How to Write About Videogames

Matt Margini

I remember his blue-plastic hair, drawn back in a little bun that looked octagonal. I remember the pointy hat that crowned him in the eyes of other players: “Sorcerer’s petasos +1,” the “+1” indicating that it was marginally better than the regular version, and exponentially harder to get. I remember the winding wooded streets of the town he came from, an Endor-esque eco-metropolis situated (like innumerable fantasy locations and Disney’s Animal Kingdom) around a giant, ancient tree.

His name was Goolak. He was a level 75 Black Mage in the game Final Fantasy XI. He was about two feet tall, and between freshman and senior years of high school I probably spent thousands of hours guiding him through a vast, unforgiving world, allying him with groups of other players that needed his magical expertise. At this point in the evolution of videogame criticism, it would be standard practice to describe him as my “avatar”—a digital incarnation of my personality, an extension of myself. But I think it might be worthwhile, even necessary, to reframe him as something else: a little wizard with whom I spent a huge amount of time.

“Videogames are narcissistic,” writes Ian Bogost in How to Talk about Videogames. “They are about you, even when they put you in someone else’s shoes. You are a space marine among hell spawn. You are a mafioso just released from prison. You are a bear with a bird in your backpack.” Even abstract games like Tetris, he reasons, place you in the role of a god manipulating the blocks.

Videogames have come a long way on their march toward intellectual respectability since the late Roger Ebert insisted, first in 2006 and then again in 2010, that “games can never be art” because of their openness to player interaction. If one thing still impedes them, it’s that “narcissism” that Bogost describes, which becomes disastrous when coupled with the misogyny that continues to define the medium in public discourse. To critical onlookers in the Ebert tradition, as well as many self-identified “gamers,” videogames are not only a medium designed for men—and young men in particular—but also a conduit for the enactment of ego-driven power fantasies.

At the same time, it might be a testament to the American cultural mainstream’s evolving view of the medium that Frank Underwood upgraded, between House of Cards seasons 2 and 3, from the brutal violence of Call of Duty and God of War—a game about being, quite literally, the god of war, ripping the heads off gorgons and murdering the Olympians one by one—to the meditative pleasures of Monument Valley and the head-scratching postmodernism of The Stanley Parable, a game about game design itself that thwarts the very concept of player agency. In 2010, Ebert’s opponents could point to only a handful of prominent “indie games” that translated interactivity itself into a medium of expression. Now, games that consider themselves art, and ask politely that we do so as well, are released constantly from every corner of the world, on every conceivable platform, exploring every conceivable theme, from queer love (Gone Home) to Soviet bureaucracy (Papers, Please) to profoundly personal grief (That Dragon, Cancer). These games often remain “narcissistic” in Bogost’s sense, allowing you to inhabit a role, to playact as a figure with power. But they are also, just as often, confrontational: intellectually challenging, interrogative precisely about the relationship between the game and the player’s self.

Even some recent megabudget blockbusters have a striking tendency to destabilize their own seemingly narcissistic function. Two of last year’s biggest and most celebrated releases, the Polish studio CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 3 and Konami’s Metal Gear Solid V, center on wandering-ronin protagonists whose superhumanity curses them with inhumanity in a moral or social sense. In Metal Gear you play as Big Boss, a bionic supersoldier traveling across war-torn Afghanistan and central Africa. Like many war games, it is relentlessly technocratic, allowing players to feel a sense of unvarnished accomplishment at their skillful manipulation of gear, resources, and military personnel. At the same time, nearly every scenario it depicts attests with near-wordless clarity to the horrors of technocracy: child soldiers, body bombs, drone strikes; the inhumanity of treating people like weapons, and the self like a machine. Big Boss is an augmented figure who tacitly challenges the idea of videogames themselves as virtual augmentations, human-machine interfaces designed to gratify and magnify the player.

Have videogames grown up? If they have, it wouldn’t be the first time. As Bogost points out, one by-product of their inextricable association with adolescence is that broad critical surveys (like this one) are always staking claims about whether they’ve “come of age” or not. Every few years, videogames get a new bar mitzvah that only ends up underscoring the idea that they’re a giant 13-year-old boy. And yet, this time, there is a difference: the very link between videogames and 13-year-old boys is tenuous in a way it hasn’t been since the ’70s, despite the vitriolic trolls, despite the marketing demographics of big-budget games. As Carly A. Kocurek reminds us, the trolls are reacting to the loss of the “gamer” as a discrete identity, aligned with whiteness, maleness, and Reddit libertarianism. The great contribution of Kocurek’s Coin-Operated Americans, a new cultural history of videogames and masculinity, is its attempt to historicize a relationship that often appears natural to cultural gatekeepers and other onlookers, not to mention reactionary “gamers” themselves.

