The Missing Medium

A review of Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames

It is sometimes possible to love something so much that you carry its worst traits forward in time until they are ineradicable. I often have this sense when encountering taxonomical descriptions of the variety applied to “videogames.” It is not enough to accept games as a new form of creative abstractionism, but it must be ordered and canonized, frequently with the goal of proving that games can transcend its category and become something world-changing. It’s not enough to identify a game by its emotional themes, we must identify them by the effects they have on us when we play. We don’t organize games as joyful, fearful, competitive, or reflective, but instead favor a system of naming the mechanism: shooting, jumping (twisted into “platforming” in industry lingo), puzzle-solving, sporting, and strategizing, among others. In so doing, we have ensured the confusion endures between videogames and the still undefined medium in which they reside, the power of the higher explained by the perpetually incapable lower.

In How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost, an extraordinary and essential presence in the world of games—simultaneously a designer, critic, historian, professor, and entrepreneur— approaches games as “media microecology.” This idea is a minute variation of Marshall McLuhan’s theory of media ecology, wherein differing media cohabit without canceling one another out. In contrast, a media microecologist is concerned only with one media form and its effect on society. “Just as an entomologist might create a collection that thoroughly characterizes the types, roles, and effects of insects on an environment, so a media microecologist might do the same for a medium,” Bogost writes. He argues a videogame’s maturity is inextricably bound to this variety: the more varied, the more mature.

It’s a fair and well-documented point, and yet reading Bogost’s slim but dense account of 20 game varietals—including art, electioneering, meditation, advertisement, and drill—I can’t help visualizing a moribund fish flopping against a closed door. Videogames aren’t a medium, but a subset of a medium, in the same way that long-form fictional cinema is a subset of the medium we might call “film.”

Videogames contain an appreciable microecology of uses while being only a part of the larger medium of interactive systems, a category which includes Microsoft Office, browsers, and social networking systems. Basically anything that can have a composed response to a person’s input is an interactive system. Games reveal the medium at its most playful, imaginative, and artistic extreme, but they don’t define it. When we suggest that videogames do, we create an unnatural creative barrier between systems that really should benefit from one another. Bogost’s sense of variety is incisive and well-reasoned, but his taxonomical vagueness skews the point for the reader.

This is unfortunate because, setting aside semantic debate about a vague hybrid word, Bogost’s individual observations are illuminating. In describing how videogames can “do” music, he decouples the ideas of performing from playing. “When you play Guitar Hero,” Bogost argues, “you see, feel, and hear the musical patterns in a song that otherwise go unnoticed, blending into the overall flow and feel of its melody, harmonies, and rhythm. When forced to execute the notes of a run through a hammer-on or a pull-off, the abstract patterns of these playing techniques rise above the din of the song itself.”

In this way videogames serve the artful purpose of unearthing the unconsidered, creating a new experience of the world that is narrower and deeper than we might otherwise found without them. Along with the persistent thrill of positive feedback for each correct note, videogames have the magical ability to make even a tedious and unlikable song seductively alive. Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” is my own bete noir, a hateful recording that, in game-form, is hypnotically replayable.

And yet videogames like Rock Band and Guitar Hero may depict music in their playful systems, but they do not exactly “do” music. Bogost’s description of games’ powerful emotional effects is welcome, but it leaves an empty space on the subject of how interactive systems affect the act of music creation, be it Toshio Iwai’s incandescent Electroplankton or Rockstar Games’ Beaterator. Moreover, both Rock Band and Guitar Hero evolved to a point where they include the ability for people to compose, record, edit, and share original compositions using the same plastic instruments they’d used in another context to play a rhythmic button-pushing game.

There is a powerful ambiguity here between music being depicted as a game and its creation being reconsidered in light of new tools. In film we might distinguish between the depicted affection of romantic comedy and a user video uploaded to a dating website for the actual purpose of seduction. The distinction between an action, and art as a way of reflecting on action is lost.

This ambiguity continues in Bogost’s description of how games can titillate, a word he uses in its narrowest sexual connotation. The author recounts the infamous catalog of sexually explicit Atari 2600 games by Mystique, a porn industry offshoot. These games depict and amplify certain aspects of sex within the framework of a competitive score-based contest. In “Beat ‘Em & Eat ‘Em,” a man masturbates atop a building and ejaculates blips of digital semen toward the sidewalk below. Players guide two naked women back and forth on the sidewalk, attempting to collect the ejaculate with their mouths. As with music games, encountering an abstract emotional experience as metaphorical pretext to a competitive system reveals new qualities in the act—in this case an absurdity that doesn’t “engage adult sexual fantasies very effectively.”

Yet, when we expand the medium to include systems real-world hookup platforms like Grindr, the fantasy fulfillment games made by the company Thrixxx (including works like Fetish 3D, and 3D Sex Villa 2), and the long history of interactive Video CD pornography from the late 90s, we can see some attempts were more successful. These fall in the no-man’s land between “videogame” and “interactive system,” our understanding of the videogame microecology is still hung up on the unclear nature of the media ecology and how interactivity affects it. We cannot address these smaller questions without a better description of the larger medium, and “videogame” continues to prove inadequate.

