Review of Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism

Ian Bogost, Game Designer, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech, and blogger at WaterCoolerGames.org has written a book that you should read. I know this is the kind of cliché that gets applied to just about every decent book on games, but honestly, whether you're serious about studying, creating, or playing video games, this book not only has something valuable to contribute to your understanding, it has the potential to radically reformulate the intellectual terms on which you relate to video games. That is, of course, if you make it all the way through. Bogost does spend a good deal of his time summarizing the material to which his approach is responding, but a reader not familiar with some of the dominant conversations in literary theory (in particular) may find portions of the text daunting.

In short, Unit Operations, recently out from MIT Press, is a book of considerable value for anyone interested in studying video games, but it is particularly valuable and will probably be most readily useful to anyone basing their studying games from a humanities background. The book is most successful, however, in illuminating the common ground within the otherwise uneasy disciplinary relationship between science and humanities departments, and Bogost takes this commonality as far as restructuring the University system itself--replacing the outdated (and inherently adversarial) disciplinary model with one based on the productive logic of unit operations. That said, the book did leave me with a few questions. Admittedly, the complexity of the argument here is such that I may simply be missing something, so I want to spend this review summarizing the primary arguments of the text and (hopefully) working through some of the issues that remain unresolved in my reading.

The core of Bogost's approach is a comparison between literary criticism and computation science from which arises the notion of unit operations as an approach to understanding the nature of meaning-making structures particularly within digital environments. Employing the logic of Comparative Literature, Bogost finds key features within each discourse that merge into a powerful metaphor for explicating video games through a kind of criticism that encompasses both the programmatic underpinnings of the game as well as the cultural and ideological units, all within the same critical gesture. Indeed, as Bogost develops the idea further, the logic of unit analysis has the ability to form the basis of a critical environment not only in which video game criticism can prosper but which also amounts to a reorientation of academic disciplinarily around the idea of fungible analytic products.

So called "unit operations" are defined in various contexts throughout the book, but they are first introduced as "modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems" (3). In application, these modes can be identified at work within certain post-structural literary criticism as well as object-oriented programming techniques, and in general they are opposed to "system operations" that privilege overarching structure for generating their meaning. By contrast, unit operational behaviors develop meaning out of the contextual interrelation of a text's constituent parts. To be clear, the term "operations" is employed in part to emphasize that neither systems nor unit operations are methods or strategies, per se. Rather, they are tendencies toward which certain phenomena gravitate and through which critics can expose the processes of meaning at work in artifacts of culture. In this way, unit analysis is a method that proceeds by identifying the unit operations at work within potentially any text, drawing conclusions from the interrelation of these parts.

Bogost draws on several related ideas out of genetic science, mathematics, and philosophy, but throughout, some key ideas seem to be the most influential in advancing his argument. First is the idea of fungibility where units of programming, criticism, or analysis can be considered successful if they produce effects in an economy of related ideas. In other words, their meaning-making does not depend exclusively on the structure in which they are exposited but can be exchanged and manipulated within other systems to produce similar effects. Examining phenomena with this concept in mind is one way to approach unit operational criticism. By testing the fungibility of certain concepts or elements of a game, for example, one exposes the unit operational logic obtained within that particular system. Similarly, Slavoj Zizek's use of Lacan's psychoanalysis to unpack popular culture is unit operational to the extent that its success depends on the fungibility of Lacanian ideas within a new context.

A second key to understanding the genesis of Unit Operations is the philosophy of Alain Badiou. While the reader will do well to be be familiar with a wide range of critical thinking these are nearly all explicated in relation to Badiou's response to them, either opposing or co-opting them into unit operational thinking. In this way, Bogost distances his approach from much of post-structuralism which might otherwise seem similar to (or even mistaken for) unit operations. For example, in a chapter addressing Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, Bogost underscores the difference between nomadism and unit operations by invoking Badiou's critique of Deleuze and Guattari in which Badiou objects that despite their apparent anti-unitarity, thinking the ideas of nomadism tend toward a unity or oneness that reaffirms the ideology of late capitalism. In other words, while Deleuze and Guattari's approach seems unit-oriented, it's practice tends toward an inevitable collapse into a system operation. Similarly, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridean deconstruction are both considered but ultimately rejected as operations that collapse into systems themselves.

