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How to Do Things with Videogames

Ian Bogost

Publication Year: 2011

In recent years, computer games have moved from the margins of popular culture to its center. Reviews of new games and profiles of game designers now regularly appear in the New York Times and the New Yorker, and sales figures for games are reported alongside those of books, music, and movies. They are increasingly used for purposes other than entertainment, yet debates about videogames still fork along one of two paths: accusations of debasement through violence and isolation or defensive paeans to their potential as serious cultural works. In How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost contends that such generalizations obscure the limitless possibilities offered by the medium’s ability to create complex simulated realities.

Bogost, a leading scholar of videogames and an award-winning game designer, explores the many ways computer games are used today: documenting important historical and cultural events; educating both children and adults; promoting commercial products; and serving as platforms for art, pornography, exercise, relaxation, pranks, and politics. Examining these applications in a series of short, inviting, and provocative essays, he argues that together they make the medium broader, richer, and more relevant to a wider audience.

Bogost concludes that as videogames become ever more enmeshed with contemporary life, the idea of gamers as social identities will become obsolete, giving rise to gaming by the masses. But until games are understood to have valid applications across the cultural spectrum, their true potential will remain unrealized. How to Do Things with Videogames offers a fresh starting point to more fully consider games’ progress today and promise for the future.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Series: Electronic Mediations

Title Page, Blurbs, Copyright

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pp. iii-vi


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p. vii-vii

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Introduction: Media Microecology

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pp. 1-8

These days, you can’t open a website or enter a bookstore without fi nding yet another impassioned take on emerging technologies’ promise to change our lives for the better—or for the worse. For every paean to Wikipedia or blogging or mobile computing, there’s an equally vehement condemnation. On one side of one ...

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1. Art

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pp. 9-17

Are videogames art? It’s a question that’s sparked considerable debate, most notably thanks to the fi lm critic Roger Ebert’s declaration that “the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.”1 For the philosopher and game designer Jim Preston, it’s an absurd and useless ...

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2. Empathy

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pp. 18-23

One of the unique properties of videogames is their ability to put us in someone else’s shoes. But most of the time, those shoes are imagining what it would be like to see over the kitchen counter. In many cases, these roles fulfi ll power fantasies. Videogames let us wield deadly weapons. They let us wage intergalactic war. They ...

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3. Reverence

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pp. 24-29

Videogames are often accused of disrespect, especially for celebrating violence and for encouraging disdain of man, woman, and culture alike. But can a game do the opposite, embracing respect, deference, even reverence? In 2007 the Church of England threatened to sue Sony Computer Entertainment Europe for ...

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4. Music

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pp. 30-36

We tend to think of music as a purely aural medium. But one need not search hard to fi nd that listening is only one way we experience music. In the ancient world, for example, music and literature were indistinguishable. Epic poetry like that of Homer wasn’t read in bound volumes but sung by minstrels who performed for ...

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5. Pranks

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pp. 37-44

In one of the many memorable moments of Ricky Gervais’s BBC television series The Office, troublemaker Tim encases jobsworth Gareth’s stapler in Jell-O.1 Gareth is annoyed, and the viewer is amused, because both comprehend the act immediately: it’s a prank. Pranks are a type of dark ...

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6. Transit

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pp. 45-51

Automobile manufacturers and airlines sometimes try to hawk their wares by suggesting “the journey is half the fun.” In today’s world of low-frills, high-speed transportation, it’s a tough pill to swallow. But there was a time when one had no choice but to think of the journey as part of the trip, simply because it took so long ...

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7. Branding

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pp. 52-57

Election strategy games have been around since 1981’s President Elect, but that title and its progeny were games about the political process, not games used as a part of that process. The 2004 election marked a turning point, however, with the birth and quick rise of the official political videogame. It was the year candidates ...

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8. Electioneering

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pp. 58-63

Election strategy games have been around since 1981’s President Elect, but that title and its progeny were games about the political process, not games used as a part of that process. The 2004 elec-rise of the offi cial political videogame. It was the year candidates president and for state legislature, by a political party, and by a ...

