From Roger Ebert’s pedantic proclamation that “video games can never be art” to the clichéd fawning over the truckloads of revenue generated by each new release in the Modern Warfare series, gaming consistently inspires overarching conversations about media and culture. At this point, these ‘big conversations’ should surprise no one, as with each passing year gaming becomes less esoteric and permeates more and more demographic groups (e.g. the popularity of social games on Facebook, senior citizens embracing the Wii as an exercise platform, etc.). So while gaming may be everywhere, it is strange that it is often difficult to locate conversations about it that speak to how we actually integrate play and simulation into our everyday experience. What can games tell us about relaxation, work and routine? What do they have to say about movement and the body? How might we subvert gaming conventions through pranks and humour? Ian Bogost’s recent book How To Do Things With Videogames thoughtfully considers questions like these while endeavouring to re-frame the medium through a series of focused, topical texts that draw on familiar and engaging points of reference.
Organized as 20 bite-sized chapters, How To Do Things With Videogames carefully considers how gaming has been leveraged to explore sex, art, politics, branding and boredom – all the touchstones of contemporary life. Within each of these articles, Bogost carefully blends accessible pop culture references with illustrative gaming examples as the basis of his ruminations on how the medium functions as a cultural mirror. The “feel and weight” of Go pieces sets the stage for a meditation on haptic feedback, a FPS shootout set in the Manchester Cathedral serves as a gateway into a conversation about awe and reverence. Bogost’s knowledge of game history is encyclopedic and it is hard to come away from this book without a renewed appreciation for just how weird and wonderful game design can get – some of the more obscure references to SimHacks, mundane minigames and naive game tourism are priceless.
There are many compelling moments within the text, I’ve picked out two that I found particularly provocative.
Red Dead Redemption / Screen capture: Red Dead Wiki
In the chapter on “transit” Bogost sketches out a history of the moving image that considers panoramas, how the advent of rail altered the experience of landscape and the broader implications of movement in games:
Instead of looking forward to a future in which the risky, laborious process of traversing a space could be lessened, in-videogame transit re-creates a past in which reality had not yet been dissolved into bits, but had to be traversed deliberately. Like the panorama show, the transit simulation is a kind of replacement therapy for an inaccessible experience of movement.
Could this thesis be any more clearly articulated than in Red Dead Redemption, where the 21st century leisure class faux-nostalgically gallop across a simulated American Southwest on horseback?
How To Do Things With Videogames also unpacks how game design can complement and challenge corporate identity. The following passage is culled from a consideration of how games put brand identity under the microscope and (for me) it really evoked memories of the recent high speed turfing of Molleindustria’s Phone Story from the App Store.
Of course, unauthorized brand abuse in large commercial games might not be possible or desirable. But brands’ cultural values offer a bridge between visual appearance and game mechanics. In some cases, our understanding of particular rules of interaction has become bonded to products or services.
Phone Story sketched out a damning narrative of the consumer electronics industry’s reliance on conflict minerals and dubious labour practices and tells this story as playable narrative. The fact that a game that explicitly took aim at Apple’s supply chain ethics was so quickly ‘disappeared’ underscores the degree to which gamespace is contested (branding) ground. Bogost’s analysis of this milieu weaves together several examples of promotional games, an analysis of Monopoly tokens, commentary on Obama’s 2008 in-game ad purchases and also considers examples of “anti-advergame” critical resistance.
How To Do Things With Videogames is a lightning fast read and the book’s success is largely due to both brevity and charm. As a topical ‘scan’ of an entire medium, the undertaking is noteworthy for clearly articulating down to earth approaches for reconsidering the politics and experience of play. Bogost’s conclusion describes an ongoing process whereby games are becoming “more ordinary and familiar” and the cultural currency of ‘the gamer’ as a distinct subculture is fading – the tone and execution of this work certainly support this forecast. While a delight to muse over, this text should be read as a serious reconsideration of ‘first principles’ for anyone who plays, designs or avoids gaming on a regular basis.