Geek Reads: A Conversation with Ian Bogost, Author of How to Talk About Videogames

Over the past few years, we have seen some extraordinary new voices emerge in the field of video-game criticism. The brilliant work of thinkers like Anita Sarkeesian (of the Feminist Frequency video series) and Nick Montfort (an MIT scholar of digital humanities and a poet) have contributed in wonderful ways to the ways we think about and play games. Tom Bissell’s superb 2010 book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is one that everyone who writes about games will have to reckon with. Believe me, I know: I’m currently writing a book about video games and aesthetics — and my journey from noob to boss.

Another critic who has made my own work immeasurably more difficult and more pleasurable is Ian Bogost, professor of interactive computing and the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His latest book is a collection of essays, How to Talk About Videogames (University of Minnesota Press). It has already proven indispensable to those of us interested in how video games have become such a vital artistic medium. Bogost very generously answered a few questions via email in January and February.

Andrew Ervin: You’ve written that video games “insert themselves into our lives, weaving within and between our daily practices, both structuring and disrupting them. They induce feelings and emotions in us, just as art of music or fiction might do. But then, these games also extend well beyond the usual payloads of those other media, into frustration, anguish, physical exhaustion, and addictive desperation.” Putting aside for a moment the fact that I’ve experienced all of those things with literature as well as with video games, what is it that video games can accomplish that those other media cannot?

Ian Bogost: I’m not sure we need to apply binary gating to the problem. It’s true that television or movies can produce compulsion and anguish as much as joy and distraction. But games are different in that they often, and perhaps always, include some of the yin and some of the yang. The key word in the excerpt you picked out is “usually.” The process and the experience are important to games, and that’s less true of television and the like.

AE: Do you distinguish between video games and computer games?

IB: The short answer is that it doesn’t matter anymore, not really. I like “video game” or even just “videogame” because it feels like a unitary and solid concept, and a populist one too. A candidate term to reach escape velocity the way “movies” did. But the more technical, historical answer is that “video games” were games that oriented principally toward televisions for display, while computer games were games oriented toward general purpose microcomputers for operation.

Back when Pong and the Magnavox Odyssey and the Atari 2600 were made (1971–76), games were designed explicitly so that they’d work with the cathode ray tube (CRT) television, or else with random-scan or XY displays, which are more like oscilloscopes (Asteroids is an example). Early “computer games” mostly ran on minicomputers like the PDP, although sometimes those games were also “video games” — Spacewar used the PDP-1’s XY display. In these early days, “video games” referred to television and arcade games. But then, with the rise of consumer microcomputers like the Apple ][ and the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum and so forth, “computer games” arose to distinguish the slower, longer experience of PC games from the twitchiness of coin-op and home play.

So, in short, they are mostly historical terms, but the distinctions between aesthetics still persist, even if the television and the computer have become less distinct as well.

AE: Even the most casual gamers and non-gamers could recognize some of Shigeru Miyamoto’s creations. What is it that makes so many of his games so iconic?

IB: This is going to sound truculent, but: iconicity. That’s it. What makes Mickey Mouse iconic? The Eiffel Tower? These figures are representative symbols of their host subjects — Disney (or animation), Paris, and, for Miyamoto’s games, videogames. Especially Mario.

It’s easy to say that Mario became iconic because there was something fundamentally great about the early Miyamoto games that featured him. But there sort of wasn’t!

It’s easy to say that Mario became iconic because there was something fundamentally great about the early Miyamoto games that featured him. But there sort of wasn’t! Donkey Kong was the star of Donkey Kong, even if the player controlled “Jumpman,” who eventually became Mario. Do you remember how miserable it was to control Jumpman? Like steering a pinewood derby car. Mario Bros. (not Super) was weird and sort of alienating, and the whole premise of these plumbers overcome by turtles felt utterly alien in the apparent contextless context of some kind of underground sewer. By Super Mario Bros., of course, things began to look up. Just manipulating Mario (or Luigi. Poor Luigi.) was pleasurable. Forget the game. Just the character’s responsiveness, what Steve Swink calls its “game feel.” It was a delight to play Super Mario Bros., even if you never got anywhere.

And that’s what gets us out of the tautology. Miyamoto’s games became iconic because they didn’t require that you play them. Mario, Zelda, Wii Sports, etc. You could, of course, and deeply. Or you could dabble, and just doing that was fine too. Or you could not play at all, and just bathe in the iconicity of the characters, particularly after they became synonymous with Nintendo.

AE: Why should non-gamers care about games? What are they missing?

IB: Oh, they probably shouldn’t. Or they needn’t, anyway. I’m pretty well done with advocating for games as some special savior medium that will supplant and overcome all others. Will toasters ever become the dominant household appliance? Who cares. They’re excellent at browning bread.

But there is also a deep profundity in mechanism, in numbers, in gears turning and meshing with one another. And games embrace that paradox.

But, to be more earnest: if games are part art, and part appliance as I argue, then non-gamers should care about games because they tend to focus on the “art” more than the “appliance” generally speaking. Gamers are right to laud the specialness of operating devices and machinery that do things more than they express ideas or evoke emotional responses. Which isn’t to say that “non-gamers” aren’t also right that representation and sentiment are good and worthwhile. But there is also a deep profundity in mechanism, in numbers, in gears turning and meshing with one another. And games embrace that paradox.

AE: To what extent have persistent-world video games, in which some stand-in for me continues to exist in a virtual space while I’m logged off, changed or augmented what it means to be human? I haven’t been on World of Warcraft in ages, though I plan to do so soon, and yet I know that my primary toon still exists on the Nordrassil server.

IB: Richard Bartle, the creator of MUD, one of the very earliest (text-based) multi-user game experiences, has said that virtual worlds and MMOGs and their ilk are less like forms of entertainment and more places. You go to the bar or the club or the zoo or the park or the big box store, and then you interact with all sorts of people, things, creatures. Many different experiences are possible. So just as the bar or the zoo still exists when you leave it, so the World of Warcraft shard or the Habbo room or the League of Legends match does as well. Bartle’s right: it doesn’t make much sense to compare WoW to Super Mario Bros. WoW is more like Walmart.

This is another example of why I think games are as much like appliances as art, which is one of the premises. They are things you use to do other things, no less than toasters, even if once there, they also take on the aesthetics of more familiar entertainment.

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