July 27, 2006

(+++) GAMING

Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Game Criticism. By Ian Bogost. MIT Press. $35.

     More than half a century ago, the brilliant parodist of classical music, Anna Russell, noted that discussions of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle were frequently presented “by great experts for the edification of other great experts.”

     One has somewhat the same feeling about Unit Operations, in which Ian Bogost – assistant professor of literature, communication, and culture at Georgia Institute of Technology – presents a learned, carefully argued study of the principles of video games and how they relate to the principles of literary theory…in language designed to be inaccessible to all but the cognoscenti.

     Thus, he writes that “the relational meaning between the two games Pong and Tank, for example, as person-to-person combat simulators, aggression-release devices, or pub traffic generators, is materially bound to the common logical structure of the works themselves.”  And he states, “’Ludology vs. Narratology’ may be a nice shorthand for the tension between rule-based systems and story-based systems…  Ludology has been characterized by its coverage of the unique features of games, and narratology in the traditional sense of the word is the study of narratives across media, including oral and written language, gestures, and music.  Interestingly, this variety of narratology is much more similar to ludology than its detractors may acknowledge.”

     Bogost’s entire book is written this way; it is clearly of the academy, by the academy and for the academy.  And this is a bit of a shame, because the world of video games – and their relationship to other forms of entertainment and learning in the modern world – cries out for criticism that can bring the abstruse language of computers and the equally abstruse language of literary criticism into the same arena, and preferably down to earth.  Bogost has no interest in doing this.  He does, however, have an interesting central idea: any medium, he says, consists of interlocking units of meaning, and in this sense all media have analogous construction and all can be discussed using analogous terminology.

     This is intriguing, but Bogost does not pursue the thought into the everyday realm, where he appears not to be comfortable.  His highly technical analyses of everything from the philosophies of Plato and McLuhan to the early games Pong and Half-Life to the more recent Grand Theft Auto series to Joyce’s Ulysses are undermined rather than elucidated by his consistent choice of language whose meaning can be extricated only with difficulty: “The truly componentized, unit-operational game engines of modern games only further accentuate this merger of functionalism and materialism.”  Bogost is far from unique in his preference for academic style over writing that communicates more clearly: his concern lies at a theoretical level where he seeks to win over other theorists, not everyday readers.  But as video games become even more prevalent in everyday life, it will become that much more important to develop a critical theory encompassing them and other forms of communication-cum-entertainment (such as books and films) in language that clarifies rather than obfuscates.  Bogost’s thinking is far clearer than his expression.

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