book review

Unit Operations
An Approach to Videogame Criticism

Ian Bogost (2006)

If you think this book is just about videogames you are mistaken. It is about much, much more. Ian Bogost presents a dazzling and inspiring theory of human culture that draws on computer science, literary theory, psychology and semiotics, among other things. It is almost as if videogames happen to be the centre of all these fields and disciplines by accident. Bogost's vision is grand but also a little eclectic and highly theoretical. While working through all discussions post-structuralist philosophy and mathematics of complexity it is not always easy to see why all this matters for the study of games.

One might argue that it is exactly this broad scope that makes Unit Operations a valuable work. I guess there are few people who have read and understood as much of the huge variety of sources that are used in the book as Ian Bogost does. He combines all this knowledge into the theoretical framework of 'unit operations': a sort of object-oriented approach to everything (although Bogost would probably object to this typification as it is an oversimplification and is potentially misleading for those with an understanding of object-oriented programming). A framework that refrains from any attempt to discover or devise a system that encompasses and explains everything within a certain field. The complexity of human activity and psychology is to high for any such attempt to succeed. Instead he focuses on the units that make up such systems and the relations between these units. The system emerges from the current configuration of units and relations is to complex to understand as a whole, and is easily (if not constantly) reconfigured. This theoretical framework goes far beyond videogames: Bogost uses it to examine various cultural texts and social practices, drawing many parallels between them.

On the one hand this leads to an interesting approach to videogames, one that sees videogames as part of a broad field of cultural texts. Bogost's criticises ludology (or "hard-core game studies") for being essentialist, for trying to understand videogames as a 'system operation'; in focussing on how games work as systems ludologists cast a blind eye to how game operate on and function as cultural units. On the other hand this makes for a rather difficult book to apprehend; in my view it borders on being truly insightful and being intellectual sounding mumbo-jumbo. Even though I have read my share of structuralist and post-structuralist philosophy, game theory and mathematics of complexity, I do not claim to have understood all of what Ian Bogost is trying to say. One of the problems is that I am not en expert in all those fields, and it is not always easy to judge that what Bogost states is true. There are sections I understand and agree with, there are sections that I need to digest a little bit more, but there are also sections where I find Bogost's observations are questionable.

Bogost's account of Grand Theft Auto is a good example of such a questionable section. It makes, in my opinion, way to much of the games alleged freedom. In the game you are free to a lot of things, but you are not free to "experiment with allegiances for one or many mob bosses" and the game certainly does not "adjusts gang member responses to you based on your previous actions and loyalties" (pp. 153-154). It does adjust these responses according to how far the player has progressed through the game's missions. Its structure and simulation is in this respect not as sophisticated as Bogost wants us to believe. Bogost's representation of Grand Theft Auto is somewhat 'romantic', and in its subjectivity supports his claims better than the actual game. Do not get me wrong, I would love to see the game as Bogost envisions it, and I think that Bogost's framework might actually help to create such games, I just have to hope that its inaccuracy not symptomatic for the rest of his book.

Of one thing I am pretty certain: Unit Operations is provoking and probably will fuel quite a few discussions in the near future: it reconfigures the battleground for the old ludology versus narratology debate. As such it is an important contribution to our thinking about contemporary technologic culture and the field of game studies in particular. Just how important remains to be seen.