Category Archives: Reading response

Reading Response: Unit Operations II

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. MIT Press, 2006 (Chapters 5-9).

I found the passage on game engines in chapter 5 perhaps the most revelatory because I tend to think about the specificity  medium in terms of its effects (interactivity, etc.) rather than in how video games are actually constructed. However, Bogost makes a good case for why engines, like genre, should be studied for “what they enable, and what they forgo of expression in videogames” (60). Of course, as he points out, engines create limitations and enable designs far differently than genres do (“intellectual proprietary, material, functional, and discursive” (60)), although they do intertwine a bit since, for example, an engine originally made for First-person shooter games will incline its users more towards using the engine to create more FPS games (although it’s important to note that they aren’t limited to that genre by the engine, just that it would direct them more towards it).

At the same time, I do question Bogost’s claim that “Unlike psychoanalysis or literary theory, IP is a stable relationship regulated by governments and markets instead of critics” (61), mostly for the use of “stable” since I think he’s claiming a stability that doesn’t necessarily exist. Bogost seems to agree, too, since in the next sentence he writes that “The rules of IP are flexible and may change, but its fundamental principle is legal, not literary” (61). I take issue with his example too; yes, “T.S. Eliot did not license rights to Homer and Dante in order to make their works fungible in his own” (61), but that’s basically because Bogost has picked a literary example where IP rights wouldn’t apply in the first place. Finally, I’m a bit concerned about Bogost’s desire to mix intellectual property rights with literary criticism.

I also appreciated in Chapter 8 when Bogost calls Juul to task for privileging “the formal quality of the game over its expressive potential” (121) as if emergent and thus replayable gameplay is all that a game should strive for. I may not agree with Bogost on everything, but I think I’m willing to defend “videogames need not participate in such an economy. Rather, they may strive to make highly isolated statements that pursue specific goals through the gameplay experience” (122). I would like to see video games (and their audience) outgrow this desire for all games to be always, unthinkingly fun in the same way that film outgrew its need to be always, unthinkingly fun.


Reading Response: Unit Operations I

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. MIT Press, 2006 (Chapters 1-4).

I’m in general agreement with the sentiments Bogost expresses in chapter 4 regarding certain issues in game studies. While I’m sympathetic to the Aarseth’s statement that “’I wish to challenge the recurrent practice of applying the theories of literary criticism to a new empirical field, seemingly without any reassessment of the terms and concepts involved” (51), this sympathy is more with the latter half of the statement. I don’t believe there is a problem with applying literary criticism to video games; it’s just that, as with any other medium, the criticism must take into account the differences between media.

Like Bogost, I find the self-imposed “functionalist separatism” (52) of the field of video game studies to be problematic, even dismaying in its reversal of previous attempts to “connect games to other cultural forms” (53), as this separation can only serve to isolate videogames from meaningful interactions with other cultural objects and reduce many possibilities for criticisms, analyses, understandings, and, ultimately, improvements of the medium.

I also share Bogost’s concern with privileging “the ludic over the literary” (53), as the attempt to cordon off narrative elements, such as cut scenes, from the rest of the game has always bothered me as—and please forgive the tautology—so long as it is part of the game, it is part of the game and can’t just be ignored. This way of thinking also creates the binary between gameplay and narrative that I don’t believe necessarily exists.

Finally, I’m interested in what seems to be a more rhetorical focus, with Bogost mentioning his own desire to “Instead of focusing on how games work…turn to what they do” (53), so I’m looking forward to how that works out in later chapters.

Also, I have a few Bogost-related links in Delicious, but, since they’re now buried, here’s a link to the Persuasive Games site (founded in part by Bogost, focusing on creating games in the “serious” genre for instruction and activism and which refers to video games’ potential as “rhetorical tools”) and an archive of his “Persuasive Games” column at Gamasutra, which in turn links to his website.

Reading Response: Critical Play III

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. MIT Press, 2009 (Chapters 7 and 8 )

Ah, the well-worn debate about video games as art. This chapter brought up a few issues that I think are important for explaining why commercial developers are reluctant to create games that are challenging in either their presentation or content.

First off, I do wonder if there might not be a problem with claiming as fact the statement that “artists’ games by definition take an ‘outsider’ stance in relation to a popular commercial games culture” (226). While it’s true that “This position itself suggests alternate readings of contemporary issues in electronic media and offers the possibility of commentary on social experiences such as discrimination, violence, and aging that traditional gaming culture either avoids or unabashedly marks with stereotypes” (226), and I definitely do not disagree that this is very important, I think this might create a self-perpetuating problem. Reinforcing the idea that art and commercial games are automatically different–if not outright in opposition to each other–might restrict the art games’ influence on commercial games, enforce a false dichotomy between the two, and create the same chasm between “art game” and “commercial game”  that currently exists between “educational game” and “commercial game”, which would be extremely unfortunate.

