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Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism

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Unitoperations

Ian Bogost Published: 2006 180 Pages

Published by Ian Bogost in 2006, Unit Operations seeks to set out a critical theory which can be applied to any medium, whether it be literature, poetry, cinema or (its particular focus) videogames. Bogost asserts that each medium can be read as a "configurative system, an arrangement of discrete, interlocking units of expressive meaning" (Bogost ix). This interplay is what he calls unit operations, the hub upon which the wheel of his argument turns.

The book is divided into four parts of three chapters each. In the first section, Bogost sets the philosophical and literary foundation for his theory, and contrasts fluid unit operations with the more totalizing system operations. He delves deeper into these issues in his second section, which examines game engines as units, applies the theory to multiple works, and critiques the debate between ludology and narratology (which his theory tries to mediate between.) The third section examines games as simulation, play, and art, and includes discussions of games' social power and bias. Finally, his last section deals with the philosophies of Alain Bodiou and Deleuze and sets out a vision for the future of videogame criticism. 

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Chapter 1: Unit OperationsEdit

This chapter is all about definitions, and is mostly concerned with drawing a distinction between complex unit operations and totalizing system operations. Unit operations are "succint, discrete, referential, and dynamic," and draw their meaning from the complex interactions between multiple units (4). System operations are "protracted, dependent, sequential, and static," universalising structures which try to explain everything by a single framework (4). 

Bogost first uses the work of philosophers to ground and explain his choice: the work of Benedict de Spinoza' s common plane of immanence functions more like unit operations, while Gotrfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz's preordained monads fuction more like system operations. Here he also introduces the work of Alain Badiou , whose ontological ideas such as the count-as-one or the situation will inform the rest of the work.

The chapter finishes with a unit-operational analysis of the 2004 film The Terminal. To Bogost, the film is less about plot and more a meditation on the theme of waiting -- all the characters seem to be wating for one thing or another, whether it is for love, recognition, or for a visa to be approved. This theme of waiting interacts with all the other units of the film (characters, setting, etc.) in a way that creates meaning. Works like this are inherently unit operational rather than plot-oriented.

Chapter 2: Structuralism and ComputationEdit

The sceond chapter is concerned with unpacking how system operations and unit operations work within the fields of philosophy, literary crtiticism, and technology by providing historical examples. In philosophy, Aristotelian dualism (matter and form interacting with one another to cause meaning) is unit operational, while final causality (matter tries to realize a final form) is system operational. In semiotics , the particular uses of signs are unit operations, while the broader assertions of meaning are system operations. In literary theory , poststructuralist theory is based on units, and it breaks down the systematic structuralism. In computation, the idea of the bit and analog technology are examples of units working together in a network rather than a totalizing system. Bogost also explains the ability for unit and system operations to be very closely aligned, using the Division of Homeland Security's Advisory System as an example (who determines the threat level?).

Chapter 3: Humanism and Object TechnologyEdit

The first part third chapter is occupied with contextualizing the need for unit operations by providing examples of how easy it is to fall into totalizing systems, usuing examples of Freud, Hallward, and Kittler among others. This transitions into a discussion of object technology, a computer science concept that best relates and explains the idea of unit operations as a whole as it divides a complex program into multiple interacting units. Disagreeing with theorists Kittler and Manovich, Bogost holds that object technologies "serve as structures that frame our experience of the material world, while offering representations that cause us to think critically about these experiences" (40). As such, he feels the concept can be used in any context. To illustrate his point, Bogost uses the Human Genome project and Dawkins' meme theory as examples of object technology in the world of biology and culture respectively. Finally, he mentions Janet Murray's concept of procedural authority (the "ability to capture experience as systems of interrelated actions," Bogost 46) in order to transition into videogame criticism.

