What resources are currently available for developing videogame criticism or aesthetics? Although rather thin on the ground, there is not a complete vacuum, and one useful contribution can be found in the principles of unit operations.
In 2006, Ian Bogost published Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, in which he develops a critical theory suitable for application to any medium – including (but not limited to) poetry, literature, cinema or digital games. The book has a reputation for being difficult – Bogost himself has remarked: "It is a hard book, and I am aware that some readers may not be prepared for it. But it's a hard topic... and I tried not to candy coat that challenge." How difficult any particular reader finds the book will depend upon their background: anyone who is unfamiliar with art criticism in general, who has no experience with philosophy, or who has little experience with computer science will easily become lost. But really, this isn't the biggest problem most people with an interest in videogames will face tackling the book; I suspect the biggest issue is that most people who are into videogames just do not care about the kind of criticism Bogost's book addresses.
An example will serve to illustrate. In a crucial chapter of the book, Bogost draws a line of connection between Charles Baudelaire's poem "À une passante" (1860), Charles Bukowski's poem "A woman on the street" (1996), Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amélie (2001) and Wil Wright' game The Sims: Hot Date (Maxis, 2001). He traces the connections between these artworks in terms of the theme of 'chance encounters', and the significance these hold for urban life, a phenomenon that has become established and then intensified over the same period of time as these source materials span. It's a masterful piece of literary criticism, able to take the principles of conventional literary theory and show how they can be applied to very different cultural artefacts. That it concludes on a videogame is Bogost's masterstroke – because by the time he reaches this part of his discussion his theme is already perfectly well established, and the move into digital media feels like a short step not a hop or a jump. The effortless of this thread underline's Bogost's core point – that videogames are just as suitable for cultural analysis as anything else.
To get to the point of being able to make comparisons such as this, Bogost builds a wide scaffold on a number of different foundations, such as Heidegger's Gestell ('enframing'), Spinoza's universal substance, Leibnitz's monads and especially Alain Badiou's ontology of sets, which in turn builds on the work of the mathematician Georg Cantor. A quick introduction to these philosophical concepts is provided in the early parts of the book, although anyone coming to them for the first time via Bogost is likely to be left dangling. It is the studious scholarship of Bogost's work which ironically acts as a barrier to selling his approach to a wider audience – it's not necessary to understand the foundations to live in this particular house. But Bogost's project is expressly about how that house came to be built, and it is only in reference to this framework that he discusses how to live in that house at all. This makes Bogost's unit operations a very hard sell to anyone who isn't coming from an academic background.
The 'unit operations' of the title refer to process steps – in fact, this is what the term means in chemical and industrial engineering (a point that might have argued against using it in this specific context). Bogost asserts that "any medium... can be read as a configurative system, an arrangement of discrete, interlocking units of expressive meaning." He calls the general instances of procedural expression unit operations, but also notes in passing at one point that they corresponds to literary critic Walter Benjamin's term motif – figures and tropes assembled into a framework or rule set. Bogost explicitly asserts the identity between Benjamin's motif and his own unit operation, and speaking for myself I found his book far easier to read when I opted to substitute "motif" for "unit operation" about half the times it appeared whilst still bearing in mind Bogost's intended terminology.
A unit operation, in the context of the system of cultural criticism sketched in this book, is thus a minimal component of meaning (or a "mode of meaning-making"), one which prefers to focus on discrete, disconnected actions over more deterministic or progressive systems. Part of Bogost's core argument rests on the claim that there are gains to be made in shifting away from a focus on system operations and towards unit operations, while recognising that "neither strategy is permanently detached from the other." This tension was never fully resolved for me – while I could see the thrust of Bogost's argument, I found it hard not to see unit operations itself as a form of system. But then, Bogost shows he is aware of this pressure, which likely cannot be entirely resolved.
One of the more interesting implications Bogost draws out of his approach is an analysis of the effect of simulation on personal subjectivity. Following media theorist Sherry Turkle, a compelling argument is developed that there is no possibility of a simulation that does not possess an ideology: "The objective simulation is a myth because games cannot help but carry the baggage of ideology." Turkle notes that when facing a particular simulation we can either buy into its assumptions (simulation resignation) or we can reject them (simulation denial), and Bogost develops this into what he calls (following a similar term from Derrida) "simulation fever", or perhaps more clearly, "simulation anxiety". A key opening in the possibilities for game criticism is opened in this space.
Simulation anxiety is a "nervous discomfort" caused by the disjunction between a game's model of real world situations and our interpretation of that model. Since what is being represented is often something we have our own ideas and opinions about, the gaps between these two models is the site of the tension that can lead to resignation or denial. Bogost convincingly argues that his idea of 'simulation fever' demonstrates that games allow us to "expose and explore complicated human conditions", and as such reading them purely as tools for entertainment is to radically underestimate the medium. I certainly agree with this claim.
However, there is a severe limit to Bogost's approach: it is guided by the principles of modern literary theory, and as such any aesthetic elements of his approach are limited to "aesthetic meaning", which is precisely what Bogost admits his approach to comparative videogame criticism is aiming at. But meaning, and the discussion of meanings, is far from the central focus of aesthetics. In fact, while future game critics will need to be able to discuss the meaning and context of games as cultural artefacts – a situation facilitated by Bogost's significant achievements in Unit Operations – this is almost entirely tangential to the pressing need I have claimed for game aesthetics. Such future critics may well make use of a unit operational perspective (or at the very least some similar mechanism for cross-cultural analysis) but without an aesthetic theory we will not have secured the case for games as artworks. We will simply have accepted them as one set of cultural artefacts amongst many.
Next week: Against Interpretation