Despite the theoretical language and the necessarily cagy development of the core argument, the book is generally quite lucid and well written, and Bogost makes several important observations, either tangential or integral to unit operations as such, that advance some of the core issues at hand in studying video games. First, in dealing with the inevitable ludology vs. narratology disagreement, Bogost takes an interesting approach. Rather than exploiting one or the other, the author follows Gonzalo Frasca's lead in being skeptical to either viewpoint's claim of exclusivity as a critical approach, but goes a step further in rejecting both ludology and narratology (or narrativism) as such on the grounds that either viewpoint is the inevitable outcome of a critical equation that begins treating games by separating their form from their expressive function. Both viewpoints are, "haunted by a functionalist ideology," and negotiating a new critical territory which can benefit from the fungible advantages of both schools of thought requires a new understanding of simulation in which games can be "configurative systems built out of expressive units" (68). In working out this idea, Bogost develops an insightful analysis of simulation that results in identifying a core problem surrounding all discourse related to simulations. This he calls simulation fever.

Modeled in part after Derrida's archive fever, simulation fever reinvigorates the role of the subjective participant in producing the experience of the simulation:

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If the experience of a game takes place in the player's mental model of its unit-operational rules, then game criticism would do well to give voice to these mental models and the ideology they communicate. (106)

To this end, Bogost arrives at the following definition of simulation; "A simulation is the gap between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user's subjectivity" (107). Within this model, and taking unit operations as the basis of the simulation's configurative practice, the intersection between the unit operations and the subject's anxiety at encountering, negotiating, and possibly manipulating the units of the simulation experience results in simulation fever. Besides providing a useful critical model, understanding simulation fever provides a means for understanding complex "real world" ideas like ideology and how they work themselves out in the space of the game. In other words, simulation fever creates a gap in Huizinga's Magic Circle through which the unit operations of ideology and bias move between the game world and the real world. Understanding and taking advantage of this gap provides the game designer, particularly anyone developing serious games, with a powerful tool for utilizing games as noteworthy rhetorical devices.

As an argument, unit operations clearly has much to offer the game studies community, but as a text, Unit Operations was difficult to follow at times, even after two reads. It's a relatively short book at 243 pages (including endnotes), but its complexity arises from the unusual nature of the argument which is complicated by the fact that it's most often presented in a negative sense. That is, the book spends a good deal of time explicating what unit operations is not. This is necessary to a certain extent because the idea does, at first glance, bear some resemblance to other critical methods and the differences, though important, are often subtle. Also, it may very well be the case that in laying out the structure of the book, Bogost wishes to preclude the kind of criticism he offers for Deconstruction. That is, by avoiding a systematic outline in which the virtues of unit operations are methodically delineated, Bogost avoids making the practice of unit operations itself into a system operation. When he uses unit analysis to demonstrate the workings of unit operations in Grand Theft Auto, Madame Bovary, or The Sims: Hot Date, the author hopes that the approach will make itself clear by way of example. Even if this is the intent, it is still tempting in reading these analyses to collapse the unit analysis into a kind of unary model or "answer" for the text. In other words, when Bogost concludes that The Sims and Baudelaire's "A une passante" share a common focus on the "chance encounter," it is tempting to then read those texts in light of that comparison as though it were a kind of configurative presumption that guides later critical commentary which must orient itself in relation to that initial conclusion. It would be like saying that The Sims is about chance encounters, and in that sense the otherwise unit operational texts would have collapsed into a kind of system analysis. Bogost is careful to avoid this trap, but it seems to be a looming danger when carrying out the task of unit analysis. Admittedly, this may be a symptom of my own reading.

