A Thing We Do With Video Games

I read Ian Bogost’s How To Do Things With Video Games on a plane last weekend. I think it is a really smart book that acts as a really great introduction to video game studies, and more particularly, I think it does a great job explaining how games work to do different things. I guess that makes sense, being that it is in the title, but I was still a little surprised that it worked so well.

I have a few things to say about the book, but I’m only going to highlight one thing in this post. In the section titled “Relaxation,” Bogost writes:

As so-called open world videogames have become more popular, so larger and more complex simulated environments are available for meandering. Grand Theft Auto and games of its ilk retain some of the nuisances of gameplay–police, rival gangs, and so forth–but their larger spaces also allow the player to hide from the game. One example is Jim Munroe’s My Trip to Liberty City, a machinima (a movie produced inside a game) travelogue of Munroe’s “walking tour” of GTAIII‘s urban landscape. (94) (emphasis mine)

Bogost also writes about Munroe’s walking tour of Liberty City in Unit Operations. The following quote comes from a much longer section about the complexity of simulation and how that interacts with ethical considerations of the world.

Even though Munroe chooses not to exact any violence by his own hand, his entire experience flows from his choices in relation to both peace and violence. Those who argue that one can “do anything” in Liberty City are mistaken: the game constantly structures freeform experience in relation to criminality. (157)

You can see the bold text in the first quotation is about a function that the player fulfills in the game world, and it is one that I am pretty fond of. The end of a game, like a novel or sex, is absolute completion. All experience moves toward a point where it no longer exists or is replaced by something else. Playing Tetris is as much about hiding from the end of the game as it is about stacking blocks. The act of playing a game is not merely progress; it is also the stabilization of a play space.

Maybe that is why I like games like Skyrim and GTA so much. They let me burrow down inside of them. I can invest myself fully in them, reveling in affective connection. When those games end for me, they end big; I don’t replay them. A second playthrough of Skyrim was abortive, at best–I really felt like I was betraying the “real” me, the original me that had hidden from progress in the mountains and dungeons before.

This could also be a reason that the the end of Mass Effect 3 didn’t bother me. I was Shepard. I was ready to make a sacrifice. It isn’t something that I am interested in doing again. I don’t think that is the popular feeling about games.

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