Sifting through an eclectic archive of material from the decade many call the “golden age” of the arcade (roughly between the release of Pong in 1972 and the industry-wide crash of 1983), Kocurek makes a compelling case that videogames were not always the exclusive province of young men “growing pale and tense” in the neon glow of an existential echo chamber. She shows us ads morphing from gender-neutral to conspicuously gendered; the creation of a competitive scene suffused with the semiotics of sports; the constant elaboration, in films like Tron and WarGames, of a new masculine archetype: the mischievous young technocrat, Steve Jobs with a joystick. The link between gaming and male identity emerged, Kocurek shows, in response to larger anxieties about the state of masculinity in a postindustrial, late-capitalist economy rapidly undergoing widespread computerization. And to historicize that link is to see its fragility.

<i>Pong</i>. Photograph by mbiebusch / Flickr

If anything needs to grow up, it’s videogame criticism—which is precisely where books (of all things!) come in. All the books under review here arrive at a moment of disjunction between the aesthetic maturity of games themselves and the intellectual immaturity of commentary about them. Outlets like Kill Screen (full disclosure: I write for them) are a notable exception, producing reviews and essays that deliberately avoid consumer-oriented evaluation (“the gameplay is solid!”) and strive instead to treat games as an expressive medium in dialogue with other cultural forms. But they prove the general rule: most videogame reviews tend to read like Amazon reviews, evaluating the game purely as an entertainment product. Even as games developed by 500-person multinational teams aspire to be more aesthetically and experientially holistic, review sites still use ratings that fragment them. Here are the parts that are fun. Here are the parts that are not fun. Here’s a paragraph about “graphics.” Here’s a paragraph about “gameplay.”

The bigger problem with this model of criticism is that, by isolating “gameplay” and speaking of it purely in terms of gratification, critics end up transforming games into the antisocial tools of self-amplification that they already are in the minds of their detractors: the games that Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold “relied on,” in the widely reported words of a psychologist, “to express their rage”; the simulations of violence that “inspired” Adam Lanza, even though, as Gabriel Winslow-Yost has reminded us in his own review of Gamelife, Lanza’s favorite game, pursued to the point of obsession, was not Grand Theft Auto but Dance Dance Revolution.

So it may seem counterintuitive that Bogost’s attempt to redeem videogame criticism doubles down on the idea of games-as-products. To be an intellectually responsible game critic, he argues, one must acknowledge that games are as much like toasters as they are like films. “We don’t watch or read games like we do cinema and novels and paintings, nor do we perform them like we might dance or football or Frisbee,” he writes. Games are aesthetic forms, but they are also, inescapably, “devices we operate.” This assertion should come as no surprise to those who have read Bogost before: aside from being videogames’ chief ambassador to a lot of people who don’t play videogames as a correspondent for The Atlantic, Bogost is an object-oriented ontologist, and How to Talk about Videogames is his attempt to define and model what a slightly more object-oriented videogame criticism ought to look like. This is criticism that neither forgets the objecthood of games nor treats them merely as objects.

The result is a collection of essays that themselves feel a lot like objects. How to Talk about Videogames is essentially a collection of 20 takes on different videogames, most of them republished from the Internet. Many offer revealing insights: a celebration of the brutal indifference of Flappy Bird, which expands into a meditation on the unique repertoire of emotions (frustration, anger, obsession) that games can elicit in general; a disquisition on the unsettling structural similarities between free-to-play games like Farmville and racketeering; “a trio of artisanal reviews” exploring the moody, stripped-down first-person exploration game Proteus from different angles. But the very phrase “a trio of artisanal reviews” points to a sense of argumentative self-enclosure and tasting-menu dilettantism that characterizes all of them. Each is 8–12 pages; each makes one nuanced, counterintuitive point; each reads a little like a game review by Robinson Crusoe: lucid yet haunted by discursive isolation.

Much more captivating than any individual essay is the thread that binds them, which concerns the objecthood that Bogost tries to ascribe to games in the first place: he seems to see something salutary, ethically and aesthetically productive, in the fact that videogames are like toasters not only because they’re familiar appliances but because they can be profoundly, obdurately inhuman. He praises games like Flappy Bird, Proteus, and Mountain for deliberately undermining the logic of identification, offering something closer to an encounter with the absolute other. Often described as an “anti-game,” Mountain is a “mountain simulator” that offers players almost zero control over the mountain in question. You do not play as the mountain; you play around the mountain, panning your camera, searching greedily for an object on its slopes or a meteor in the sky. The game occasionally emits a cryptic koan: “You are mountain.” But as Bogost points out, Mountain is precisely about the disidentification that it enacts on a fundamental level. “You play as the abyss between the human and the alpine,” an abyss that reflects the abysses between humans and things more generally.

A scene from <i>Mountain</i>, developed by David OReilly

Bogost’s book couldn’t be more different from Michael Clune’s memoir, Gamelife, but the two authors seem to agree on this basic premise: games are better, infinitely more profound, when they abandon the narcissism of identification in favor of the humility—or sublimity—of alienation. Games are better when they replace “play as” with “play with, or against, or in spite of. In one of Gamelife’s funniest passages, Clune describes how he hated Super Mario Bros. when he was a kid: “They should be fucking paying me to do this shit, I thought all through January, monotonously stuffing Super Mario down chutes and up ladders. This is child labor, I thought as I smashed Mario’s head against a brick again and again and again and again for gold coins.” Here Clune echoes a recent essay by Bogost, not collected in How to Talk about Videogames, that critiques “character-based” games like Mario in favor of “systems-based” games like SimCity. What Clune hated was the game’s careful construction of an identificatory corridor between him and his avatar, translating each button press into a single, simple movement. Again and again, Clune praises computer games—never console games—that instead stumped him with their opacity and impenetrability; games that demanded a sense of the methodical and the repetitious; games that required him to adapt to them, rather than the other way around.

