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Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism

reviewed by Gillian "Gus" Andrews - September 15, 2006

coverTitle: Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism
Author(s): Ian Bogost
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 026202599X, Pages: 243, Year: 2006
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Ian Bogost’s book, Unit Operations, is an ambitious attempt to analyze digital media with tools developed not just in the humanities, but in the field of computer programming as well. While not of much use to practitioners, this book is highly recommended for those in higher education finding themselves on one side or another of the gap Bogost hopes to bridge. It should be of particular interest to those studying critical theory, literacies, literature, or media and technology in educational contexts. Cultural studies scholars should pay special attention to Bogost’s discussion of computer code, as it represents a more sophisticated understanding than many of the texts on the topic to date.

Bogost begins by explaining his aim: to develop tools for criticism, which are able to bridge the fields of literature and computation, mostly in order to analyze video games. More generally, he intends these tools for use in the ever-less-medium-specific field of comparative literature, where he was trained.

His main tools are unit operations, or “building blocks” of meaning to be found in any text. “Texts” in this case include inanimate objects and abstract concepts, giving Bogost’s work a scope like that of the “new literacies” field developed by B.V. Street and James Gee, among others. The “operations” part of the phrase indicates that these building blocks, like chunks of code in object-oriented computer programming, can perform particular actions when combined in a system. Bogost’s aim is to analyze without reverting to systems thinking, which he says “pay[s] the price of openness for certainty.”

Admirably, Bogost went out of his way to find a jargon free phrase for his concept. His goal, he writes, was to keep unit operations from being the sole property of any of the fields he works in—not genetics, not object-oriented programming, not literature. If he was aiming for an even more transparent phrase, though, he might as fruitfully have titled the book Noun Verbs or Thing Actions. Both are less distinguished, I suppose, and “noun verbs” probably would put the ball in the linguists’ court; then again, when we seek to boil culture down to units of meaning, perhaps this is where the ball ought to be.

In Chapter 2, Bogost roots his idea in philosophical questions of universal abstracts and totalizing systems, covering classical philosophy, Spinoza, Leibniz, Derrida, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and others. Aware that his book would find its way to diverse audiences, Bogost succinctly summarizes each theoretical body he draws from. Critical theory scholars should fear no more that they will be left in the lurch when Bogost delves into object-oriented programming. Nor should technology specialists dread his digressions into comparative literature. Bogost presents an extraordinarily concise overview of structuralism and post-structuralism, drawing parallels between these ideas and the history of software development. Along the way, he offers much-needed corrections to Lev Manovich’s model of criticism from The Language of New Media. These wayside arguments, rather than Bogost’s central claims about unit operations, make this an important book; in cross-disciplinary work like this he is at his best. He brings a technical understanding to the table of cultural criticism which is, to my knowledge, unparalleled.

The idea of unit operations resonates with a number of ideas present in the academic ecosphere. Bogost discusses some of these in Chapter 3—Richard Dawkins’s concept of cultural idea units, or memes, for one, and object-oriented programming for another. He misses other ideas some might hope to see here, such as the (actor-) network theories of Bruno Latour or Manuel Castells. Bogost comes close to actor-network theory when he suggests that units may consist of other self-contained systems which, like Latour’s “black boxes,” always produce consistent output given the same input.  

In Chapters 4 and 5, the author reckons with previous attempts at game analysis and finds them largely lacking. He disparages the claims of pioneers such as Frans Mäyrä, Espen Aarseth, and Jesper Juul as:

essentialist and doctrinaire[...] hoping to reinvent a different kind of isolationist techno-textual criticism that privileges the ludic [or play-oriented] over the literary, culturing the virulent oppositions of a future whose media ecology we cannot see. (p. 53)

This is, perhaps, an overreaction. A strident desire to isolate distinct subjects of study is nothing new; Saussure’s A Course in General Linguistics is one of many reminders that this kind of approach has always marked the beginnings of new fields. However, many scholars have recently pointed out that the separation between story and gameplay (the “ludology-narratology” debate) called for by Mäyrä and Juul is a troubling straw man, which has outlived its purpose as an epistemological wedge. And Bogost objects to such wedges on principle; he quite reasonably takes issue with the further Balkanization of academia in the book’s last chapter.

Chapter 5 also includes an analysis of the ways–legal as well as formal and aesthetic–in which game engines, the basic software with which games may be developed must by force change our understanding of “genre” when it comes to digital games. This is another of the lines of thought which makes the book a must-read.

Chapter 6 is a demonstration of unit operations in critiquing four texts: a poem by Charles Baudelaire, another by Charles Bukowski, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Amelie, and Will Wright’s game The Sims, specifically its Hot Date expansion pack. Bogost follows one theme–the “chance encounter...that random, anonymous meeting one has in modern environments, usually but not always with an object of desire” (p. 73)–through each text. While the authors of the two poems and the movie build and play off the chance encounter through narrative, Wright instead constructs a space where this type of encounter might happen, allowing the players to play out the narrative themselves using the simulated elements the game offers.

Certainly one might argue that the unit operation “I vicariously construct a chance encounter (through a game avatar)” is slightly different from “someone tells me about their chance encounter.” Bogost does anticipate and address this argument. His central point, though, is that “videogames, like art of all kinds, has [sic] the power to influence and change human experience” (p. 89). He demonstrates unit operations’ effectiveness as a neutral tool for teasing apart these diverse texts.