Finally, as impressed as I am by the insightfulness of the sample analyses provided in the book, it's difficult for me to know where to go next in my own work. That is, I'm eager to try my own hand at unit analysis, but I'm not sure how to proceed. Perhaps it is best not to consider unit analysis strictly as a methodology, but rather to recognize it as a tendency within criticism in which the analyst incorporates a deeper understanding of the configurative properties of a text's components. After all, doesn't critical writing itself begin with a system operational logic? I wrote this review by formulating a loose outline in my head and then completing the parts of that outline to create the text. In a systems operational sense, this paragraph is significant to the extent that it serves as part of the conclusion of this review and as such, it will probably offer some kind of summary and maybe some sweeping generalities about the contributions this book makes to the conversation at large. In other words, its meaning-making is presupposed by the structure in which it exists. On the other hand, it's interesting to imagine a criticism in which the exposition of the analysis is itself governed by unit operational logic--each paragraph generating meaning by way of its interrelation or links to other paragraphs in the document. The fact that this paragraph is the penultimate unit of its kind within this review structure creates certain expectations for it in your mind. That is, you expect it will probably contain some sweeping generalities and/or brief summary, and you may be right. The point is that despite it's severely limited agency, this paragraph has certain rules for its relationship to the rest of this text. You and I have a further relationship based on the extent to which the rules you expect to govern this paragraph's behavior are matched by the rules I imagine or invent for it. Exploiting that relationship to create engaging and effective prose is a skill of a talented writer, and similarly, crafting games which acknowledge or exploit the simulation fever obtained in the relationship between the player and the complex, discrete affordances of video game objects allows game creators to achieve profound meaning making in the space of the game. There may be more ground to cover in understanding how unit operations and unit analyses may work best, but video games themselves may be up to the task.

This review would not be complete without some mention of how Unit Operations fits into the critical conversation of Game Studies, but since Bogost spends a good deal of time contextualizing his work, suffice it to say that I read this book with more enthusiasm and relish than I have experienced in some time when it comes to Game Studies. The argument is complex, but, as this review has hopefully demonstrated, well worth the effort. I'm not sure I'm ready yet to wave the banner of unit operations in my own writing, but the approach Bogost offers is impossible to ignore and will undoubtedly have a significant influence on my thinking. Clearly, this book is important and it should have an invigorating effect on the Game Studies community, as well as, just possibly, critical thought in general.

Grappling with a Cumbersome Text?

Very thorough review, Zach! Judging by the complexity of your review, I can only imagine how difficult this book must be. At least, it doesn't sound like much fun!

I wouldn't call it cumbersome

I mean, it wasn't easy, but considering that the audience it's written to is one that's also reading Lacan, Derrida, Badiou, it's actually pretty slick. The more I think about it, it's almost as if the apparent complexity arises from the configuration and contextualizing of a powerful but essentially simple idea. It's by bouncing the idea off of existing theory and putting it into different critical contexts that it becomes apparently complex.

The prose itself is highly readable -- it's just the richness of the idea that makes it difficult to digest in small bites.

Thanks for reading and reviewing

Zach, thanks for what was clearly a thorough read, and for the review. I'll make a few comments here.

(1) I should address the issue of difficulty. It is a hard book, and I am aware that some readers may not be prepared for it. But it's a hard topic (a meeting point between computation and humanism to facilitate comparative videogame criticism), and I tried not to candy coat that challenge. I was particularly interested in drawing traditional humanists into the arena of game studies, and to do that I felt obliged to address the culture and history of critical theory, since it's been so influential in that domain. I'm not sure this sort of thing shouldn't be hard.

That said, I think Zach would agree that about halfway through the book gets a lot easier. In fact, some readers (perhaps game developers in particular) could skip around if they wished.

(2) That said, I think a lot of readers will get their introduction to Badiou here. Badiou is still somewhat unknown in the States, although he's very well regarded by those who read him. His major work, Being and the Event, was finally released in English after this book went to press. But Badiou has articulated concepts closest to the ones I was after, and his merger of philosophy and mathematics somewhat parallels my attempt at humanism and computation, so it seemed a reasonable fit.

(3) Zach, you may be right that the book doesn't provide the reader with a step-by-step method for performing analysis on their own. I've heard this objection elsewhere too. The concepts are admittedly abstract and difficult, but I didn't want to write a "how to" book for criticism either. I suppose that would be more convenient, but I have a fear that we value convenience too much in game studies. Hopefully the "approach" I provide is still useful in the sense that it raises questions and offers a perspective on potential analysis. Still, I hear your objection and I'll be considering it for follow-up articles.

