Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism
Author: Ian Bogost
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: July 2008
Occasionally a critical work of great synthesis and conceptual reconfiguration appears that not only provides readers with a lucid picture of a troubled field of study, but also by exemplification creates a compelling new mode of inquiry. Ian Bogost's Unit Operations is just this kind of work, an innovative approach to videogame criticism (as the subtitle notes) that attempts to shift the critical attitude and re-orient the focus of game studies in particular, and critical inquiry about expressive media of all forms in general. Bogost ambitiously sets out to "explore the nature of the relationships between computation, literature, and philosophy" (ix), drawing on his background in literary theory and philosophy as a comparative literature scholar, and software technology and videogame design as a programmer to compose this relatively modular four-section, twelve-chapter project. Similar to Albert-Lazslo Barabasi's Linked, which tries to get its readers to "think" in networks, or Espen Aarseth's Cybertext, which tries to define a new procedural ("ergodic") perspective on textuality, the spirit of Bogost's work is to get us to think the main concept of his book: "unit operations."
Bogost initially defines unit operations as "modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems" (3), which are a shift away from familiar "system operations" that are "totalizing structures that seek to explicate a phenomenon, behavior, or state in its entirety" (6). The entire first three-chapter section "From Systems to Units" is spent developing the conceptual relationship between systems and units as useful interpretive concepts, as well as contextualizing their meaning in various fields of study, including genetics, structuralism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, information technology, and humanism, to name only a few. If at first glance this seems like a reductive, binary perspective, especially when considered in abstraction, it is because we are still thinking in ontological categories rather than relationally, an impulse in criticism and critical theory Bogost is also at pains to undo with his approach. The relation between system and unit operations is not a binary opposition but rather one of interrelated strategies of meaning-making.
One of the clearest, most concrete examples Bogost gives of this interrelation comes from genetics. In a short summary of contemporary developments in genetics he points to a "post-genomic phase" as an example of a shift from system to unit operational thinking in biology. The work of mapping the human genome can be understood as a system operation which resulted in the recognition that classificatory knowledge about genes was not as useful as experimenting with and interpreting their combinatory effects. Scientists no longer think of genes as "holistic regulatory systems" but rather as "functional actors in a larger intergenetic play" (4). The insight Bogost attaches to this and other examples like it drawn from other fields is that "any medium -- poetic, literary, cinematic, computational -- can be read as a configurative system, an arrangement of discrete, interlocking units of expressive meaning" (ix). This emphasis on reading the configurative and relational qualities of systems, then, demands "unit analysis," an approach that is "not interested in making any general statements about media forms of any kind" (15), but rather engages in interpreting them from the perspective of their unit operations.
It is also important to note that unit operations and the analysis of them are not just about the focus on units as partial experiences within an instance of one of these media forms -- a spatial abstraction -- but a simultaneous attention of the critic to the operations performed in mediation. Bogost is after exposition of procedures of meaning-making, not reading static formal arrangements or pure functionalist description. Unlike other more formalist, typological, and functionalist oriented approaches to digital games (e.g. Juul's Half-Real), unit analysis is oriented around the expressive protocols and potentials of media forms -- how mediation shapes meaning, and consequently favors more attention to the procedures of meaning (interpreting the "how" of expression more than overall function). This focus implies that the videogame critic should bear down on particular games, specific procedural representations, and experiences. Unit analysis tries to identify and understand these meaningful units of expression within or across media forms with a larger goal, it would seem, of engaging how videogames (and other media forms) function as cultural artifacts via procedural mediations of meaning-making. Put another way, Bogost is not really after ideological readings of the representational "content" of videogames -- their images, discourses, themes -- nor their functional analysis or categorization -- their rules, structures, ergodic design -- in conceptual isolation: he is after readings of the procedural experiences in their particular configurations. This move aligns Bogost with formalism partially, since the form and material functionality of the mediation is significant and borrows critical tools from this approach to articulate and interpret specific configurations and procedures. Yet it also places him in a more creative and interpretive position: the goal is not to produce a system operation of comprehensive understanding, but to say something particular about an experience of meaning and link it up to others like it.
