Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Meaning in Video Games: Ian Bogost's How to Do Things With Videogames

I'm interested in establishing some ground work for talking about and exploring the ways video games create meaning. Ian Bogost is someone who's been on my radar for awhile but I haven't yet taken the time to dig into his work. This will be a good opportunity to expand on my knowledge and explore new ideas.

After an initial view of the first couple pages of the intro and the about the author section, I found some interesting stuff in the back. For one, this book comes from a series called "Electronic Mediations," and the rest of the books of the series are listed in the back, and they all sound amazing. Also, rather than just a list of sources, he has a separate, multi-page "Gameography." It looks like this book is exactly the kind of stuff I've been looking for.

Early social proof:
No one responded on Google+ or Twitter, but I've been talking with my wife for the past couple days about making meaning in video games, and pretty quickly she's gotten on board. She helped me come up with a game idea about a Dad reading stories to his son at night and the player taking over as the dad as the hero of each bedtime story. I can tell there's a lot of potential in this topic and it's easy to get people excited about it.

Similar Books:
Apart from Bogost's other books, some titles that seem to always pop up alongside this one are Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, which I've already read and enjoyed, but also some other titles that intrigue me, such as What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee, which I noticed is also on our class's Goodreads bookshelf, as well as Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. The rest of the books in the "Electronic Mediations" series also probably have a lot in common.

Who Cares?:
Having studied this field for awhile now, I already know plenty of people talking about this subject. I originally found Bogost by following Jane McGonigal on Twitter. Through Jane McGonigal's TEDtalk, I found Brenda Braithwaite, who designs both video and tabletop games based on serious themes, such as Train, her game about transporting Jews to concentration camps. Searching the title on Twitter opened a gold mine. I found a whole conversation happening in South Africa, as well as several games writers and other book suggestions. Someone even tweeted several quotes from the book through a service called Readmill. Bogost himself tweeted links to reviews of the books, and several people referenced another book called Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, which I'll have to check out now. Interestingly, almost none of the Tweets had any hashtags, people just write out the title and let Twitter's text search pick it up. Several people tweeted about the book in relation to other books, often linking to articles. It was a very useful search and I have lots of other books to look at now alongside Bogost's.

Formal Reviews:
I looked at two reviews: Yavuz Samur's from the British Journal of Educational Technology that I found through the school library, and Dan Golding's from that Bogost himself linked to in a tweet. Both had an interesting focus on the structure of the book itself, which consists of several very short essays all on a single topic video games have explored or can explore. Golding points out that this structure is itself part of the message of the book--saying it "spirals outward" like the videogame industry itself to take on several different ideas at once. Also, both reviews were concerned about who the intended audience of the book was, concerned that it wasn't quite for gamers and it wasn't quite for academics, either. Overall, the reviews helped me see how to enter into this book and got me excited to do so.

Informal Reviews:
Interestingly, the top review of the book on Amazon by Christopher Schaberg directly contradicts the formal reviews and says this is a book for everyone, and anyone could understand it no matter their previous knowledge of videogames. He says himself that he hasn't played a videogame since 1992 and he understood it, and again praises the structure of the book as evidence of its accessibility. Knowing Bogost is a game designed, I can't help but think that he designed his book specifically and purposely how he did for the very reasons all these reviews are mentioning: accessibility, agility, and a reflection of the medium itself. It's an interesting insight in how even writing about games is affected by knowledge of games, and becomes more than just writing, but a kind of game design in itself. Joy's review on GoodReads sounds like it might have been written for a class. I found interesting her reason why she didn't give the book five stars: "I didn't give this book five stars because of the inclusion of the chapter on pranks and titillation. Both I found ridiculous, but this may be my aversion to both things in reality, and less to do with his writing." You could never get away with such a statement in a formal review, but it sheds an interesting light on how we judge media based on our personal tastes as well as technical proficiency, which I believe may be one of the main reasons video games aren't seen as legitimate yet--it's not that they can't do what our culture wants them to, it's that our culture doesn't really want them to try just yet.

Everybody seems to want a piece of videogames; I found syllabi for Communications, Art History, and English courses all including Bogost's text as required reading. One English class syllabus even said students would be required to make their own game by the end of the course. I also found interesting the games they chose to include: Portal 2 was a popular hit, as well as flOw and Dear Esther. Despite the reviews saying they weren't sure who this text was for, professors don't seem to hesitate putting it on their syllabi as they dive into videogames courses.

Through YouTube, I found a radio interview with Ian Bogost himself about the book, but also several videos featuring Bogost talking about games in many different venues. One that seems very important is his talk "Serious Games" given X Media Lab in Sydney in 2009, in which, among other things, he talks about how he realizes the game Animal Crossing was teaching his children about long-term debt and decision-making:

My reading:
First of all, I appreciated Bogost's simple and effective one-liners that somehow avoid oversimplification: "We can understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does" (3), and "The medium is the message, but the message is the message, too" (5), to put up just a couple of the early ones. I also am encouraged as I read because Bogost says the world needs exactly what I want to write, namely: "discussions of the developing conventions, styles, movements through which games are participating in a broader concept of art, both locally and historically" (12). He also takes a step toward such discussion by suggesting a vocabulary word for one of the developing conventions, a specific kind of game he calls "proceduralist." Additionally, he refers to a lot of existing theory for film and literature and applies it to games, such as the idea of the intentional fallacy and the genre of the vignette. This is exactly the kind of stuff I've been looking for, and exactly the kind of thinking and information I want to build on in my own writing.

I feel like I could enter the conversation not only to agree with Bogost, though. At points I find myself wanting to talk back to him. For instance, he uses the term "artgames" which I understand but find pointless. We should be able to understand that different games are made for different reasons, some more artistic than others. We do not talk about "artfilms" as opposed to regular films, even though we all understand that Citizen Kane was made with much different artistic intent than Twilight. I suppose we do distinguish "artbooks" in the sense that we call only certain kinds of titles "literature," but again, this is a classifier, not a new name. Calling games with higher artistic aspirations "artgames" is ultimately kind of demeaning because it implies the medium can't hold up the idea of art by itself, and that art is its exception, not its reality.

Overall, Bogost is one of the sharpest and clearest games thinkers I've yet read, and I'm excited to get further into his work so I can get further into my own.