(4) On that note, my new book, Persuasive Games: Videogames and Procedural Rhetoric is much, much, much more accessible. It's also much longer, so hopefully it will still be consumable by the general reader. I do keep the notion of unit operations and build on it in the new book, which deals with rhetoric and explicitly addresses politics, advertising, and education in games.

I'll stop there for now, but I'll hope to come back and say more shortly.

Re: Thanks for reading and reviewing

Hi Ian. Thanks for stopping by.

quote=Ian Bogost I should address the issue of difficulty...[/quote]

I absolutely agree, and I apologize if I gave the impression that the book's difficulty detracted from its value. Not at all. By identifying it as difficult, though, I think it helps readers be a little more prepared for what their getting into. For example, I saw UO listed among a number of "game related" books recently released, including Dean Takahashi's Xbox 360 Uncloaked. While I'm sure that's a fine book, it's clearly got a different audience in mind, and identifying UO from the outset as challenging hopefully heads off some of the more shrill "I can't understand it so it must be dumb" criticism that humanities-sympathetic approaches to game studies often endure. And yes, even though it's challenging at times, the book really hits a nice stride in applying unit analysis to various games/texts/poems. In those cases, it's equally helpful to be familiar with Joyce as with GTA.

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. . .I think a lot of readers will get their introduction to Badiou here. . .

It has certainly been my introduction, and a good one at that. In some cases, such as the "count as one", it's presented in a logical context where I can attach it other more familiar ideas.

A few years ago, I took a stab at some A.N. Whitehead and some of Badiou's ideas seemed similar or related. At least, I could understand Badiou with some of the same mental categories I recalled employing in my attempt to understand Whitehead. I don't know if that's really related, though, since it's been a few years.

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. . . The concepts are admittedly abstract and difficult, but I didn't want to write a "how to" book for criticism either. . .

I think in some cases, a few more declarative statements may have helped smooth out some of the edges, but in general, I don't think a how to book is necessary. That is, I don't think it would be true to the logic of unit operations if I understand it correctly. It's almost like Unit Operations lets your reader become Zizek to your Lacan -- we have to extract the fungible units of criticism and deploy them in our respective contexts. Similarly, the sort of sophomoric expressions of anxiety over difficult material are, if I understand your term correctly, something like the simulation fever surrounding an audience with differing degrees of simulation literacy. I mean, there's a point at which the audience or reader has to contribute something proactive to the equation of understanding.

Anyway, I'm eager to see the development of unit operations as an idea within serious games, and I look forward to the next book.

There's one last thing I'm still curious about, and this is more of a thought experiment if anything: What happens if the logic of unit operations gets flipped around? That is, if unit operations is a feature of both criticism and programming which merge in the analysis of a medium (video games) that is both programmatic and expressive, is there any way to approach criticism in a way that stays true to unit operations in a thorough sense? In other words, would there be a way to create video games that express critical arguments themselves?

Of course, the whole idea of serious games is based on the fact that games can be rhetorical, but I'm thinking more along the lines of hypertextual criticism. This is a bland generality, but it seems to be that hypertext authors immediately take a particular kind of postructuralism for granted so that when critics or scholars want to write about hypertext, the interlinked. hypertextual structure seems immediately appropriate.

Some games like Juul's (the one where you shoot down "invading theoretical models") and Aki Jarvinen's GameGame seem to be about games, but only in a didactic sense. That is, they're not in the same vein as, say, Zizek. Would it even be worthwhile to imagine such a game? I take it that Mackenzie Wark is up to something like that with his Gamer Theory (I know that should be in l33t, but I don't feel like typing it that way), but I don't know if taking a game as an organizational metaphor "counts".

Unit operations, however, might give us a way to at least think through a process for building critical videogames. Do you think that would be worthwhile, or do you think its even necessary for unit operations as an idea to be responsible to that possibility?

Put review on Amazon?

Zach, have you thought about putting your review on Amazon.com? I think their reviews/user rating system is really interesting and adding this review there could be useful for anyone studying games and the culture of online stores like Amazon (with the use of personalized searches and review users' rankings).

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