All of the theoretical framing and context in the first section might feel excessive and overly abstract -- even in a theory book -- if it were not for the inclusion of some very helpful demonstrative examples. In the second series of chapters found in section two, "Procedural Criticism," Bogost further trains our focus on the implications of his theory for videogame criticism, discussing the need for a comparative approach, how videogames and game engines configure expression, and finally demonstrating the critical transmedial potential of unit operations as a concept in his best and most extended exemplification of his theory in the book. The example presents an inspired reading of the modernist archetype of the "chance encounter" across Baudelaire's sonnet "A une passante," Bukowski's "A woman on the street," Jean-Pierre Juenet's film Amelie, and Will Wright's videogame The Sims. Bogost reads the unit operation of the "chance encounter" as an expressive unit of meaning that encapsulates figures and tropes of modern urban life. Drawing extensively on Benjamin (one of his patron saints) and the notion of motifs, Bogost does insightful readings of each instance of this unit operation -- the chance encounter -- to interpret the way in which the experience of the "figure of fascination" as its central logic in Baudelaire's poem emerges and evolves across other media forms:
When Bukowski instantiates the inherited figure that fascinates into his real encounters, he affirms the ritualization of Baudelaire's strategy. When Amelie meticulously plans her contrived encounters, she explicitly recognizes this ritual. The Sims: Hot Date finally takes the ultimate step in representing the chance encounter as a unit operation: it encapsulates it into code of a simulation. (87)By orienting his approach around this identified unit operation of the chance encounter, Bogost is able to articulate an interesting analysis of the encapsulated logic of Baudelaire's figure of fascination, tracing its transformations across media and history. This extended example also concretizes one of Bogost's earlier comparisons of unit operations with Richard Dawkins's concept of "memes" as "units of cultural evolution."
What the author's examples show is the identification and critical reading of Bogost's unit operations has an unabashedly interpretive spirit, and the rigor and critical power of his examples consist not in comprehensive explication or categorization, nor in edifying theoretical discourse centered on the media forms he engages, but rather in the generation of insights into the experience of meaning across differing configurations. Unit operations, it seems, are a tool of focalization that subordinates method and media-specific theory to the conceptual and interpretive. In the spirit of comparison, we might juxtapose Bogost's project with Galloway's in Gaming (also published in 2006), in which the critical emphasis is on the creation of explicative concepts and providing a more general theorization of videogames as a media form in relation to contemporary culture. Unit analysis and its mode of procedural criticism might use functionalist-oriented concepts from Galloway to identify a new unit operation for interpretation, but the result would be inextricably tied to particular processes of meaning-making -- the configuration of its representations in a particular form of experience. Even more focused: if videogames are all about actions and concepts for Galloway, they are all about configurative procedures and interpretation for Bogost .
The last two sections consolidate the critical focus of the first two on videogames as simulations, the difficulties of critiquing their subjective experiences, and the implications for and the problems of videogame criticism and game studies in academia more broadly. In "Procedural Subjectivity," Bogost's provisionally defines simulations as "a representation of a source system via a less complex system that informs the user's understanding of the source system in a subjective way" (98), and argues that this media form presents a particular problem for critics and theorists because subjectivity plays a central role in its experience. Citing one interesting exchange between two prominent media theorists about the game Tetris, Bogost tries to show the inadequacies of system operational readings informed by narratological and ludological approaches: Janet Murray reads the game as an allegory for contemporary experiences of bureaucracy, finding a narrative at any cost; Markku Eskelinen, decrying such interpretive license, disregards any expressive aspect of the game in favor of formal analysis of rules and action, evading cultural and interpretive reference at any cost. Bogost's position attempts to exist somewhere in between with the concept of unit operations, which depends on the creative framing of the critic: "videogames require critical interpretation to mediate our experience of the simulation, to ground it in a set of coherent and expressive values, responses, or understandings that constitute the effects of the work" (99), arguing that we need to "create a body of criticism for simulations that relate their rules to their subjective experiences and configurations" (109). While Bogost provides a useful analysis of the problem of subjectivity in simulations in the book, it is hard to get much satisfaction out of the recommendation for criticism as a way to productively frame analysis. This reveals a general practical issue of how to go about identifying meaningful unit operations for inquiry. Bogost clearly aligns the unit analyst and procedural critic with the notion of the bricoleur, and perhaps the positive lesson expressed negatively here seems to be that recourse to an authoritative general theory as ground for interpretation just will not work, specifically in the field of videogame criticism.
To his credit, Bogost does offer us at least one videogame-specific concept to focus on: the "simulation gap." Videogames as simulations configure interpretive and affective gaps in which the player must do something -- input an action, imagine a social relationship, interpret something that is not represented, etc. These places of interpretive play are the readable simulation gaps that can give us insight into the aesthetic and ideological potential for meaning in gameplay. Preempting a few theoretical proximities, Bogost draws a contrast between his approach and post-structuralist strategies like deconstruction and Aarseth's cybertextal criticism. While unit analysis is similar to these critical models it does not persist in the analytical or explicative mode, embracing a comparative and interpretive attitude toward the simulation gaps configured by videogames. Bogost avows the value of Aarseth's shift of emphasis from text and reader to the ergodic "work" of the text, but argues that simulations not only require "non-trivial effort" to be traversed, but also, he might say, non-trivial interpretation. Shifting directly to the field of games in culture, Bogost also argues that critical reliance on a first principle of fun in gameplay artificially limits the potential critical value of videogames. The cultural work of games, for Bogost, is directly tied to innovative criticism, and this view is belied by a rhetoric of suggestion and framing throughout the book. Bogost often uses phrases like "we might think" and we are often asked to consider something in the context of an inspired comparison; the effects of videogames are also described as "encouraging," "offering," and indeed "configuring" specific experiences of meaning. What is made clear is that to access this expressive potential in videogames is not just a matter of theorizing "fun" or the simple play of our desires -- it is built out of the interpretive work of the critic-as-bricoleur, identifying unit operations that resonate across media, theory, and culture. At the risk of simplification, videogames have intellectual value that is not collapsible into an experience of fun, and our attitude toward play needs to be revised.
