My Thoughts on Ian Bogost's Unit Operations

Matt Barton's picture

Unit OperationsUnit OperationsI just finished reading Ian Bogost's book Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, a book that is probably already considered a foundational work for game studies. The book is clearly written for professional academics steeped in literary theory and with some smattering of reading in computer science, philosophy, and other fields. I can't tell if his tongue is in his cheek or not when he writes in the preface, "Jargon and obfuscation is a way of laying groundwork for novel production" and that his theory, like any other, "can't be obvious" (ii). However, there are plenty of kernels of interest to anyone with a serious interest in understanding games and, perhaps more importantly, the role they play and can play in our society and culture. In this review, I'll try to break down the book's key ideas.

First off, it's probably important that we know what Bogost means by "unit operations." He defines them in various ways, but the gist is that they are "discrete, disconnected actions" (3). That's opposed to what he calls "system operations," which he defines as "totalizing structures that seek to explicate a phenomenon, behavior, or state in its entirety" (6).

Bogost gives plenty of examples of unit operations throughout the book, but the clearest example for me was cellular automata: "A cellular automata is a simple program (an automaton) isolated into small units (cells). These units interact with one another, exposing what scientists--computer scientists especially--have hoped to exploit as a viable model for artificial life" (93). He's talking here about Conway's Game of Life. The unit operations are what happens when each cell interacts with its neighbors (if you know the game, you know there are rules that determine how these interactions play out). Instead of trying to look at a videogame from the top-down, or with some kind of "system" in mind, Bogost wants us to look very closely at individual unit operations.

It's important to note that Bogost isn't interested purely in technical matters or rules: "The unit operations of a simulation embody themselves in a player's understanding," he writes (99). As we play a game like The Sims, initiating and observing countless unit operations, we begin to understand the rules--"where instantiated code enters the material world via human players' faculty of reason" (99). Note the emphasis on players here. He goes on to say that "games create complex relations between the player, the work, and the world via unit operations that simultaneously embed material, functional, and discursive modes of representation" (105). The point here is that since what goes in a player's head is so important in playing a game, we should "give voice to these mental models and the ideology they communicate" (105).

The word "ideology" is important here. He discusses The Sims, for instance, noting how we might consider how the unit operations in that game suggest or try to persuade us to a way of looking at the unit operations in our actual lives. For instance, in the Hot Date expansion, it's clear that the designers expect players to want their characters to go out on dates. Someone playing this game and contemplating the unit operations might begin to wonder about life beyond the game, human relationships, society, and so on. Thus, a game like The Sims "has the power to influence and change human experience" (89).

A large part of the book is dedicated to other scholarly works on games and simulations. He takes issue with Espen Aarseth and the schism between ludologists and narratologists. If you're not aware of this controversy, it amounts to whether you think game studies should be reduced to an either/or with pure gameplay (what Aarseth calls the "ergodic" elements) on one side and everything else on the other. For ludologists, a game like Tetris is pure, whereas something like Black Ops is heavily diluted with non-game elements like cut scenes and story arcs.

Here is where Bogost makes a great contribution: "Instead of focusing on how games work, I suggest that we turn to what they do--how they inform, change, or otherwise participate in human activity" (53). His videogame criticism "would focus principally on the expressive capacity of games and, true to its grounding in the humanities, would seek to understand how videogames reveal what it means to be human" (53). Unlike the many who argue that videogames are inferior to books or other forms of expression, Bogost thinks they have a definite role to play in shaping our culture and thought.

Bogost disagrees sharply and often with Koster and others who think videogames should be just for fun. He seems upset that videogames haven't received the cultural legitimacy they deserve. He argues that there are two forces at work holding back videogames as true works of art: "The anthropological history of games has set the precedent for their separation from the material world" and their inheritance of "a mass-marked entertainment culture whose primary purpose is the production of low-reflection, high-gloss entertainment" (116).

His argument against the first point goes into the work of Johan Huizinga, specifically his notion of "The Magic Circle." In short, the magic circle is a "isolated space of play," or a sort of abstract realm that demarcates the game in question. The usual idea here is that the world of a videogame is totally separate from the "real" world. According to Bogost, "Instead of standing outside the world in utter isolation, games provide a two-way street through which players and their ideas can enter and exit the game, taking and leaving their residue in both directions" (134). Instead of just interrupting or diverting us, games "help us expose and explore complicated human conditions" (136). Here, Bogost uses the example of Grand Theft Auto, which he argues "constantly structures free-form experience in relation to criminality" (157) and should "draw attention to our tenuous relationship with crime and punishment" (168). Crawford and others have argued that games provide us with a "safe" place to explore decisions and consequences. Bogost agrees only in that they may provide us with physical safety, but of course they may impact us in what may ultimately be far more profound ways. "We should be less inclined to condemn works like GTA for their brutality," writes Bogost, "than to try to evolve the core problem they present: how to understand and refine each unit operation of our possible actions so we can interrogate and improve the system of human experience" (169). Despite the apparent abstractness or simplicity of a game, they all "convey ideas, and those ideas may instill a process of subjective interrogation and altered mental state" (136).

