At Public Books, Matt Margini reviews a trio of recent books about the emotional, social, and intellectual merits of videgames: Ian Bogost's How to Talk about Videogames, Carly A. Kocurek's Coin-Operated Americans, and Michael Clune, Gamelife. Margini finds that while videogame criticism has come a long way, too many of its practitioners still treat videogames as narcissistic consumer products rather than complex forms of social interaction and identity disruption. An excerpt:
In 2010, Ebert’s opponents could point to only a handful of prominent “indie games” that translated interactivity itself into a medium of expression. Now, games that consider themselves art, and ask politely that we do so as well, are released constantly from every corner of the world, on every conceivable platform, exploring every conceivable theme, from queer love (Gone Home) to Soviet bureaucracy (Papers, Please) to profoundly personal grief (That Dragon, Cancer). These games often remain “narcissistic” in Bogost’s sense, allowing you to inhabit a role, to playact as a figure with power. But they are also, just as often, confrontational: intellectually challenging, interrogative precisely about the relationship between the game and the player’s self ...
If videogame criticism is to grow up, it will have to recognize that the nature of videogaming is not just narcissistic but companionate; not just a way to augment identity but a way to confront otherness; not just a replacement for social life but a kind of social life unto itself. Call it a posthumanist social life, or an object-oriented one; whatever it is, you can see it on the surface of every version of games and gaming. The minutes of solace offered by Candy Crush to someone in line at the DMV; hours, days, months poured into the immersive otherworlds of Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto or The Witcher or Metal Gear; years spent at the keyboard of something massively multiplayer, shaping an alter ego yet being shaped, at the same time, by its existence in and among systems. To play a game for any amount of time is not only to be with something other-than-human but to “lean” implicitly, perhaps unknowingly, on what the other-than-human has to offer.
Image from the videogame Gone Home