Chapter 4: Comparative Videogame CriticismEdit

Here, Bogost contends that the field of video game criticism must take ideas from literature and game production to be successful. He uses the figure of the "bricoleur" (tinkerer) to illustrate this point, someone who uses odds and ends of events to create structures rather than the other way around (Bogost 49). He follows this by touching upon the origins of the "functionalist separatism" of the videogame studies field, driven by Espen Aarseth's discussion of cybertext and the Digital Game Research Association's striving for academic autonomy. Bogost's framework, in his mind, tries to sidestep this functionalism by focusing on what games do rather than what they are, which he sees as a larger cultural question.

Chapter 5: Videogames and ExpressionEdit

This chapter begins with a discussion on game engines, the frameworks which have been shared across games in order to make life easier for programmers. As it supplies a brief history on the work that went into creating Pong, Tank, and the Quake and Unreal engines, the chapter explaing the significance of the form. Engines are important to Bogost because they "regulate individual videogames' artistic, cultural, and narrative expression" in a way that literary devices and genre do not (56). They dictate the rules of play, providing a material connection between the structure of the message of such media forms. Taking each rule of play and thematic element as units, game engines and the pieces built upon them become a system of unit operations. This leads Bogost to assert that, though unit operations can be applied to any medium, videogames "rely on unit operations as their primary mode of representation, and thus unit operations have a special role in how works like videogames function" (65). 

In this section, Bogost also introduces the ludology vs narratology debate among game studies professionals, including Markku Eskelein and Espen Aarseth (on the narratology side) and Jesper Juul (on the ludology side). Bogost reasserts that all texts ought to be evaluated as configurative systems, effectively deflecting the controversy in favor of a unified theory of criticism (70).

Chapter 6: Encounters across PlatformsEdit

In this chapter, Bogost puts his theory into practice by taking the modernist concept of the chance encounter and showing how it works in four texts: Charles Baudelaire 's sonnet "A une passante "; Charles Bukowski' s poem "A woman on the street;" Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amelie; and Will Wright 's videogame The Sims 2: Hot Date.  The idea of a character meeting a "figure that fascinates," only to watch them walk away, is played out in all four of the texts and portrays a certain element of meaning to the viewer in each. 

Chapter 7: Cellular Automata and SimulationEdit

After giving a fair example of his theory at work, Bogost takes a look at the subjectivity of games and their relationship to simulation. He begins with an explanation of Stephen Wolfram's concept of cellular automata, which are basically unit operations as applied to mathematical simulations. By using simple rules to produces unpredictable consequences, games based on cellular automata (from Conway's Game of Life to Will Wright's Sim City) create emergent systems, essential for interesting and accurate simulations.

Of course, as Bogost notes, none of these systems are truly accurate, nor can they be. Citing Gonzalo Frasca, Bogost holds that "simulations are indeed narrative," as simply interacting with them allows for first-hand experience and engagement Janet Murray calls immersion (Bogost 98). Further, all simulations are affected by ideology, particularly those which seem to simulate real world situations. Sim City, for example, has been criticized by many people for how its policies affect gameplay -- low taxes always seem to encourage growth, while mass transit garners more benefits than nuclear power. 

Situations like this can lead to what Bogost calls simulation fever, which is a fear of an inaccurate simulation having negative effects on audiences. To counteract this, Bogost calls for a focus on the subjective experiences simulations are trying to create aside from just their configurative meanings. In other words, Bogost chooses not just to look at the rules of simulations and games, but how they can relate to subjective meanings through unit operations.

Chapter 8: An Alternative to FunEdit

In this chapter, Bogost touches on a topic that permeates all of game design: the place of fun. Drawing on the work of Marxist critic Walter Benjamin , Bogost writes that "games create abstract representations of precise units of human experience," in the same way [[1]]Benjamin held films could if not held back by "capitalist business practices" (114). In contrast to that is Johan Huizinga's notion of play, a concept that Bogost said is expected of games as a whole in the industry. Indeed, theorists like Raph Koster in his design guide A Theory of Fun for Game Design seem to require that games be "fun" in some way, a philosophy which Bogost believes is holding games back from their full potential as an expressive medium.

