Bogost’s Unit Operations (Part 1)

Yes — part 1. This isn’t a blog post so much as it is a “freewriting” post. Why? Because Bogost, that’s why.

To start:

When I was constructing my reading list for this independent study, I knew there were two authors that I absolutely had to have somewhere in my proto-syllabus: Espen Aarseth and Ian Bogost. Aarseth’s Cybertext is cited just about everywhere, as is Bogost’s Unit Operations.

While time dictates that Cybertext should probably be where I begin, I couldn’t help but pick up Unit Operations after reading a few of Bogost’s pop-philosophy/theory articles. And so here we are.

The first thing you need to know about Unit Operations is that one Amazon reviewer referred to it as “terrifyingly erudite.” You get why as you start to turn the pages. This is a book that mixes Grand Theft Auto with Ulysses; Lacan with ENIAC; Derrida with everyone/thing else — it’s an assault of theorists, philosophers, and tech milestones rolled into sordid romance between the humanities and STEM. To conceptualize it further, this is undoubtedly the result of the fear encapsulated within my blog post a few weeks ago. This is the relentlessly interdisciplinary. It doesn’t run from this — it embraces this. It screams it at you. Early on Bogost analyzes the film The Terminal through the lens of his theory, poking at the individual “unit operations” (we’ll get into those in a second), first showing you where they are, and then ripping the rug out from under you. He laughs. You can hear him from beyond the text. “This is for all media,” he declares.

While Derrida launched a revolution of everything being read as text, Bogost seeks to see everything (or at least all media — but I don’t really buy he wants to stop there) within a series of unit operations.

So, yeah, those things.

The “point” of Unit Operations seems to be (thus far) to unpack media as a whole: to pick out individual “units” in texts that serve as guiding points, little bits and bytes (sometimes literally) that build on other cultural overtones. This isn’t to say that there is a universal at play — no, quite the contrary. Instead, Bogost posits an idea that sites somewhere outside that distinction. Any media can be analyzed in such a way to see similar units at play that are part of the human experience. Consider it a deconstruction of the idea of “games as escapism.” Bogost would say bullshit, because games aren’t escapism — they are a product of the systemic operations that formed them (not to mention the player herself).

In his own words: “Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems.”

Unit Operations are not universal (but the concept is) — they decentralize the role of the critic as flag-bearer. Instead, they privilege the critic-as-reader (or gamer), allowing her to see, build, and locate the units within the text at hand.

And… that’s where I am right now. More to come shortly…

The difference between what you say and what you do

Currently, the gaming space is obsessed with a new title: Grand Theft Auto V. As is the case with most “AAA” titles, the game has become the sole topic of conversation among both gamers and game critics. As can be expected, as soon as the reviews started to flood out, the conversations started about quality, gameplay, story, misogyny, review scores, and… well, every other bit of detritus that is often stirred up by these sorts of things.

My critical eye, however, was focused on something else: dissonance.

Often within “critical” gaming circles (either academic or otherwise) we often talk about this thing called ludonarrative dissonance. Ludonarrative dissonance is a term that generally symbolizes the common conflict within video games wherein the gameplay does not align with the story. This is a concept that any gamer who has played a major title in the last, well, forever, is familiar with.

Ludonarrative dissonance is important because for “contemporary” games, it’s seen as both a problem and a tool — and really, to understand why it still exists in contemporary gaming, you have to understand both dynamic sides of the issue.

For some, the dissonance presented within is unseen. I’d wager this is the popular position. Gamers are assumed to either a). not care, or b). not notice the dissonance present in, say, any of the Modern Warfare titles. It just is. It’s just video games. A limitation of the genre.

On the other side of the argument, it’s a problem — one that can either be used, tackled, or otherwise shifted. Both Bioshock: Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line arguably use the “dissonance” to say something — using the “limitation” of a medium to speak certain messages to the player.

Then, of course, there are the titles that attempt to tackle and eradicate the problem all together: take Gone Home, for example, or just about any adventure game — games that believe dissonance is just that: noise and chatter, something that needs to be eradicated or used in a precise way.

The latter two ways of looking at ludonarrative dissonance appear to be optimistic to me — they look at the medium as something that can grow, as something that can be art at the present moment. The former, however, is cynical: it sees gaming as nothing more than Tetris. The blocks fall, the soundtrack plays, and that’s all there is.

Interestingly enough, the above debate is mirrored in the critical space.

While thumbing through reviews of GTA V, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the reviews were saying the same things (I certainly wasn’t the only person to notice this). Let’s be clear: this isn’t something that’s new. It’s basically the same deal with every “AAA” title that comes out.

But what specifically struck me about all of these GTA V reviews was that they kept mentioning the game’s story in a negative light — its fractured characters, its misogyny, its inability to weave its narrative — and yet the score at the bottom wasn’t reflecting this. In the case of Chris Plante’s review, almost a sixth of his piece focused on storytelling flaws, yet he still managed to give the title an almost perfect score. The same was repeated over at Gamespot, where Carolyn Petite spent some time criticizing the game’s storytelling flaws — right before giving the game a 9/10 (and — even more problematic — she was horrifically harassed for giving the game anything but a perfect score).

So what gives? What is being reviewed here?

The obvious, knee-jerk answer is that gameplay trumps everything — that nothing else matters if the game is “fun.” (A note: what the hell is considered fun? What is being said by a reviewer that thinks a game is “fun” despite questionable content?)

But really, that answer is a cop-out. It’s a shitty response to a complicated question. Video games — especially video games like GTA V, that want to be taken “seriously” (yes, as art) — are not just “gameplay.” They are more than systems designed for the production of fun.

I’m not speaking from just an academic, ivory-tower position here — this method of looking at games like a fractured system of parts is tired and worthless. It ignores a great many of us who play games as more than just fun simulators. It ignores a great many of us who, hey, enjoy video games as a cohesive, unique form of entertainment, and not just something we plug into when we’re bored.

But more than that (and I’m climbing back in the ivory tower), such a method is critically destructive, and not in the Derridean way, either.

By honestly (truly) picking up GTA V and scoring it based on only the things we like, or that only we pay attention to (while pretending to be critics, and not New Critics — and making the “I” clear), we are preventing the genre from evolving. We are accepting its limitations. We are also just being disingenuous as critics — we aren’t being true to the medium we are working in.

BUT — that isn’t what’s happening, right? Clearly, at least in the case of Plante and Petite, they are fully reviewing these games, right? They are mentioning these things!

The problem is that there’s dissonance. The score and the words don’t line up.

In the intellectual bits of the game reviewing field, the score isn’t supposed to matter, right? It’s supposed to just… just…

What? What are we supposed to do with it?

Just as is the case with ludonarrative dissonance, we can’t ignore the gameplay or the narrative when looking at the full picture. In a video game, both parts must be present. Likewise, in a game review (or a review of anything, for that matter), the score and the words matter. Yes — in a perfect wonderland there would be no scores and no MetaCritic, or whatever — but that isn’t the world we live in. We have scores. They are here. The people reading those reviews are going to look at the score. A great many of them will look at just the score.

So we can’t ignore it. It’s there. It’s saying something.

That is, of course, if you aren’t cynical.