Also, I may as well comment on the following question: “If games are supposed to be a source of entertainment, should they also attempt to enhance critical thinking as well as address social and political issues?” (247). Because video games are often viewed as (and often are) playful, light entertainment, if they address serious issues, there’s a good chance that they can be seen as disrespectful to or exploitative of that subject matter in an offensive manner (though I would argue no more exploitative than your average Hollywood movie). However, this issue does not necessarily need to be seen as a problem or obstacle to making a game with serious content; rather, it can provide extra incentive for the developers to put more thought and care into the game that they’re creating. Unfortunately, the idea that games are and should only be for entertainment can also become an excuse for dangerously sanitizing serious issues. For the purposes of my own blog, I consider this a particularly important issue to consider because a refusal to address serious content, or take serious content and distance and distort it as much as possible from reality, can restrict the potential for games to explore moral dilemmas that aren’t clearly black and white or that have relevance outside of the game.

As for educational games, Extra Credits had a helpful episode detailing a few ways that educating players can be achieved in commercial video games in ways that aren’t overly heavy-handed and obvious.

Reading Response: Critical Play II

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. MIT Press, 2009 (Chapters 4, 5, and 6 )

Of the three chapters, (“Language Games,” “Performative Games and Objects,” and “Artists’ Locative Games”), the one I found myself thinking about the most was “Artists’ Locative Games”. More specifically, I was interested by her comments on the issue of the objectification of “non-players” in these games as well as the commodification of the city.

I think Flanagan raises a very important point when she states that certain locative games have an unfortunate consequence when “most participants are not players; the NPCs are unaware that there is a game going on, and unwillingly commodified by the players” (206). In essence, these types of games turn anyone who isn’t playing the game into game pieces. For instance, one of the examples of locative games, Cruel 2 B Kind, is an attempt to spread “random acts of violence” by using good deeds as weapons to “kill” opposing players. However, while the actions performed by players to accomplish their goals might be different (compliments instead of stabbings), and while the intentions of the game’s creatores are also obviously quite well-intentioned, in practice the game turns the people who aren’t “in the know” into objects to be used, objects with as much agency within the game as the computer NPCs in a round of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which is a quite problematic attitude to encourage in the players.

In addition to how these games treat non-players, another important point that Flanagan brought up was how these games treat the urban environment, and I think this treatment has important ramifications for video games as well. Flanagan states that “the type of space these games typically produce rely on an abstracted, loose relationship to the location in which they are played, thereby commodifying the urban landscape” (199) and that “major urban centers have become spectacles of tourism and entertainment, and that these spectacles no longer serve residents, but have become tourist destinations in their own right” (200), which brings up an important cautionary point about these kinds of games. Now, for video games, I think a similar sentiment applies, and that this view of “the city as a game board” (204) by the creator and player is even heightened. Many games, especially urban sandbox games, will model their setting after a real city, to greater or lesser extents. However, in video games, the city is not merely transformed into a game space, but actually only exists as one, with the player as the ultimate, empowered tourist for whom the city exists. I don’t mean this as necessarily a criticism of these types of video games though; they might actually be more honest than similar locative games in that the video game presents a simulation of the city while the locative game presents a simulacrum.

Reading Response Round Up: Bonus Round

Arsenault, Dominic and Bernard Perron. “In the Frame of the Magic Cycle.”

I forgot about chapter 6 of The Video Game Theory Reader 2, not that I have all that much to say about it. I rather liked the “magic cycle” with its layered approach as a particular model for understanding video games games . However, I have to question the third layer, the “hermeneutic circle”, mostly for what seems like a separation of “comprehension” and “interpretation” (117) that I don’t agree necessarily exists. Is it possible to comprehend something without first interpreting it?

Also, and this issue I have is not specific to the text but an issue with a general trend I’ve seen in many places: I strongly disagree with this dichotomy between narrative and gameplay, as if they never interact or overlap (although at least Arsenault and Perron don’t establish them as directly conflicting with each other). I consider this idea to be one that creates numerous problems in games, and while not limited to morality, these problems that can certainly occur when games do try to use morality as an aspect of the narrative or gameplay. For instance, a game’s narrative might establish a certain moral stance for the character that the player is then free to undermine, and I think one of the reasons these situations occur is because gameplay and narrative are so frequently treated as completely different aspects of a video game that the ways in which they can affect each other is overlooked.

