. And I think that that’s precisely what Bogost wants.

References

Bogost, Ian. How to Talk about Videogames. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Image url: How to Talk about Videogames. Bogost.comhttp://bogost.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/how-to-talk-about-videogames.jpg [Date Accessed: 1/12/16]