The final section, "From Design to Configuration," can be read as the shadow cast by the first ("From Systems to Units") on contemporary theories of complexity, and on the research academy in general. The shadow cast on the former is exemplified by Bogost's thorough critique of complexity theory and Deleuze and Guattari's theory of nomadism, in which the resistance to "thinking of the world in discrete components" (142) in favor of an amorphous holism contrasts the rhizome with unit operations. The implications for the research academy send Bogost into familiar areas of institutional criticism: the problem of "deep specialization" in rigid educational disciplinarity and the corresponding politics of funding for inherently comparative, interdisciplinary fields like game studies. Here Bogost pulls no punches: "a meaningful intellectual interrogation of fields like videogames, software technology, and information systems demands flexible organizational units that act more like adaptive networks than stodgy corporations," calling for nothing less than a "unit operational academy" (173).
What this passion for theoretical and institutional innovation in the final chapter suggests is a vision for an inquiry-centric attitude in critical production rather than one based in discipline and method. The strength of Bogost's work lies in its units of rigor and its ability to create new insights at the intersection of diverse media experiences. The cost of this focus, its scope, contentiousness, and sheer complexity is not without its liabilities: the text is very dense, and while the prose is admirably clear, the shift in theoretical registers can be jarring and can feel jargon heavy, even with Bogost's solid explication and context. A quick glance at the list of chapter headings, index, and critical citations in Unit Operations is a bit daunting for anyone invested in the referenced fields, and it might also suggest a very motley text for those not acclimated to interdisciplinary and comparative approaches. Also, for a book with "videogames" in the subtitle, it can feel short on them in examples. Bogost actually deals with a wide range of games, but the text is dominated by theory and punctuated with a few extraordinary examples. For those who thrive on theory, this book may be ideal, but as a possible source in an undergraduate course on game studies or digital culture it will take a lot to deploy effectively for reasons hopefully obvious from the above commentary.
But for those already prone to Bogost's theoretical commitments (comparative and interdisciplinary approaches, exemplification and interpretation over method, etc.) and his enthusiasm for videogames as a focus for a genuinely transmedial and novel form of criticism, the complexity of the orchestration is easily absorbed. However, as Bogost would be the first to admit, the approach outlined and demonstrated in Unit Operations should not be taken as a comprehensive system operation to be performed on videogames. One question that arises in the midst of this reimagining of videogame criticism in light of the concept of unit operations concerns the implications for games (and other media forms) that seem to persist in the very tension between progressive structures and emergent systems. It seems significant that Bogost deals primarily with simulation games like Sim City, The Sims, and Star Wars Galaxies. These games have emergent play experiences that are readily parsed into readable unit operations that can be abstracted and "counted as one" for comparison in other games or media forms with minimal bracketing of their aboutness. Even slightly more progressive games that offer simulated worlds framed and structured (perhaps optionally) by narrative aspirations like Zelda: The Wind Waker and Grand Theft Auto III are considered primarily as emergent-oriented simulations. So, we may wonder, what happens to one of the most under analyzed genres of videogames under the logic of unit operations: the digital roleplaying game (RPG)? Put yet another way: How do we respond to games that attempt to shape play through diegetic framing and sustained sequences of hermeneutical work as much as by procedural rules and simulation gaps? Read casually, the concept of unit operations might bring into much needed focus one configuration of the media ecology oriented around emergent simulations. Perhaps what is needed in the wake of Bogost's compelling theory is an expansion of the operation aspect of the "unit operation" concept, re-introducing a language for talking about procedurality in games sustained beyond the development and configuration of motifs or theme-able actions. Since Bogost provides a novel approach to videogames that admirably risks interpreting the gaming experience in a field steeped in functionalist systems and disciplinary methods, and his theory engenders a spirit of creative focus and reconfigurability, it is dynamic enough to address this and many other needs with relative ease.
Terry Schenold is a PhD student at the University of Washington doing work on novelistic experimentation in relation to New Media theory. He also recently established The Critical Gaming Project, an online community resource for undergraduates working with graduate students to develop new courses and showcase critical work on digital games at UW. <email@example.com>
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