Reading Response Round Up: Video Game Theory Reader 2: I

Perron, Bernard and Wolf, Mark J. P, eds. The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Routledge, 2009.

Alright, I’m commenting on five chapters from The Video Game Theory Reader 2, so let’s try for 200 words or fewer for each:

Perron, Bernard and Mark J.P. Wolf. “Introduction.”

I was interested by the comment on how “the multidisciplinary nature of video game studies” (3) was holding back video game studies since I’d love to know how that compares to the study of other media, such as film.

Additionally, keeping a video game history was one of the seven “challenges” facing video game studies that caught my eye because I have previously encountered problems getting computer games only a decade old to play, so I can only imagine the difficulty of getting a 40-year-old game in its original condition to work. As for some of the other “challenges”, I question whether some of these (such as #4, technology) always need to be taken into consideration in order to study a game any more than for any other media.

Konzack, Lars. “Chapter 2: Philosophical Game Design.”

I think that this chapter would have been responded to more charitably if, instead of “philosophy”, something like “ideology” had been used instead. I doubt there should be any question that games do communicate ideas and that game designers should understand this and consider what ideologies they’re pushing and how.

Now, for the bit that applies to this blog, the section on “Ethical Game Systems” (36), I think that “quantization” (37) of aspects of the game world, such as ethics and morality, while no doubt convenient for developers, is detrimental to actually presenting a sophisticated sense of morality in a game. Otherwise, I generally agree with the comments such as Black & White’s “ethical system” lacking “complexity past simplistic dualism” (38), which is the main problem with these systems as they are implemented (I do think he’s a little too impressed by Bioshock, but I hope to get back to that more in depth in another post). I also broadly agree with the criticism of persuasive games usually being too simplistic and shallow to actually accomplish their aims.

 Myers, David. “Chapter 3: The Video Game Aesthetic.”

First, I think he’s being too dismissive of playing that involves being “quiet and contemplative” by saying that “we prototypically describe human play using categories similar to those describing animal play” (45-6). Secondly, I think he’s again oversimplifying what playing is by focusing so much on insisting that playing is always “playing with something” (46). Why should I assume that “playing with something” is “fundamental to human play” (46)? I can play hopscotch. By myself. I certainly don’t play “with” hopscotch. In short, I believe that “locomotor play” is him trying to force a category into his thesis that doesn’t actually belong. This is just one example of Myers’ tendency to overreach that undermines a lot of valuable information that his chapter does contain.

Gregersen, Andreas and Torben Grodal. “Chapter 4: Embodiment and Interface.”

I thought it was very interesting to see how physical participation can help with empathy, and I would have liked a more in-depth look at how interfaces can enhance/interfere with interaction in video games. I was most interested in the concluding discussion about getting feedback from the video game, of being acted on instead of acting.  More physical “receptions” (80) might enhance immersion, not that that’s necessarily a good thing. Anyway, the only time I’ve ever seen the force feedback feature on the Playstation used in a novel and striking way was with Metal Gear Solid, so it would be kind of neat to see physical response somehow implemented in different ways by more games.

Jarvinen, Aki. “Chapter 5: Understanding Video Games as Emotional Experiences.”

In spite of my own indifference as to whether a game will cause me to break down in tears of either sorrow or joy, I would like to see the occasional video game master the ability to provoke an emotional response from players besides “yay, this is fun!”, especially since one would think that video games, as interactive media, would be better at involving their audiences in a fictional world. I also just like to see the medium increase in the diversity of experiences afforded to the player and for developers to take more chances and try new things (and while I’m at it, I’d also like a billion dollars and my own private island).  Anyway, interesting breakdown of different kinds of emotional experience, but it was more like advice for designers than a critical analysis.

Also, small quibble with the statement “games with their rules and roles are coercive in nature” (88). While you’re forced to play the game certain ways, you’re not forced to play the game, so “coercive” seems a bit of a stretch. Plus, game rules, especially those of non-video games, are frequently bent, broken, removed, and added to by players. It’s more of a social contract deal, I would think, where all players mutually agree to the game rules and are expected to abide by them. And not everyone always does.

If anyone’s interested, I found and bookmarked a bunch of links that were related this week’s readings; click on the “Delicious video game news” section of the sidebar to see them.