Gamelife is a powerfully paradoxical book. On the one hand, it subsists on metaphoric identification—which is to say, Mario-like translations between game and life. The memoir is divided into seven chapters, each of which filters a vignette from Clune’s childhood through the lens of the computer game he was playing at the time. The memoir’s most propulsive chapter is also its most metaphoric: a 12-year-old Clune plays Sid Meier’s Pirates!, a beloved yet, by today’s standards, extremely abstract simulation of pirate commerce, and simultaneously hatches a schoolyard scheme to steal candy from the grocery store in the hope of earning some social capital.

On the other hand, Clune continually insists that the value of these early PC games, enabled by their rudimentary, predominately text-based interfaces, consisted in their refusal to be flattering digital mirrors. Even so-called role-playing games—especially so-called role-playing games—informed his life because they brought him face-to-face with “the thing you see through the hole of the role”: the sublime inhumanity of numbers, which humans can “borrow” but never master. They brought him into contact with a basic principle: “The human depends on the inhuman for its grip on the world. … Human feeling leans on the inhuman. Human feeling advances into the world leaning on the stick of inhumanity.”

All the books under review here arrive at a moment of disjunction between the aesthetic maturity of games themselves and the intellectual immaturity of commentary about them.

Clune extracts this idea from The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, a 1986 role-playing game based on Dungeons & Dragons that was arguably doing its best to be human, to approximate the experience of playing D&D with other people, but offered solace to the introverted Clune precisely because it wasn’t like other people at all. Bogost extracts a similar idea from Mountain, which “reminds us that we need not wait to commune with things. They’re here, everywhere, overwhelming us, sticking to us, piling up around us. They are not here to save you or to destroy you. They’re just here.”

But something about Clune’s verb, “leaning,” feels truer than Bogost’s verb, “commune,” perhaps because, by virtue of being a memoir, his book illustrates this “leaning” over and over again. Videogames were not merely objects for Clune to “commune” with; they were sticks to lean on, meaningful and influential because of their inhumanity, not despite it. The title of Gamelife attests to its central subject matter: not games, not life, but an “intimate” companionship between the two; a relationship of closeness yet abyssal distance, eliminating the space between but not the integrity—the distinction, the otherness—of each participant.

Winslow-Yost has observed that games in Gamelife take on a role usually inhabited, in memoirs, by books. But they also function like dogs, or cats, or a particularly ornery northern goshawk: perhaps the strangest and most compelling thing about Gamelife is that it resembles a pet memoir—albeit a posthumanist, postmodern, even post-animal one. Games stay with Clune for months and years at a time, co-inhabiting his domestic space yet embodying a logic radically beyond it (and yet, at the same time, ultimately human in origin). Like J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (1956), a book that might also respond with “Error” if asked, “Is this fiction?,” Gamelife conveys Clune’s gaming to the reader with an ever-present awareness of the futility of the memoir’s anthropomorphic form. His prose tries to translate something that an uninteractive book cannot quite translate: the companionship of the methodical itself, the feeling of being with an impersonal intelligence that communicates truths through the rhythm of trial and error and the language of numeric abstraction. “Because computer games mimic habit, they get through to us,” he writes. “They teach us about the big things in a way nothing else can. They teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity. They turn insights into habits. The habits bore through our defenses. Computer games reach us.” If he also “bores through,” it’s rarely on his first try: this is a memoir about retrying that expresses everything it can through rephrasing.

If videogame criticism is to grow up, it will have to recognize that the nature of videogaming is not just narcissistic but companionate; not just a way to augment identity but a way to confront otherness; not just a replacement for social life but a kind of social life unto itself. Call it a posthumanist social life, or an object-oriented one; whatever it is, you can see it on the surface of every version of games and gaming. The minutes of solace offered by Candy Crush to someone in line at the DMV; hours, days, months poured into the immersive otherworlds of Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto or The Witcher or Metal Gear; years spent at the keyboard of something massively multiplayer, shaping an alter ego yet being shaped, at the same time, by its existence in and among systems. To play a game for any amount of time is not only to be with something other-than-human but to “lean” implicitly, perhaps unknowingly, on what the other-than-human has to offer. In 1980, only a few years after the dawn of videogames, John Berger darkly observed that the pet is an animal stripped of its beguiling alterity, made into a narcissistic prosthesis. And yet, even in its familiarity, it “offers its owner a mirror to a part”—a part of the self—“that is otherwise never reflected.” Gamelife reveals that videogames, in their companionship, do much the same. But the part is opaque, and its mirror is opacity.