The Missing Medium: A review of How to Do Things With Videogames

By Michael Thomsen
The New Inquiry

Bogost_HowIt is sometimes possible to love something so much that you carry its worst traits forward in time until they are ineradicable. I often have this sense when encountering taxonomical descriptions of the variety applied to “videogames.” It is not enough to accept games as a new form of creative abstractionism, but it must be ordered and canonized, frequently with the goal of proving that games can transcend its category and become something world-changing. It’s not enough to identify a game by its emotional themes, we must identify them by the effects they have on us when we play. We don’t organize games as joyful, fearful, competitive, or reflective, but instead favor a system of naming the mechanism: shooting, jumping (twisted into “platforming” in industry lingo), puzzle-solving, sporting, and strategizing, among others. In so doing, we have ensured the confusion endures between videogames and the still undefined medium in which they reside, the power of the higher explained by the perpetually incapable lower.

In How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost, an extraordinary and essential presence in the world of games—simultaneously a designer, critic, historian, professor, and entrepreneur— approaches games as “media microecology.” This idea is a minute variation of Marshall McLuhan’s theory of media ecology, wherein differing media cohabit without canceling one another out. In contrast, a media microecologist is concerned only with one media form and its effect on society. “Just as an entomologist might create a collection that thoroughly characterizes the types, roles, and effects of insects on an environment, so a media microecologist might do the same for a medium,” Bogost writes. He argues a videogame’s maturity is inextricably bound to this variety: the more varied, the more mature.

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