Unit Operations is a Disappointment

I recently had the time to take a partial read through “Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism”, by Ian Bogost from MIT Press.

When I first heard about this book, I was quite excited about it. The basic premise is that Bogost is frustrated with the existing quality of critical commentary of videogames today. Intelligent discussion on the subject is practically non existent, to put it bluntly. Bogost argues that we can take the techniques used from literary criticism and generalize an approach that can be used to critique videogames. He calls this technique “Unit Operations”. By extension, one could apply the technique to any medium “from videogames to poetry, literature, cinema, or art”.

This got my attention. I have long thought that storytelling media (books, movies, videogames, pen-and-paper games, etc.) are more related than not. If true, you should also be able to use similar techniques to review them.

I have also been unhappy with the general quality of critique in storytelling media. In books, the more technical critiquing is so academic that it’s almost impossible to fathom whether they’re saying anything useful or not. In movies and videogames the reviews often seem too juvenile to be informative. In my mind most of this “critiquing” is reduced to the simplest 1) did the reviewer like it or not? and 2) how is this thing like (or not like) the others?

It would probably be far too optimistic to assume that there is one standard approach that could be used to critique these things. Nevertheless, I was hoping for something in that general direction with this book.

What disappointed me the most is that the book seems focused on convincing the reader that a common technique like Unit Operations is plausible. Thus, the book spends a lot of time talking about theory. Despite claims in the book to the contrary, it spends almost no effort on actually using the Unit Operations technique to critique anything. If I take for granted that such a technique is plausible, then I expect the author to show me how he thinks it should be done. Bogost makes no such information available, even as an appendix.

This is a disappointment, because most of the books in the new media/game studies line of books from MIT Press are written for the practitioner (“Rules of Play” and “Second Person” come to mind). Yes, theory is discussed, but how that theory is applied is also shown. This book leaves the practical derivation up to the student. While that might be fine for the students, it’s not good for the practitioners. We have other things to do.

Ultimately, that’s why it became the partial read I mentioned when I opened this article. I lost patience and started to look for examples somewhere, anywhere, in the book. It was for naught.

So, this book goes back on the shelf until a more practical one takes its place.