'How to Do Things With Video Games'

What They Are Is Not the Same as What They Do

by W. Scott Poole

5 September 2011

Ian Bogost suggests that “gaming” will become so interwoven into everyday life that calling someone a “gamer” will be like calling someone a “television-watcher” or an “electricity-haver”.
cover art

How to Do Things With Video Games

Ian Bogost

(University of Minnesota Press)
US: Sep 2011

Amidst an avalanche of digital manifestos, Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Video Games aims to be something very different. The author sets to one side the possibility that we are “entertaining ourselves to death”. He also dismisses all talk of coming technological singularities and digital messianisms.  Video games, he argues, work in a certain way, perform different kinds of tasks. Whatever else they are, they do things. And, in the end, they will become ordinary and playing them “no big deal”.

This certainly sounds like an anti-climactic contribution to a significant, and heated, cultural discourse. There is, after all, a lot of worried scribblings about the effects of video games on our private and public culture. But Bogost wants to bracket the question of whether gaming is good or bad for us. Moreover, he doesn’t care to settle the issue of whether or not they can be art (though he makes it clear he is not Roger Ebert’s fan on this point). He wants instead to ask and explain what they do, how they work. Our new technologies will neither “save nor seduce us” he insists. They will, however, change the ecology of everyday life in profound ways. And the author wants to show us how.

Bogost makes this point by suggesting that the social identity of “the gamer” will at some point disappear, indeed has already begun to disappear. “Gaming” will become so interwoven into everyday life that calling someone a “gamer” will be like calling someone a “television-watcher” maybe even an “electricity-haver”.  There are games, described by the author, that focus on local elections in Illinois and are used for electioneering, and games used to train employees at popular ice cream franchises. Maybe the identity of “gamer” is already become more and more meaningless.

If you think that some of what this book argues seems heavily dependent on Marshall McLuhan, you are correct. Bogost invokes McLuhan’s insistence that the property of media trumps the meaning of media (McLuhan’s famous phrase, “the medium is the message”, haunts every page of this brief book).  This is so much the case that it often feels like Bogost’s title should have been “What video games are”. Much of the book is purely descriptive and even the most dedicated gamer (since they do still exist) will learn new information about how video games play a role in photography, art, politics, health and sexuality.

Certainly there is also a lot of interesting analysis and here. In a chapter called “Kitsch”, Bogost notes that the public’s fascination with Facebook-based games like Farmville represents something on the order of collecting for an online curio cabinet. These are games that focus less on playing games than showing to the world “the exhaust of gameplay…virtual trinkets….”

Unfortunately, this very brief book introduces more questions than it answers—and sometimes even fails to ask the most interesting questions. Broken into tiny chapters, the author barely introduces a topic before dropping it.

Even his discussion of Farmville only offers an interesting metaphor and doesn’t analyze the phenomenon. Bogost notes that many dedicated gamers hate Farmville. He doesn’t explore why this is so. Even worse he alludes to, but does not examine, the fact that Farmville is less like a game and more like an online pyramid scheme. Much of its success is based on the commercial genius of having a “game” that is “played” by getting other players to play.

This points to a larger problem with the book. In his desire to describe the fascinating variety of uses to which video games are put, he seldom asks larger contextual and political questions.  Even when talking about the National Rifle Association’s use of video games, he only snarkily alludes to the group’s political agenda and focuses instead on how the games they have produced work. He also fails to confront the larger issues raised by games like Farmville, in which we see seem to be seeing the digital wild frontier becoming something more like a mall—yet another field of conquest for Capital.

I’m somewhat surprised that Bogost didn’t raise the larger implications of what it means to interact in a world of digital modeling, with other people and with avatars.  I would have liked to hear the author on how games like the Sims franchise are mirrored in Facebook and mirrored again in Twitter, as if the world has become a giant RPG where internet constructs (who have our names and vital information) interact with one another. Or is this really what is happening? I wanted to hear the author on this point.

This is not the only new reality that Bogost ignores. A Los Angeles Times article, “Buddhist wonks? No, Buddhist Geeks” (Mitchell Landsberg, 8 August 2011), suggests that a new generation of spiritual seekers are melding together their inner quests with their techno savvy. What becomes of religion and religious experience once video games become interwoven into our everyday ecology? Bogost really doesn’t examine this question, and this is an especially strange omission given that Bogost once designed a game called Guru Meditation. But the book only discusses the issue of religion and gaming in the short chapter on “relaxation” where “zen” is used in the popular sense; really, as a synonym for chilling out.

These omissions and truncated discussions aside, its this book’s failure to take part in the much larger discussion that’s one of its more irritating flaws. No mention appears here of Heather Chaplin’s Smart Bombs, one of the more important works on video games as aesthetic documents.  Nor does one know from this book that Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives had ever been written. The only other authors Bogost engages with are Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr, though they appear primarily as straw man representative of two ways of looking at technology. You cannot write a book like this as if you are one of the few working on the topic, but Bogost does.

Bogost’s online commentary is almost always provocative and insightful. Unfortunately, this book feels both rushed and incomplete, especially since its written by an author fully qualified to explore the question the title promises.

How to Do Things With Video Games


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