Ian Bogost’s How to Talk About Videogames doesn’t open exactly the way you might expect it to; it opens by talking about toasters, because, evidently, “videogames are a lot like toasters”. This idea, like many of Bogost’s, might sound a little strange at first, but give the man time—most of his ideas will make sense in the end.
In both the introduction and the conclusion, Bogost provides a broad focus, looking at the difference between reviewers and critics, comparing videogames to other forms of media/ entertainment/ art, and wondering about the future of not only games, but game writing, too. Perhaps the most memorable line here: “God save us from a future of games critics, gnawing on scraps like the zombies that fester in the objects of our study.” It’s a well put phrase, and one that resonates on many levels simply because long form, thoughtful commentary that looks at the broader picture has seemingly gone out of style, leaving in its wake a pile of writing that does little more than label something good or bad.
Bogost certainly doesn’t fall into the good/bad trap. In between the introduction and conclusion are 20 little gem-like chapters, many only seven or eight pages, filled with smart writing, solid research, curious observations, and a bit of theory.
Bogost makes the background interesting, whether he’s talking about coin-op platforms and arcade enhancement kits or the naming of everyone’s favorite bow-wearing icon, Ms. Pac-Man. All of which are discussed in the chapter “Can a Gobbler Have It All?” How did Ms. Pac-Man get her name? Ms. Pac-Man started as Miss Pac-Man. Miss Pac-Man was ultimately rejected, though, because how could a miss be the mother of Pac-Man Jr. Then came Pac-Woman, Mrs. Pac-Man, and finally Ms. Pac-Man.
It’s a fun history, but of course, the larger question is, does any of this really matter? Does it matter how the name came into being or if the character was Ms. or Mrs. Pac-Man?
According to Bogost, yes, it does matter and not just because it’s hard to fathom why anyone ever would have considered Pac-Woman. Ms. Pac-Man, Bogost notes, has a lot to say about real life; he believes that “the genesis of Ms. Pac-Man recalls both traditional and progressive models of the role of women.” Before this chapter ends, Bogost will compare the creation of Ms. Pac-Man to the creation story found in Genesis, discuss 17th century abbreviations, and reference Gloria Steinem.
The question about whether or not the naming of Ms. Pac-Man matters also exists on another level and prompts another series of questions: Do we need to think about video games in terms of cultural criticism and feminism and a bunch of other isms? Do we need a book (as this one does) that talks about videogames in relation to Kant’s thoughts on the sublime?
Most likely not everyone will answer these questions in the affirmative, but Bogost’s thoughtful writing, quick wit, and attention to detail will give any naysayer a lot to think about.
Perhaps nowhere is Bogost more thoughtful than in the final chapter, where he examines Gone Home. In the game, Katie, a college student, returns home from a year abroad to find her family gone. It’s the player’s job to figure out what happened. Bogost notes that the game was almost universally praised, and that “Lesbian, queer, and transgender players… penned love letters to the game, expressing how it captured their own teenage disquiet.”
Bogost is cautious with his criticism, but he does wonder how players can be so “easily satisfied” and believes “For readers of contemporary fiction or even viewers of serious television, it’s hard to imagine that Gone Home would elicit much of any reaction, let alone the reports of full-bore weeping and breathless panegyrics this game enjoyed.”
It’s a seemingly simple question with no simple answer: What, if anything, do we compare videogames to? Virginia Woolf’s writings, John Hughes’s films, The Hunger Games?
Don’t look for easy answers or quick fixes in the conclusion, either. Instead, Bogost gives us one more curious comparison (this time likening videogame stores to liquor stores or sex shops) and puts out some hard truths. For example, most people simply play whatever video game is at “the top of the charts”. Bogost also laments the fact that an article (even though it’s his own) on McDonald’s McRib sandwich may end up with more readers than this book. Then, yes, he does return to the toaster one last time.
Whether you played Pac-Man as a kid, are a videogame fanatic, or simply enjoy a game of Words with Friends, this book has much to offer. Even if you haven’t played a videogame since the Oregon Trail first debuted in the ’70s, most likely there’s something in this book for you as well. Considering one of Bogost’s final thoughts (“Eventually, we might hope, books like this won’t be necessary or even possible, because games will no longer make sense as a domain unto themselves”) I think that’s the way he wants it.