This is the fourth article in the series The Academics Are Coming.
Dr. Ian Bogost is one of the more well-known figures of games studies. He is the father of proceduralism, which is a way of reading and designing games with the "mechanics as the message".
He's written books, such as Racing the Beam, the definitive tome on the Atari 2600, with Nick Montfort. He's grown a studio called Persuasive Games which makes games from a proceduralist perspective and recently unveiled the Game-O-Matic for the rapid generation of journalistic games. He also developed the Facebook games critique Cow Clicker and a couple of titles on the Atari 2600 platform: A Slow Year which he calls a set of "game poems" (see the recent Kill Screen review by Tommy Rousse) and Guru Meditation.
I wanted to find out what Bogost had to say about being both an academic and a games developer.
HM: Welcome to Electron Dance, Ian. There is still much scepticism regarding the value of academic research so... why become a game studies academic?
I never intended to get into academics at all. Or, more accurately, I had assumed that if I did, I would be forced to work in a traditional field like French literature or something (my PhD is in comparative literature). I was always interested in both computation and arts & culture, and I wanted to find a way to pursue the two together. That's the intellectually noble part.
The other part is this: academics is a great career. You get to set much of your own agenda, work on your own problems, and really affect the world – if you choose to be one of the scholars who makes that a priority, as I have tried to do – while earning a good, stable living.
One more thing: the creation of videogames is much derided as a career too so I'm in good company. In any case, I'd much prefer to be in the company of troublemakers than the uncontroversially respectable, no matter what I were to do.
HM: What was your goal in setting up Persuasive Games?
Persuasive Games was set up to develop and distribute games about social and political issues. The whole idea of the studio from day one was to make games that served persuasive ends (advertising, education, politics and so forth) while also trying to make a business of it. That is to say, we had game design and social/political goals as much as we had entrepreneurial ones.
HM: Is there any link between Persuasive Games and Georgia Tech? Are you allowed to schedule your hours between the two as you see fit?
There's no link; it's been important to me to keep the two apart for legal and professional reasons. Georgia Tech allows faculty staff a minority portion of their time for consulting and other outside projects, and I use that for working at the studio. That said, a lot of ideas I get in the studio turn into research projects. For example, our early work on newsgames at Persuasive Games inspired the newsgames research at Georgia Tech that's led to a book on the subject and a new authoring system (Game-O-Matic), both funded by the Knight Foundation.
Persuasive Games is a commercial studio; I also make games as an independent artist. A Slow Year and Guru Meditation were made with that hat on. I don't know if I'd call them "spare time" projects, since a good deal of time went into them, particularly the latter. They're more akin to my books, which I write under the aegis of my name rather than my institution.
HM: What was the purpose of A Slow Year? A demonstration of theory, an experiment or simply a creative outlet?
It's art, first and foremost. It has theoretical and experimental undertones, but mostly they theorize or experiment with what would make games art, or what it would mean for games to participate in certain aspects of the art world. But mostly it's a work to be judged on its own merits, not by those I set up for it.
HM: Did CowClicker emerge from beneath your academic hat, artistic hat or Persuasive Games hat?
My academic hat, for sure. It was a research project, or a critical project at least, first. In fact, the original idea for Cow Clicker was presented at an event hosted at NYU about social games, and I chose to make a game instead.
HM: Are there commercial tensions resulting from working on Persuasive Games and being an academic? With more academics going down the development route, could this be an issue?
It's so incredibly common for academics in the science and engineering disciplines to move between industry and academia, whether in the course of a week's work or as shifts back and forth during a career. So this is really quite common already, it's just less common in the arts and humanities, where the closest examples are usually dual-careers like those of novelists or film-makers, who are simultaneously involved in both industrial and academic careers.
HM: Should we consider academics to be a sort of "third channel" of game development? Mainstream churns out the crowdpleasers, indie garage bands do their thing - and now the academic experimenters are on the scene? Is it possible for academic developers to distinguish themselves from indie experimentation?
No. The way most academics are doing that is through grant-funded game development, and most of them do not have the expertise, experience, patience, or context in which to do it. I think the comparison to poets and novelists and painters is a good one: the academic affiliation is a place for research and education around a chosen medium, while the practitioners also work in their chosen medium.
HM: Finally, do you think it's possible you could be persuaded to leave the academic world and go fully indie?
Anything is possible, certainly! I think this is one of the interesting aspects of game design as an academic field, the viability of non-academic positions puts interesting and perhaps productive pressure on universities.
HM: Thanks for your time, Ian.