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9. Promotion

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pp. 64-69

In late 2006 Burger King released three Xbox and Xbox 360 titles featuring the creepy King mascot that’s graced the company’s advertising in recent years, as well as memorable former spokescreatures like the Subservient Chicken and Brooke Burke. The titles include Pocketbike Racer, a Mario Kart–style battle racer; ...

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10. Snapshots

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pp. 70-76

In the late nineteenth century, photographs were primarily made on huge plate-fi lm cameras with bellows and expensive handground lenses. Their operation was nontrivial and required professional expertise. The relative youth of photography as a medium made that expertise much more scarce than it is today. All that ...

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11. Texture

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pp. 77-82

I enjoy the ancient Chinese strategy game Go, although I’m hardly an expert. The open-source GnuGO AI built into the computer version of the game I play overpowers me much of the time. After many years of having gone without, I received a Go board and set of stones as a holiday gift. Immediately I noticed the most ...

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12. Kitsch

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pp. 83-88

Thomas Kinkade paints cottages, gardens, chapels, lighthouses, and small-town street scenes. He paints such subjects by the dozens each year, but he sells thousands of them for at least a thousand dollars each, all “originals” manufactured using a complex print process that involves both machine automation and assembly line–like human craftsmanship. The result has made Kinkade ...

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13. Relaxation

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pp. 89-95

There is an aphorism commonly invoked when comparing videogames with other media. Videogames, people say, are a “lean forward” medium, while others are “lean back” media. Leaning forward is associated with control, activity, and engagement. Leaning forward requires continuous attention, thought, and ...

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14. Throwaways

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pp. 96-102

Casual games have become an increasingly more popular and important part of the videogame landscape. Proponents argue that casual games both open up new audiences for games and make new styles of games possible, but the genre has largely fl oundered in a swamp of copycat titles. One reason for this is a lack of imagination ...

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15. Titillation

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pp. 103-109

Soon after the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2005, the Dutch hacker Patrick Wildenborg uncovered a hidden sex scene in it.1 The scene in question was never intended to appear in the game, but its assets had been left on the disk, presumably owing to a cut late in the development process. Two years later, a ...

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16. Exercise

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pp. 110-116

Exercise is boring. We hate doing it, and we make excuses to avoid it. And when we do exercise, we usually try to drown it out with something more pleasant. On neighborhood sidewalks, joggers use iPods to make runs feel shorter and less lonely. Behind the glass windows of gyms, members stare at television screens as ...

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17. Work

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pp. 117-124

When we encounter a work in any medium, our experiences with it can influence how we think about our real lives. But for many players, a videogame is something one does outside everyday life, disconnected from it, safe, otherworldly. Playing a game is different from sorting digital photos, fi ling business receipts, or ...

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18. Habituation

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pp. 125-133

Here’s a game design aphorism you may have heard before: a game, so it goes, ought to be “easy to learn and hard to master.” This axiom is so frequently repeated because it purports to hold the key to a powerful outcome: an addicting game, one people want to play over and over again once they’ve started, and in which ...

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19. Disinterest

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pp. 134-140

One year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, the U.S. Army hosted a spectacle of military excess outside the L.A. Convention Center’s South Hall, to promote the new Special Forces edition of their popular title America’s Army. As part of this spectacle, they off ered passersby the opportunity to ...

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20. Drill

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pp. 141-146

When considering the unique powers of videogames, we may cite their ability to engage us in thorny challenges, to envelop our attention and commitment, to overwhelm our senses and intellects as we strive to master physical trials of a battle or work out the optimal strategy for an economy. Usually we’re right ...

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Conclusion: The End of Gamers

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pp. 147-154

We like to think that technological progress is spectacular. Whether our attitudes follow Clay Shirky’s celebration or Nicholas Carr’s censure, we remain certain that something dramatic will happen. Either new computer technologies will help solve our most pressing problems, or they’ll create even more pressing ...


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pp. 155-165


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pp. 167-180

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About the Author, Other Works in the Series

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p. 181-181

Ian Bogost is an award-winning videogame designer and media philosopher. He is professor of digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as founding partner at Persuasive Games LLC. He is author or coauthor of several books, including ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816678679
E-ISBN-10: 0816678677
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816676477

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Electronic Mediations