Book Review by Sapphire Ng
How to Talk about Videogames
by Ian Bogost
University Of Minnesota Press
Copyright November 2015
Hardcover, 208 Pages
An entertaining book of videogame criticism overflowing with creativity. The author’s distinctive voice is unmistakably clear as the reader journeys through the discourse. Bogost eloquently and insightfully related videogames to realms such as history, ideology, gender, philology, race, and other visual media including cinema and film. Organized in relatively brief chapters and highly accessible, the book examines a great variety of videogames, oftentimes offering unconventional perspectives in the commentary.
The gaming and digital media student will discover in the book alternative and imaginative ways to analyzing and thinking about videogames, their significance and meaning. For the aspiring videogame critic, the author’s display of linguistic dexterity and originality of vision makes one fill with awe. Whilst the studious gamer could be expected to appreciate the opportunity to deepen his or her understanding and thus connection to videogames, the gamer disinclined to read on the other hand is encouraged to immerse in the book’s videogame commentary in order to better articulate the appeal of specific games or if just to be able to better vocalize his or her passion for videogames. For the reader generally unacquainted with the videogame world, it is recommended for him or her to accompany the reading with watching game trailers and even portions of gameplays available on YouTube in order to better contextualize and make sense of the discussions in the book.
Discussions of the games Mirror’s Edge, Heavy Rain, Gone Home and Proteus are amongst the most captivating—from the environmental storytelling and spatial exploration in Gone Home and the “cinematic, murder-mystery videogame drama” Heavy Rain’s rejection of editing and use of mise-en-scene to profound interpretations of Mirror’s Edge, namely its intent to demonstrate the limitations of power through designing conspicuous character weakness. It is especially incredible how the seemingly simple exploration game Proteus could be the muse for one of the best commentary chapters in the book, where the game’s “imprecise, indeterminate visual style” does not have to be viewed as a negative but instead as an invitation for alternate ways of engagement.
Rather unconventional and intriguing are the interpretations of the puzzle game Hundreds, the supposedly incomprehensible game Between, and the concept of sports videogames. The comment that Hundreds “exudes more design than it does game design” is telling. On the other hand, though it is relatively hyperbolic when the author considered sports videogames to be less a form of media on sports than “computerized variants” closely resembling sports and mostly differing from actual sports in the mode of execution, the incredible inventiveness of the thought alone deserves recognition.
A particularly meaningful message is embedded in the text, one that attempts to communicate to gamers the virtue of having an open mind especially when it comes to games that do not manifestly conform to one’s expectations. By advising the gamer instead to appreciate a game for what it is and to try to rationalize the game’s state of being if interested, he or she could gain by experiencing a more enriching, and not to mention constructive, gaming experience.
The author’s strong but sometimes unsavory and biting opinions could potentially turn readers off. By making possibly affronting statements in chapter 1—“We play games because games are stupid, like drawer pulls are stupid;” “For no matter how stupid it is to be a game, it is no less stupid to be a person who plays one”—the author risks losing readership. Whilst such comments are made supposedly in thematic response to discussions of the “stupid” game Flappy Bird, ardent gamers might just dismiss the book on the grounds of such tactless comments about games in general. On another note and depending on the individual, the reader might or might not consider it an overreach on the part of the author for brashly equating the revenue structure of free-to-play games to “swindling.”
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.