Give Our Regards To the Atomsmashers
How to Do Things with Videogames
by Ian Bogost
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
192 pp. Trade, $57.00; paper, $18.95
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7646-0; ISBN: 978-0-8166-7647-7.
Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
Like many digital technology artifacts, videogames are subject to far-reaching claims of either ruining or rescuing society. In How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost posits "a less flashy answer": Rather than ruin or rescue, technology influences and/or changes the way we perceive of and interact with our world. Evoking Marshall McLuhan and his argument that any medium extends human experience because it structures and informs our understanding and behavior, Bogost, a noted games theorist, designer, and builder, argues that we can understand any medium by examining what it can do. The "things a medium does to a culture," he says, "are more important than the content it conveys" (4). Think McLuhan's famous probe "the medium is the message."
For example, the medium of photography can document the atrocities and celebrations of war––record-fleeting moments in time––preserve the ordinary moments of family life, or capture the speeding car for ticketing. The uses of photography can vary widely, and it is this breadth and depth that make it a mature medium.
Like photography, says Bogost, videogames are a medium because they have properties that precede their content. Rather than textual descriptions or visual depictions, videogames are models of experiences the operation of which require that our actions be constrained by their rules. And, since videogames are computational, these model worlds and the rules they embody can be quite complex. Therefore, understanding the properties of videogames helps us to understand their nature and implications.
Bogost begins by arguing that videogames, like photography, writing, books, film, music, or any other medium, should not be reduced to overly-simplified or emotional categories or uses—highbrow or lowbrow, serious or superficial, useful or useless, ruin or rescue. Instead, Bogost, again evoking McLuhan, suggests an expansion of media ecology, "a media-agnostic approach to understanding how a host of different technologies works individually and together to create an environment for communication and perception" (6).
Throughout the rest of How to Do Things with Videogames, Bogost reveals "a small portion of the many uses" of videogames and how, combined, "they make the medium broader, richer, and more relevant" (7). Chapters are devoted to how videogames are currently, or may be, utilized to promote thinking about art (introspection and creativity), empathy (understanding the plight of others), reverence (a reprieve for the weary and steadfastness in the face of devastation), music (focus on rhythmic and musical construction), travel (continuous attention to the unfolding scene), branding (cultural and social preconceptions and circumstances), electioneering (direct participation in the effects of policy), promotion (how and why companies seek to persuade us to use their products), snapshots (appreciation for the craft of creation), texture (appreciation for the vivid diversity of the physical world), relaxation (de-emphasize and focus the senses rather than escalate and expand them), throwaways (emphasize the pleasures of the fleeting, the transitory, the impermanent), titillation (defamiliarized and uncomfortable experience of the various logics of perversion that stimulate other human beings), exercise (social rituals that make us want to be physically active), work (understanding of mechanics that change the world through the play actions themselves, rather than future coercion or reflection), habituation (culture familiarity by constructing habitual experiences players want to experience repeatedly), disinterest (foster disgust for sadistic, troublesome, and controversial acts), and drill (trying in virtuality acts we may have to perform In the real world, before we have to undertake them).
In conclusion, Bogost positions videogames as a medium that pervades contemporary culture from art to tools and in between. Videogames aren't just for adolescents, he says. Instead, once they are understood to have value and valid applications across a broad spectrum, videogames will provide meaningful and engaging gaming opportunities for the masses by, for example, documenting important historical and cultural events, providing educational opportunities for both children and adults, promoting a better understanding of commercial exchange and interaction, and serving as platforms for many different and varied human endeavors.
Neither the stuff of ruin nor rescue, How to Do Things with Videogames is, as Bogost promises, not very flashy. Still, this little book is compelling and useful as an insightful and thought-provoking discussion of how we might reconsider one of the more significant cultural phenomena of our time.