Bogost’s most provocative moments come in his consideration of “electioneering,” when he suggests the possibility of the videogame to “de-emphasize politicking in favor of policy.” The author recounts the game “Take Back Illinois,” which Tom Cross and the Illinois House Republican Organization employed his studio Persuasive Games to make. The game contains four mini-games, released weekly over the course of a month during the 2004 election, in which players were asked to address education policy, economic reform, citizen participation, and malpractice reform. Instead of simply siding with a politician on these issues, players were given the chance to enact their own policy ideas.

“What if you could live a mirror life in the evolving world of your U.S. senator or city councilor’s promotions,” Bogost asks. “How would a community benefit from a bond measure in relation to its actual cost to taxpayers? What would it feel like to live under the constraints of a particular fiscal policy? How might an unorthodox energy policy balance environmental and security concerns? Why will federal investment in private banking positively affect business and ordinary citizens?”

Given the futility of American political debate in recent years, this idea that we might one day share successes or failures in the modeled environment of a policy game instead of arguing over our hunches and party affiliations is hopeful. The victor of an election would matter less than the practical outcomes of public policy. Instead of glad-handing and baby-holding on the campaign trail, we might connect to politicians in a more forthright way. Like all subsequent media forms, this would also make the game susceptible to propagandizing, with people selectively including and excluding consequences in a simulation. As with the written word and the moving image, games are no less prone to serving the self-fulfilling needs of its adherents, but this is less a feature of the game and more a feature of us. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine many of the entrenched social issues like abortion, drug laws, obscenity restrictions on speech, and gay rights might be affected by data points from a policy simulation.

But is a policy simulation still a videogame? As Bogost defines it at the outset, the spectrum of uses for a medium go from the maximally productive to the maximally expressive. He suggests that the maximally expressive form of the interactive system can be used for the productive cause of changing elections into something more practical. While this idea invites propaganda and manipulation, it’s not altogether incorrect, so long as we can set aside the insistence on calling the operative object a “videogame.” In another time we might have speculated on the power of long-form narrative cinema to change our concept of electioneering. The power of film in politics, from televised debates to World War II newsreels to the propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl is well-documented, but none of it would be covered by the label “films.” The Manchurian Candidate didn’t affect our elections. The first televised Nixon/Kennedy debate did, but we would never call it a “movie.”

Earlier this year, Bogost wrote a short critique of his friend and former colleague Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Bogost described games as “complex, rusty machines built to show us that the world is so much bigger and weirder than we expected … For me, the solutions we find through games do not lead us to more successful mastery of the world, but a more tranquil sense of the elusiveness of that mastery.” Bogost goes on to say he does not think McGonigal’s evangelical optimism is wrong, but is rather a necessary counterweight (and complement) to his own way of thinking.

The title’s suggestion is that we have reached a point of uncertainty in videogames: we do not know what to do with them. We can do a lot, Bogost answers, something that should be obvious to anyone not stubbornly clinging to the media prejudices of past generations. Anyone with a beating heart and an honest mind will know videogames are capable of wild beauty and enlivening strangeness. Bogost argues that it’s time to “face a humbling and perhaps even disturbing conclusion about the media forms we love: they’re just not that special. Indeed, they become less special by the day, as they do more for us and as we discover more about them.” Thus the newborn thrill of Mario and Galaga has become an IV drip of points to reward you for keeping your email inbox clean, or a system of leveling up as you master new techniques in Microsoft Office.

The discovery of powerful motivating structures within games has brought us the nasty idea of “gamification,” the contentious cross-section of art, advertising, and exploitation (an idea that Bogost has called “bullshit”). If we reject the idea that videogames comprise the entire medium, it’s easy to see gamification as the hollow bit of jargon that it is. It’s not that many things in the world can’t be improved by better system design, but that we are deluding ourselves when we insist that designing better systems is necessarily a form of gameplay. McDonalds was not cinemafying its human resources system when it created a short training video for new employees. No doubt they used cinematography, actor performance, mise en scene, and editing to create the video, but it’s safe to assume there was no thought to the technical overlap with Tarkovsky and Godard.

Bogost is right when he describes the loss of specialness in games as a result of microecological documentation of their variety. This is the inevitable end point of all new media. They don’t die, but become domesticated, like a tired dog sleeping on the threadbare rug in the living room. But we have not arrived at that moment yet, there is reason to put off this domestication a while longer. When we agree to define materials by the transitory spirit that we sometimes glance in them we are fooling ourselves, imposing order where there is a churning ocean of matter, assembling and disassembling, occasionally reflecting a flash of light that does not originate within it but passes through it all the same. The videogame is a necessarily wild and emotional form within a larger, more tranquil medium.

There is the irrational desire to run and jump in Super Mario Bros., the reflective sadness of realizing you’ll one day die alone in Jason Rohrer’s Passage, and the egotistic fantasies that suggest you can change the world—or even save it— in Halo. Interactive systems are the murky unarticulated corpus, and videogames their willful and untrustworthy heart. You can do things with the body, but the heart wants what it wants.