REVIEW: How to Do Things With Video Games, by Ian Bogost

What’s in a game?

Shadow Cities is a location-based multiplayer game for the iPhone. It has nothing to do with 9/11. But on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. I teleported within the game to Battery Park, and was delighted to find a tremendous gathering of Shadow Cities players there. I was ready to battle.

Little did I know that somebody had called for an in-game “Memorial Observance” for 9/11. We weren’t supposed to be fighting. Some people didn’t know and were casting spells; I even banished a guy. Only after checking the message board did I realize my mistake. Players were admonished for disrespectful behavior. On the Shadow Cities forum, Vraal compiled a Bounty List for the Disrespectful (I, GONNADAZZLE, do not appear.)

An iPhone game was used by a community of anonymous players to observe a real-life tragedy. What does this mean?

Enter How to Do Things With Video Games by Ian Bogost, a timely publication from University of Minnesota Press. In a series of essays, Bogost, a Professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech, shows that video games have valid applications across the cultural spectrum. Bogost employs some impressive theoretical footwork to explore video games as media—interactive, immersive experiences that can do more than merely entertain. The Shadow Cities ceasefire was certainly an example of how right Bogost is.

But these essays are a frustrating read for someone who actually plays video games. The book is saturated with references that only the most otaku video game nerds could care about. An essay on “Titillation,” for example, spends two sentences referencing a hidden sex scene in the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and three pages on a defunct Atari Games publisher called Mystique, which went out of business in 1983. Bogost could improve his influence and his argument by paying more attention to games that people actually give a shit about.

Even with his penchant for the obscure, Bogost shows that video games do things we don’t ordinarily associate with Super Mario. Games are uniquely capable of engaging users with a wide range of social, emotional, and intellectual experiences. Bogost demonstrates that a philosophical analysis of video games is both a valuable and necessary venture.

After all, if video games are as trivial and meaningless as critics say, why are strangers observing 9/11 in a video game like Shadow Cities? Why should I abide by a call for “respect” in an iPhone game? Is that a foolish idea, or does it prove we should be thinking harder about this medium?

– GONNADAZZLE is a Level 11 Animator and Shadow Lord of Sunset Park. You can join his forces by signing up here.

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