Weekly Reading Response: Critical Play I

I’ve decided that, in addition to the regular posts focused on morality, I would also post shorter weekly reading responses, in which I quickly summarize a few comments or thoughts I might have on this week’s readings and games and try to link them to the subject of this blog.


Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Beaudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming,” Games and Culture (2007)

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. MIT Press, 2009 (Chapters 1, 2, and 3)

Lindley, Craig A. “The Semiotics of Time Structure in Ludic Space As a Foundation for Analysis and Design,” Game Studies 5:1 (2005)

First, as for connections between the readings and the theme of my blog, I’d like to call attention to the Lindley reading. In discussing the narrative layer of ludic structures, Lindley mentions that “A strong sense of dramatic characterization requires ongoing character development at the interactive focus of play” and later states that “Choosing to play the game with [a] focus on characterization and identity is to follow classical dramatic paths of character development. In this case repetitive combat-oriented play becomes a secondary consideration after identity formation…An ongoing challenge for computer game design is to achieve a strong sense of dramatic play as a game character using games moves that do not rely so heavily upon text”.

I highlight these two sections because I think that the issues that Lindley mentions have helped to lead to the classic “morality system”, especially the type of system in which moral decisions are a) quantified and b) shown to the player. By using a morality system that the player can see, the player can see the character develop (become more good or more evil) as a direct result of his or her actions. It also provides a greater sense of gameplay and narrative integration to have the character’s development be a direct result of me, the player, saving/killing a little girl, as opposed to it being something that happens to the character outside of gameplay (such as in a cutscene, for example). It also avoids needing a lot of text to get the message across since a player can immediately gauge how good/evil the character is becoming by checking a scale or even the character’s physical appearance.

As for other comments, I found myself thinking the most about Critical Play’s first three chapters (“Introduction to Critical Play,” “Playing House,” and “Board Games”). I’ll probably dedicate another post to just critical play and activist games, but there were a few comments I wanted to make about “Playing House”—specifically, the subject of the gendering of domesticity and the household space in video games.

First of all, “As many scholars have argued, domestic spaces continue to be associated with the feminine in television, film, and other media” (54). However, video games are very much a masculinized medium, and I think this actually creates a situation similar to the change in doll production mentioned in the book:

“once doll making entered the phase of mass production, it became a male-dominated business…dolls soon emerged as products of clockmakers and machinists…Locomotion was a special source of fascination…In parallel to an industrial revolution that brought mechanical gadgets to the center of everyday life and promoted the idea that pleasure could be derived from mechanical devices, the culture of technology collided with more traditional forms of doll making” (37).

Something similar might be happening with the domestic space in video games, in which a traditionally feminized space is masculinized to appeal to a largely male audience, such as in the game Dwarf Fortress. The game is basically about managing dwarves as they get drunk, wage war on goblins, take on manly jobs like being in the military, farming, mining,  weapon crafting, hunting, and occasionally fighting off the local fauna (ranging from carp to demons to elephants). It’s also a game where you design a fortress from the bottom up (or rather, top down—these are dwarves), furnish it with the prettiest furniture you can create, and decorate it all with gold and precious gems. Also, while having less direct control over your dwarves than sims, players are still in charge of keeping the dwarges happy and healthy. At the same time, the game focuses a great deal on creating mechanical creations such as drawbridges, intricate traps, and lava moats.

Lastly, two quibbles with the Critical Play text:

I question how “subversive” the killing of sims actually is, since the game designs those opportunities and the amusing death scenes, meaning that the player is just doing one of the many things the game wants you to do.

I also argue against the assumption that the “wide appeal” of games like The Sims is because “Rarely if ever do players feel disempowered in domestic game scenarios” (56). Players rarely if ever feel disempowered in any scenario in any video game. The only genre I can think of where that’s even attempted is the horror genre. I think it would be more accurate (though perhaps still not accurate) to say that the empowerment is what appealed to an unusually high number of women. After all, video games provide plenty of male empowerment fantasies played out by male avatars in almost exclusively male environments and meant to appeal to a male audience, but, especially at the time when The Sims was first published, exactly how many video games were there that involved a female avatar in a female environment acting out female empowerment fantasies in order to appeal to a female audience?

I was also interested in how some of the issues raised in the “Playing House” chapter might relate to the haunted house genre in video games (“The house has shifted from being a place of comfort to a site for defense” (53) and its relation to the uncanny) and the “escape the room” genre, which often takes place, unsurprisingly, in a house, but this post was only meant to be a few hundred words long, not 1000, so let’s wrap up here.