In Chapter 7, Bogost considers the “reader” of games and other texts. To best consider the player’s experience of flexible systems of unit operations, he looks at games, which are complex simulations. He delves into the surprisingly rich literature on the ideological assumptions in the design of simulations, both popular ones like Sim City and those used by the military.

Combining this literature with work done by Sherry Turkle and Derrida’s idea of “archive fever,” he develops his own concept, simulation fever. This stands out as one of the book’s more useful concepts. Simulation fever is a user’s anxiety about a simulation’s underlying models. This may manifest either as users dismiss the simulation entirely, or instead, acknowledge the simulation’s flaws while insisting its model is still the best means of understanding the situation it simulates (for example, crises in a refugee camp or the management of an urban area). Bogost hints that an understanding of simulation fever could form the foundation of new media literacy for the age of video games.

In Chapter 8, he plays out the idea of simulation fever in a reflection on the aesthetics of games and their relation to the broader culture, covering Walter Benjamin and Neil Postman. The question here is whether the player’s experience of games can, like other art forms throughout the ages, meaningfully reflect on the human condition. The difficulty, Bogost suggests, is that Postman and play theorist Johann Huizinga have positioned games and play as trivial and outside of the work of meaning-making. Bogost suggests that an understanding of simulation fever will shed more light on the relation of games to the broader scope of human life.

In Chapter 9 he continues this line of thinking to argue against Johann Huizinga’s conception of play as framed by a “magic circle” purely separate from everyday experience. He instead posits a more fluid model, where meaning permeates the membrane of the circle. For those who have read Erving Goffman’s work on frames, this argument may seem a bit redundant.

Chapters 11 and 12 see Bogost making adjustments to game theorist Jesper Juul’s claim that emergent behavior is the defining characteristic of video games’ expressiveness. In doing so, he makes use of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of rhizomes and nomadism. Bogost finds the importance of emergence not in the systems that develop, but in the unit operations that make them up and how we choose to understand the meaning of individual unit operations.

Unfortunately, by this point in the text the reader is likely to have lost track of what “unit operations” is supposed to mean. Bogost struggles with his concept’s flexibility, proceeding to label more and more things as unit operations; by the end of the book this collection includes waiting tables in a restaurant, the density of chemical agents, the effects of weather, “the figure that fascinates,” “the social experience of arcade [game] play,” and chance meetings in modern cities, with the latter unit taken at one point to mean “the attempt to sacrifice the present for the perverse indulgence of its forfeit.” Meanwhile, before he actually got around to working with unit operations, he had said that “[b]rewing tea,” “[s]teering a car to avoid a pedestrian,” and “[f]alling in love” were merely operations, no unit involved. One begins to feel the tool of “unit operations” lose shape and turn to jelly in one’s hands.

This is not to say he ought to limit the scope of unit operations to a specific field; its simplicity and flexibility is its strength. The book might have benefited, though, from a clearer definition of the shape of a unit operation. If it is a “noun verb,” for example, how does the noun-noun, “[quality] of [thing]” structure of “effects of weather” count? And what is there to keep the rigidities of systems theory, which Bogost seeks to escape, from creeping into units if units within a system may themselves be systems of other units?

Nonetheless, Bogost’s analysis of diverse texts seems to demonstrate the tool’s potential. After a few rounds of refinement, unit operations could prove to be vital whenever a scholar engages with a range of media. The biggest challenge, I think, will be refining unit operations without reverting to rigid systemic theories. In fields like education where quantitative methodologies are increasingly prioritized and external pressures tend to demand replicable principles rather than hermeneutic explanation, this is likely to pose a particular problem.

In the book’s final chapter, Bogost proposes that using unit operations for criticism will require the total rearrangement of the university. The tool, he claims, is ill-suited to a university structure, which insists on rigid boundaries between disciplines.

This call is one that will resonate with many young scholars like myself who are coming up through the ranks in interdisciplinary fields. It is hard enough for us to figure out which conferences are most productive to attend, much less put together dissertation committees or find jobs afterwards (Do I look in a program titled “Information Studies” in a computer science department, seek one titled “Technology and Culture” located in a department of social sciences, or find a communications program with an Internet focus?) In light of our situation, Bogost’s demand for more short-lived and flexible–object-oriented—intellectual alliances within universities seems more sustainable than developing new Departments of Ludology.

Beyond the intransigence of higher-ed bureaucracy, Bogost’s radical suggestion is not likely to sit well with other radical academics, especially as it includes a demand that “the humanities must begin to interact with a wealth of intellectual and professional engagement, including...design and the private sector” (p. 178). His aim is to ensure that more of the noble efforts of the humanities find their way into the ethics of the market; however, coupled with the phrase “flexible,” his argument smacks slightly of de-professionalizing trends in the workplace, and is likely to cause those concerned with these trends to cringe.

Sadly, Bogost’s call for change is also one of the least-developed chapters in the book. Sympathetic readers may wish he’d built structures for these new ways of working, just as he did earlier for new ways of thinking.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 15, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12713, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 2:22:24 AM

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About the Author
  • Gillian "Gus" Andrews
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    GILLIAN "GUS" ANDREWS is a doctoral student in Communications and Education at Teachers College, where she has been instrumental in establishing the EGGPLANT (Educational Games Group: Play, Literacies, Avatars, Narrative, and Technology) Lab. She has recently analyzed player networks surrounding the game Dance Dance Revolution for an article pending in the journal Fibreculture, and is working on a Master's project on high- and low-income students' game literacy practices. She maintains an online journal at www.dancingsausage.net.
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