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‘The Art of Videogames’ by Grant Travinor

Grant Travinor’s volume is a welcome addition to the literature on videogames.

There are very few volumes (and very few scholars) that attempt to bring a philosophical analysis and method to the realm of videogames – many people are often writing from the point of view of cultural theory or film studies. I enjoyed reading Travinor’s detailed treatment of games because it was painstaking, detailed and conveyed a lot of love for the medium.

travinor

However, I had two big problems with it. The first is that reads more like a volume for older philosophers who think that all games still look and play like Pong or early Mario games from the 70s and 80s. Depsite the frequent references to up to date titles and very clear evidence of his extensive and deep knowledge of the art form, ‘The Art of Videogames’ always feels like a desperate defense against ignoramuses who are out of touch with modern culture. For someone who is very much engaged with them, there is little here of note.

The other thing that bugs me about his account is his focus on visuals and technological advancement. You cannot argue that these have been, and still are, major drivers for the industry and a major part of the appeal of games. But that’s not all that they are. It feels like Travinor has skipped over the key quality of games that makes them interesting and different to other art forms in the first place – interactivity. There is little discussion of rules, systems and mechanics and this feels like a missed opportunity; surely this is what makes games more philosophically interesting in the first place? The implications for identity, and therefore for epistemology and virtual-ontology must be mind-boggling and fascinating for philosophers.

Hand in hand with this is the strongly implied (and made partly explicit at points) argument that technological advancement = improvement, which should be obvious is entirely false. Does a painting have more artistic merit or financial value because it’s painted with acrylics rather than water-colours? Is a film automatically better because it has CG effects and colour rather than black-and-white film with actors only? The answer, of course, is no. Whilst spectacle is indeed a major part of the enjoyment for some games, it isn’t for all, and often isn’t for those games that endure. Spectacle is relative – what is amazing this year becomes ‘de rigueur’ the next, and out-dated the next (at least, if photo-realism is the goal).

Having said that ‘The Art of Videogames’ is very readable (there aren’t many philosophical volumes that are this easy to read) and Travinors writing style is excellent and clear cut. It’s also nice to get a little diversification amongst the scholarly literature out there in games studies, but there’s a lot of room for improvement here and, whilst it may convince some of the ‘philosophical old guard’ that videogames merit intense study in and of themselves, it less to those of us who have already decided that they’re worth our time and attention.

How To Do Things With Videogames – Ian Bogost

Disappointing. If I could use one word to describe Bogost’s How To Do Things With Videogames, that would be it.

How-to-Do-Things-With-Videogames

The book is hit and miss, with far more aimless miss than incisive hit. The title is misleading – it’s not how to do anything and the comparison to Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud made by media scholar Henry Jenkins on the back is, well, pretty laughable. Whereas Scott McCloud’s book is an exceptional discussion and example of the various devices and variety of structure and form of comics as well as in-depth discussion about the nature of creativity and art, Bogost’s volume is a catalogue of a few games that have been made and how they’re a bit different from the public face of games (which is nice enough, although Bogost just can’t resist several plugs for his own creations).

The chapters are of very variable quality, although it’s nice that they’re short which makes the book easier to get through and ensures that Bogost doesn’t get too out of control down one of his (many) rambling avenues. Much of the book’s chapters lack any kind of impact or salient and/or new points.

It does at least do a fair job of making the reader aware of what’s out there to look at. The chapter on ‘Empathy’ is well placed near the start (although it’s kind of obvious that this is a particularly powerful use for games, as is ‘Drilling’ near the end – the educational sector have been exploiting this characteristic forever, even if they still keep resorting to factual recall) and has some good examples picked out, but at the end of ‘Texture’, ‘Throwaway’ (which talks about newsgames?!) or ‘Work’ (ending in discussion about Games With A Purpose?!) you wonder what the point of them being there was. ‘Promotion’ is self-evident (it’s not like branded web games are uncommon these days or at the time of writing – 2011), and the ‘Snapshots’ chapter starts out as a good discussion of personal games (again, misleading title…) which is hamstrung by limiting the conversation to web game tools. A shame.

The relaxation chapter makes for a good discussion though, and sets a good question. Games are often about action, and as such are a ‘lean forward’ media form since they require our attention at all times in order to work. This is contrasted with ‘lean backwards’ media forms such as film and TV, where nothing is asked of the viewer – not even their attention, since the programme/film will continue without their input. So how could we make games that employ a ‘lean backwards’ attitude? Is this even possible?

Labyrinths are touched on since they have a history of being used for spiritual practice and meditation. It’d be nice to think there’s a link but I feel this doesn’t quite work with regards to games. True, games have their labyrinths, but peace and tranquility were really rather far from my grasp when navigating the Lost Woods in Ocarina of Time! What would have been better to examine at this point would be games / interactive experiences such as Flower or Electroplankton. In the modern era, I would have said games like Proteus or HoHoKum would have been worthy of discussion in this sense.

Habituation, despite a strange and slightly misleading chapter title (a theme for the book you may have thought), contains a good discussion about ‘Bushnell’s Law‘, and how it is commonly understood. Importantly, whilst others mainly focus on the ‘easy to learn and hard to master’ part of the quote, Bogost does well to zero in on “…they should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” This is because not everyone is looking to master a game, nor does everyone play a game for the challenge. Additionally, it is pointed out that Pong was easy to learn, and yet not particularly hard to master – it didn’t really have any deep gameplay to speak of. Instead it’s the playing of Pong vs. other human players that supplies its longevity, thus making it still yet rewarding on the hundredth quarter.

Pong

What it was though, was familiar. Table tennis (ping-pong) was well known across America by the time of Pong’s release, and it was this familiarity coupled with it’s easy to learn nature (enshrined in the well-known line, “Avoid missing ball for high score.”) which propelled it to true fame. This is further touched upon with the brief introduction of ‘cognitive itch’ (for example, when we can’t get a catchy tune out of our head until we hear it being played again). In essence, good games are perpetually rewarding and get into our heads and make us come back to them – they are catchy, rather than addictive (Bogost makes a good point – why would we choose the word ‘addictive’ as something positive to describe our art form?!).

Not much to do with habituation, but some good points raised all the same. Even when he does talk about actual habituation, he self-contradicts: In one section he talks about how games/media that make cultural connections transmit their ideas to players/consumers etc. and people become habituated to them, only to later ramble on about games that simulate torture and suggest that we “play torture games to renew our disgust for them.”

Hold on? Didn’t you just say that ideas become habituated in the mind of the player/listener/viewer? Indeed, have we not seen a gradual habituation to violent content in games in the same way that horror violence from films of the 60/70s seem rather tame by modern standards?

This could have been, and should have been, a promising and inspiring volume. As it is, there are some very good points and some food for though peppered throughout several misleading and meandering chapters where the analysis never really comes into focus. As an eye opener to uninitiated academics to the field it will serve some purpose, but for the designer, the informed academic or the average games player, there is nothing to be had here.

It’s a shame, because we really can do things with videogames. Indeed, Bogost has done several different things with games – it’s just that he hasn’t elucidated that understanding in this book like I might have hoped.