Bogost’s Unit Operations and the Strangeness of Simulation

Over the Christmas break, and on Christmas day itself, I was reading Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Game Criticism.  Immediately after that I read a Thomas M. Disch novel, but after that I read Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. You could say that I read a lot about video games, and you would be right.

I’m going to talk about Unit Operations here. Extra Lives gets its own post later.

Unit Operations is a strange beast as far as academic books go. It is interesting and easy to read, but also incredibly dense and complex in a few parts–Bogost is a great stylist, and it really shows. There are two distinct kinds of writing going on in the book. The first is the explanation of the current field of video game studies and new media in general; in fact, a lot of space is spent on this, which I was grateful for. Bogost does a phenomenal job giving succinct and brilliant summaries of a number of important philosophers, including Deleuze and Guattari, Heidegger, Benjamin, and others. The second kind of writing is dedicated to Bogost’s own philosophy.

Bogost advances his notion of the unit operation, “mode of meaning-making that privileges discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems” (I had to bungle that quote a bit to make it fit.) Bogost creates a distinction between unit operations and system operations; the difference between the two is that the unit operation is one that builds itself and is, as I understand it, properly molecular rather than molar. It is an operation that builds itself and drives itself forward–I imagine it as a kind of Guattarian desire-operation. System operations, though Bogost makes sure to draw away from D+G in a later chapter, seem to be hierarchical–they have a defined telos that determines the use of the operation’s constituent parts. All of the pieces of a system operation point toward a single goal, whereas each unit in a unit operation has the potential  to point anywhere. That is the benefit of the unit, you see; a kind of “plug ‘n play” logic.

Bogost makes a number of interesting  moves in that framework. Most important for me is his notion of “simulation fever,” an evolution or co-option of Derrida’s archive fever, which Bogost loosely defines as “the simultaneous drive toward and fear of archivization.” Simulation fever, then, is deciding/being indecisive about what is included in a simulation–racism, weather patterns, the potential for nuclear fallout, attitudes toward current leaders, etc. Where is the line drawn for what needs to be simulated? This really just transports us to a conversation about how ideology works in video games. The player is always “living” in ideologically-driven inclusions and exclusions at the whim of the programmer/designer/director. The bounds of the game a predefined, especially in video games, and so we are forced to operate within those bounds if we play the game.

This cleaves close to Ranciere’s notion of the distribution of the sensible taken to its logical limit. For Ranciere, the distinction rests between was is understood as reasonable or speech versus the excluded parts, the part-of-no-part that ceases to exist because the dominant order cannot imagine that it does. For a video game, this is extended–the excluded, the non-sensible in the game world, does not exist. There is no code that gives a Call of Duty game the ability to understand that you want to distribute foreign aid to the nameless African men you are gunning down. It just doesn’t exist.

There have been opportunities in the past for this to occur, however, a rupture in the order of things that brings the unspeakable to into the realm of the visible. The famous “Hot Coffee” mod for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for example. It was code attached to random resources left in the game files, and through careful reconstruction, hackers were able to bring a strange sexual encounter back into existence. What is important to realize is that “Hot Coffee” was always there–no one made it from whole cloth. It can only resurface.

But games don’t normally get that far (and I think the GTA series is a simulation in a loose sense.) They don’t even get to a point where a viewpoint can be obfuscated in code, left as remnants. The viewpoint never makes it in the game at all–it isn’t “archived.”

I think this gives video games the ability to be either profoundly conservative or profoundly radical. I know that sounds really silly, but the point is that video games, simply through the ways that they are created, are necessarily ideological polemics.

This is where unit operations come in handy. Bogost is pretty up front when it comes to the neutrality of unit operations; they can never be neutral. They are always biased, and when you combine unit operations, what you are getting is a debate of subject matter, mini-ontologies that are different and heterogeneous but also organs of the same assemblage (Bogost wouldn’t agree with this, I think.) In essence, unit operations can be together and yet separate, opening up space for interpretation. For example, my recent post on Bulletstorm shows how this works–that game both loves and hates the player’s genocidal tendencies.

So that was what I got out of Unit Operations. It says about ten thousand things, all of them really smart, and it would do everyone good to read the book. For instance, I keep going back to his reading of Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.” It’s just good stuff.

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