Dominic Preston reviews the latest by videogame analysis maestro Ian Bogost, discussing the politics and cultures of gaming in contemporary society.
Ian Bogost, How to Talk about Videogames (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) 208pp.
Don’t let the ‘how-to’ title fool you – Ian Bogost has little interest in prescriptive or instructional guide to videogame criticism. Instead this collection of essays presents a multitude of possible ways of approaching videogames as a medium, both at large and in its specifics, in the process bringing to the fore the varietal ways that games can affect us as players and observers.
One of the few things Bogost does explicitly call for us to do is to stop treating games like toasters. In a witty introduction he argues against the trend to reduce games criticism to the level of Amazon product reviews, ticking off features and measuring performance. He’s equally sceptical of allowing criticism to become untethered, lost in conceptual exploration, urging a sort of balance between games as functional objects and games as art.
We should talk about games “like a critic, not a reviewer,” but also “like a toaster critic, not just a film critic,” remembering the “functional, operative” elements of games (their ability to entertain and distract) alongside their loftier, artistic aspirations. This discussion is restricted, for the most part, to the introduction and conclusion, bookends to a collection of essays that serve as examples of Bogost’s approach, rather than explicit argument for it.
The majority of the essays included were previously published elsewhere in some form or another within the last few years, and primarily tackle recently released titles. Bogost makes his intentions clear by placing a lengthy analysis of supposedly disposable iOS hit Flappy Bird at the fore of the book. While most discussion around the game to now has consisted of incredulity at its mammoth popularity, Bogost instead takes it at face value, investigating it not as cultural phenomenon but as game, as worthy of artistic analysis as any of the medium’s biggest titles.
Similar depth is assigned to games ranging from Flappy Bird’s successor Swing Copters; the entire output of thatgamecompany, creators of flOw, Flower, and Journey; and Proteus, which is explored in three distinct directions through one triptych of essays. Some of these seem curiously dated already, as in ‘The Haute Couture of Videogames’, which examines smartphone puzzle game Hundreds as a status symbol, “an accessory more like a martini that it is like a magazine. It’s a videogame that you can imagine James Bond playing.” It’s a cultural cachet that if Hundreds ever held, it certainly does no longer, and in failing to mention other games that might fit the the same mould, Bogost leaves the essay feeling curiously out-of-touch – especially ironic considering its subject matter.
Elsewhere Bogost’s focus is even more narrow. ‘The Blue Shell is Everything That’s Wrong with America’ takes the Mario Kart series’ most infamous projectile weapon and finds in its varying permutations unexpected insight into our changing attitudes towards equality and opportunity. It’s part historical investigation, part philosophical examination, and offers the kind of unexpected perspective on the medium that is How to Talk About Videogames’ biggest asset.
‘What Is a Sports Videogame?’ and ‘Free Speech Is Not a Marketing Plan’ adopt a wider lens, examining either a genre as a whole or videogames at large. These are among the more successful entries in the book, their broader scope and wealth of examples providing more grounding for Bogost’s wilder philosophical explorations–as when he argues that football videogames are not simulations of football so much as a different formulation of football itself, his argument extending back to the sport’s ancient Greek forebears in the process.
Not all of these exercises in aesthetic philosophy are as successful. ‘Puzzling the Sublime’, an ambitious attempt to find Kant’s mathematical sublime in puzzle games like Drop7 and Orbital falls short of its goal, Bogost’s lightly sketched explanation of the concept not offering enough to bring the layman up to speed or really engage with the expert. “These games force players to reflect on the mathematical boundlessness of the systems that drive them,” Bogost argues, later suggesting this “helps us see the limits of our own reason.” It’s a simplification of Kant to the point of contradiction (who instead argued that the sublime showed the limits of our imagination, while proving the superiority of our reason, which could grasp the infinite). To be sure, most readers won’t get bogged down in the minutiae of his philosophical reference points, but it suggests that How to Talk About Videogames’ brief examinations are best served as jumping off points for discussions, and not the final word, suggesting new ways of thinking about games rather than any firm answers.
And brief they are. With 20 essays spread across 180 pages, each is appropriately bit-sized, perfect for a quick spot of enlightenment on the morning commute. It’s in that light that How to Talk About Videogames seems to come into its own. It may not live up to the promise of its title, but it offers something more valuable: 20 fascinating, unexpected approaches to games, as art, as entertainment, as both. Some will leave the reader scratching their head, others gasping with frustration. But each is worth reading for its own reasons, and offers its own insights. Bogost may not tell us how to talk about videogames, but he handily proves that there are far more ways than most of us had expected before now.
Dominic Preston is a journalist and arts critic based in London. He is the Film Editor at Candid Magazine and an Executive Editor at Existential Gamer, and contributes to Little White Lies, Thrillist, and Frontiers