While Unit Operations has plateaus of clarity and coherence, it is also frequently as dense and thorny as a briar patch. I'll give Bogost the benefit of a doubt, but I often found myself straining to understand how an extended analysis of Madame Bovary or Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus were really necessary. In one chapter he moves from the poems of Baudelaire and Bukowski to the movie Amelie and finally to The Sims. Of course, Bogost's academic background is comparative literature, and it's clear that his thought has been deeply shaped by Derrida, Baudrillard, and other very advanced (or at least esoteric) thinkers. While these thinkers certainly enjoy enormous cachet in literary journals, I can't help but wonder if struggling with these notoriously difficult texts is truly a prerequisite to game studies. Bogost typically provides enough context for us to appreciate why he brings in philosophers like Spinoza and Heidegger, and I've read much less forgiving or accessible texts than this one. Still, I must admit having some sympathy with Aarseth and his hope that game studies doesn't get bogged down in this stuff.

Of course, if you are a humanities student looking for a fairly humane introduction to the likes of Deleuze and Guattari, as well as an interest in game studies--this book seems right on target.

Does Unit Operations succeed in its task to provide a sound approach to videogame criticism? Generally, I'd say yes. I very much like where Bogost is taking us here, away from the dogmatism we tend to get from industry insiders, but also away from the separatism and fixation on "pure" gameplay we get from folks like Aarseth. I like the idea of trying to get at that moment in a player's head when shes grasps the unit operations at work in a game, and then reflecting on how that understanding might change her attitude or perspective on issues well beyond the game.

I'll try to clarify this a bit more by opposing what I believe Bogost to be proposing with other approaches. Koster wanted to focus on fun as a sort of psychological concept, seemingly willing to reduce the whole thing to a B.F. Skinner like study of rats attached to pleasure buttons. Games ought to fire up the pleasure regions of our brains and so on and so forth. Pretty useless in my opinion, even though it at least opens up some creative possibilities.

Next we might take an approach adapted from contemporary literary criticism. There are so many of these I won't bore you with them (and I'm not sure I know them all anyway). But I've seen many examples, such as feminist studies of games, Marxist interpretations, psychoanalytical, or phenomenological studies, and so on. In other words, a graduate student or professor of literature can simply adapt the framework she uses to study conventional printed texts and apply them to videogames. I think Aarseth is correct in that these approaches tend to minimize or ignore the gameplay, focusing too closely on story elements and such that may or may not be a major part of the game in question. For instance, whereas those elements are very important in an adventure game like Zork or The Longest Journey, in the majority of games they are just "background" material that have little to no effect on most players' experience. Indeed, many early computer games didn't give any of the story in the game; you had to read a manual for that.

Another possibility is to follow Aarseth and the ludologists, cutting oneself off from other fields and trying to develop an entirely new one from scratch. They like to focus on what makes games unique, and how those qualities can be analyzed, compared, and understood. I think this approach makes sense in certain contexts, but I definitely wouldn't want to limit myself to it. I don't think every piece of videogame criticism needs to have a works cited page studded with French literary theorists and German philosophers either, though.

Bogost seems to have in mind a middle ground that isn't afraid to borrow what is useful from other fields without compromising what is really interesting about games. For Bogost, that's not just their rules or how they fit into some kind of big theory or system, but rather how their unit operations are understood and reflected upon by players. I like the idea of seeing games and their components as nodes in huge, sprawling networks, like cellular automata. I also very much like the idea that games aren't just cheap amusements, but that they can and should do more than just entertain.

All in all, Unit Operations is a good book with lots of useful insights for serious students of videogame criticism. I certainly don't claim to have understood it perfectly and freely admit to skimming certain sections that didn't appeal to me. Eight pages on Flaubert's Madame Bovary? No, thanks. Casual readers should probably avoid it, unless they're at least somewhat familiar with critical theory and for whom a casual reference to Foucault isn't cause for panic (or disgust). I also have Bogost's work on Persuasive Games, which I'm very much looking forward to. My background is in rhetoric, so I'm hoping I'll be able to read this book with fewer trips to Wikipedia.