To illustrate what games can do if freed from the strict bonds of being "fun," Bogost brings up Frasca's political Newgaming series, especially the critical cartoon-like game September 12th. He continues with an analysis of Star Wars Galaxies , a game Koster himself worked on which has (ironically) been criticized for not being fun due to the long travel times between places, the inneffective use of cantinas for required meeting places, and the difficulties of obtaining materials for crafting items (123-126). Bogost reads the game's cantina and bazaar culture as "unit operations for one real world referent in particular: Southern California," dramatically refuting Koster's implication of the importance of fun by criticising his own work (126).

Chapter 9: The Simulation GapEdit

After introducing simulation and simulation fever in the last two chapters, Bogost spends a short chapter looking at the role of the "reader" of a videogame "text." Drawing on Aarseth's and Hayles' work on cybertexts, Bogost holds that there is a unique relationship between the work and the player in games and other configurative texts, and "exploring the manifestation of game rules in player experience is perhaps the most important type of work game criticism can do" (131). 

Following this is a short rexamination of September 12th and the difficulties of simulation fever , from which Bogost draws two conclusions. First, unit operations are biased in differing degrees; September 12th has a clearer bias than Sim City or Star Wars Galaxies might, but bias exists in each work. Secondly, all games entail some sort of subjectivity on the part of the user as part of their meaning. This sense of meaning must stay with the player outside of the game in order to be significant (and obviously do so, as reactions to games like September 12th are meant to expand into the "real world"). As Bogost points out (through the theories of Chris Crawford ), this transgresses the idea of the magic circle, which would normally keep experiences confined within the game space. According to Bogost, this "gap in the circle" is another point of controversy for the game industry, especially when it comes to more controversial games like Grand Theft Auto IV .

Chapter 10: Complex NetworksEdit

This chapter provides an overview of the concept of complex networks as formulated by unorthodox philsophers Giles Deleuze andFelix Guattari in their work A Thousand Plateaus. Much like the notion of unit operations, the ideas in Deleuze and Guattari's work emphasize interactions between parts rather than the parts themselves.Complex networks also exist in sociology, most notably through Milgram's concept of six degrees of separation. Bogost eventually brings the concept around to Jesper Juul's notion of emergence (i.e. open-endedness) in games like Go , and concludes that "as aesthetic structures, emergent systems are undeniably captivating, although perhaps only as instances of the sublime, not the expressive" (150). As such, emergence's relation to expression in games ought to be analyzed not by examining how much freedom the player has, but rather what types of freedoms they have and why the game would allow for it.

Chapter 11: Complex WorldsEdit

This chapter is an exploration of the game Grand Theft Auto III (GTA) and its relation to simulation and individual meaning. To Bogost, "GTA derives its representational power from the links or edges that connect the player's possible unit operations together" (155). In other words, the actions of firing a gun or stealing a car are secondary to the decisions the player character makes within that gap, the "freedom" they have within the space. Tapping into the player's agency by designing these apparent gaps is an expressive tactic that has a good grounding in modernism, as Bogost proves by providing analyses of Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary and "Wandering Rocks," a chapter from James Joyce's Ulysses. However, as a simulation, GTA seems to be biased towards violence, as the inhuman NPCs become "props" for the sociopathic urges of the players and many missions involve violent acts (Bogost 168). Rather than condemn GTA, Bogost argues we ought to "try to evolve the core problem they present: how to understand and refine each unit operation of our possible actions so we can interrogate and improve the system of human experience" (169).

Chapter 12: Critical NetworksEdit

In his final chapter, Bogost looks ahead to the position of videogame studies in the world of the university. He seems to be against the strict division of disciplines that divide universities today, and instead advocates for an interdisciplinary approach to learning in general, but especially between the humanities and technology. He expresses hope that a "unit operational university" which functions much like a complex network  would be able to foster the development of game studies in general. He ends by bringing in Badiou's concept of a "thinking ," the unity of theory and practice. "Successful videogame criticism strikes me as another kind of thinking," Bogost concludes, "one that musters the cultural critic as much as the programmer, the artist as much as the marketer" (178). A more fluid, interdisciplinary approach will help the field of game studies succeed.

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