Contemporary Theory Reading Group – Video Games (08/10/2019)

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For the first Contemporary Theory Reading Group of the academic year we discussed ‘The Rhetoric of Video Games’ (2008) by Ian Bogost.

Bogost begins his article ‘The Rhetoric of Video Games’ by examining Animal Crossing, a quaint, village-based game, where Tom Nook an ‘unassuming raccoon continues to offer renovations’ on a player’s house as they pay off increasing amounts of debt. Bogost convincingly argues that the raccoon ‘Tom Nook is a condensation of the corporate bourgeoisie’ (what a sentence!). Yet we discussed how he might have missed some of the less goal-orientated aspects of Animal Crossing, and of video games more generally, where the emphasis is often more on breaking the rules, rather than abiding by them.

Bogost’s concept of ‘procedural rhetoric’ was seen to provide a nuanced approach for thinking about how video games can be textually analysed, while also considering how video games might provide a methodology for analysing texts. The engagement with Oulipo in Bogost’s argument turned the discussion towards esoteric rules, and the legacies of surrealism and absurdism in video games.

A frequent point of contention was Bogost’s presupposing a singular rational creator of each game, and a singular rational player. Bogost’s lack of reflection on the collaborative creation of games (and the collaborative destruction of them by players creating modifiers), as well as the deliberate or otherwise ‘irrationality’ of disparate players, was felt to undermine the relationship Bogost tries to trace between creators/players (although this might stem from the article’s rapid ageing in relation to new technologies).

The Metroid series was discussed as an example of this creative chaos, where the game’s sense of exploration (with a million different ways to reach required items), was responded to by players who found ways to reach these items out of order, thereby ‘sequence breaking’. In a textual sense, the players evoke the cut-ups of B.S. Johnson and William Burroughs, defying linearity for the sake of creating their own disjointed narrative arcs. Bogost’s article was also seen to oversimplify literature and film, characterising them as linear narrative sequences. We mentioned modernism and the work of JG Ballard as precursors to the kinds of non-linear, self-reflexive playfulness that emerges in contemporary video games. An analysis of the labour put in by players (as the line between producer/consumer becomes blurrier) was also seen to be lacking in Bogost’s argument.

Despite our several reservations about Bogost’s article (not least a video game he made on behalf of the Republican party in Illinois), we still nonetheless felt his analysis could be used astutely for thinking about the inter-relation between video games and other media, as well as concepts of play more generally.

The questions Bogost raises about the nefarious elements of gaming – from micropayments on iPhone games, to the similarities between gaming and gambling companies – have become even more prescient since his article was published in 2008. The ethical components of play, how we define our identities by it, and where it begins and end, are increasingly complex concepts, providing stimulating and challenging ideas for us to bring forward into our research.

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